Through a lens brightly: Some of us are obsessed with obsolete old film cameras


John Kelly's camera collection. Most have been either purchased at thrift stores or passed down from Kelly's father. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist September 29, 2013

My daughters are tired of me taking pictures of them.

My Lovely Wife is tired of me buying cameras to take pictures of them.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

My dog doesn’t seem to care one way or the other.

I’m going with the dog.

I think the problem is that I grew up in a photographic household. Not photogenic — though my mother was fashion-model-pretty and my little brother had beautiful red hair and both were frequent subjects of my father’s lens — just that there was always a lot of photographic stuff lying around: light meters, shutter-release cables, colored filters, tripods, screw-top film canisters, cameras of various sizes (of course), an enlarger, brown jugs of chemicals, plastic trays for mixing the chemicals, rubber-tipped wooden tongs for removing photographic paper from the plastic trays . . .

My dad was a serious amateur photographer. His largest camera? That would have to have been his McDonnell-Douglas RF-4C, the reconnaissance jet he flew over Vietnam, taking pictures of things along the scenic Ho Chi Minh Trail. He did not bring that particular camera home.

So I guess I associate cameras with my youth. My serial acquisition of more and more cameras is my way of trying to revisit those innocent days. For what is photography, after all, if not an attempt to go back to the past? Each exposure captures a specific moment, a unique and unrepeatable collection of photons.

Cameras are little time machines.

I think my wife’s argument is probably something like: How many time machines does one man need?

My attempts to revisit the boy of my youth are colliding with the acquisitive man of my middle-agedness. What is disposable income for if not to dispose of it? And what I’ve been choosing to dispose of it on lately is cameras.

This all started last year when I dug my father’s old medium-format Mamiya C3 twin-lens reflex out of a basement cupboard. This is a brick of a film camera — a little bigger than a brick, actually. It is entirely manual. Taking a picture is like loading a trebuchet or starting a Sopwith Camel biplane. There are so many steps: focus the image (by looking straight down through a chimney-style viewfinder), set the aperture (a handheld light meter comes in handy here), set the shutter speed, trip the shutter. . .

Wait, why isn’t it working? Ah right, cock the shutter, then trip the shutter.

Hmm, still not working. Oh, forgot to wind the crank that advances the film.

Is it any wonder my family doesn’t want to say “cheese” anymore?

The thing about using the Mamiya is that it gets noticed. Old cameras do. So do new cameras that look like old cameras, like this nifty Fuji I got last year. It joined an assortment — I hesitate to call it anything as orderly as a “collection” — that includes the Olympus Trip 35 that my father bought me 40 years ago, a Canon Canonet that my father-in-law bought my wife 40 years ago and an Olympus XA2 that I bought on eBay. The Olympus was made in the 1980s and is supposedly the camera of choice for a certain breed of hipster street photographer.

I aspire to hipster street photographerdom.

Last month, I was rummaging around in a box of cameras at a Kensington thrift shop — horrible, plastic digital things, mainly — when I unearthed a Pentax ME Super with a 50mm lens.

Despite its name, there is nothing especially super about the 35mm Pentax ME Super. It is not a Leica, or even a Nikon. But it’s a solid thing, satisfying, like a well-balanced hammer. It has dials and buttons and things that go “click.” It does not have a touch screen.

I’m starting to feel about old cameras the way I do about certain LPs: When I see them in thrift shops, I have to buy them, just to rescue them from their cut-rate purgatory. The store wanted 25 bucks but took my $20, plus another $20 for a telephoto lens that I found deeper in the box.

When I got it home, I cleaned it up and replaced the batteries. It works just fine, another camera to point in my loved ones’ faces.

There’s just one thing: I fear I may not be a very good photographer. I don’t know an
f-stop from a bus stop. Maybe instead of cameras, I should be buying photography lessons.

Developing problems

Film may not be dead, but it’s gotten a lot harder to get it developed. Twice recently I have walked into CVS stores with some film only to find them actually removing the processing machines.

CVS told me there are eight locations in our area that still develop 35mm film in-house.
(E-mail me if you want the list.) Other stores can send it out. In a statement, the company’s public relations director, Erin Pensa, said: “We continue to evolve with our customers’ needs, and today all shoppers also have the ability to print photos directly from a smartphone in-store, upload photos directly from Instagram and Facebook, or access CVSPhoto.com to create gifts and keepsakes or order prints for in-store pick-up.”

That’s as it should be, I suppose, but how much soul does an iPhone have?

john.kelly@washpost.com

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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