Henry Jenkins didn't want to be second-rate.
He could make a motorcycle engine perform to beat the band, but he couldn't drive a motorcycle well enough to win the big races. He could shoot pictures, too, but not as well as guys like Johnny Thompson, Bill Smith or Eddie O'Hair.
What he could do first-rate was repair cameras.
Or, as Jenkins himself puts it, "I just fix 'em. I don't collect 'em or buy 'em or sell 'em."
A wiry, little man of 75, he has been for years the Mr. Fixit of Photography in the Washington area, repairing camera equipment, inventing new parts, adapting old ones, making things work in ingenious ways that have made him, now in semiretirement, a living legend.
He belongs to an age of invention and ingenuity, to the time of Thomas Edison or the Wright brothers, an era of improvisation and individuality when neither parts nor people were interchangeable.
"I've never known a person with more native ability in his hands," said Bob Daugherty, the Associated Press chief photographer in Washington. "He's an amazing man. Many years ago, there wasn't a camera in this town that didn't have a modification by Henry to make it work."
His family came here from Alabama for work. To make ends meet, Jenkins had to drop out of the McKinley Tech High School, where he took shop courses. He had wanted to attend Georgia Tech and become an electrical engineer. "I didn't make either one," he said, "but I studied a lot about electricity in books."
He started as a courier for the AP in 1935, picking up film from photographers on his motorcycle, then speeding it back to the lab for developing. When an AP-owned Zeiss camera used on Capitol Hill needed repair, he offered to fix it. Rather than send it back to Germany, he made the replacement part. "We were back in business," Jenkins recalled.
And he had a new job, fixing cameras.
He went on military leave during World War II, joining the Navy and working on aerial reconnaissance cameras out of Pearl Harbor. The film used was a foot wide, and magnesium bombs were used to light up the ground, he said.
Then, immediately after the war, when replacement parts for Japanese and German cameras were scarce, Jenkins made his own.
He also took pictures for AP but offered to trade jobs with the darkroom man who wanted to be a photographer.
Until 10 years ago, Jenkins labored mainly for the wire service, although he developed a healthy side practice fixing cameras for others as well. When he retired, his job retired with him. He still stops by the AP on Saturdays to "shoot the breeze," and he still does repair work from home.
But in 1987, high-technology photography has made Jenkins something of an anachronism, out-of-synch, like the fuddy-duddy watchmaker in a world of battery-run and computer-operated timepieces.
"I don't like to fool with the electronic cameras," he said simply. And he doesn't. New Nikons, especially, are "right complicated," he said.
His shop is in the basement of his home in Wheaton. He uses dental and surgical tools, among others: "One of the most useful dental tools I ever bought is a pellet placer. It was used for placing a silver pellet in the cavity. It's real handy, if you gotta hook a spring from something."
His smallest tool is a No. 80 high-speed drill, only 13.5/1,000 of an inch in diameter. To make parts or tools he cannot borrow or buy, he uses an old metal lathe he bought for $154 in 1931 in Baltimore.
His tools don't always have names. "I just made it. I needed something to do the job, so I did it," he said of a whatchamacallit that removes a special unit that holds the counter dial on an old Pentax Spotomatic. "All these gadgets remove something you can't get hold of . . . . If I didn't have the lathe over there, I don't know what I'd do."
He is currently fixing a Leica M4, 12 or 14 years old, taking it apart and cleaning it. His steady hands hold the tiny parts. "It's just gummy, needs to be relubricated and reassembled," he said. "I immerse the whole thing in solvent, wash it all out, use surgical cotton to wipe it off . . . . "
The M4 belongs to a doctor at Walter Reed Army Medical Center who called him up. "I don't know how people get hold of my name. It's just word of mouth."
No, he has never taught his craft, at least not formally. "I've had people approach me to learn," he said. "I don't mind people watching while I work."
His father was a blacksmith who tried ranching in Montana, and he was an inventor of sorts. "Back in those days, people had to do for themselves. He made tools and stuff. I just sort of took to it naturally."
So did other family members. Brother Bob was an electrical engineer for the Ohio Power Co. His oldest sister worked for Hayes Wheel Co. in World War I making machinery hubs for vehicles. His youngest sister, who is still alive, was the chief operator for the phone company here in Washington.
His wife Iris takes the family snapshots. Their four grown sons are an electrical engineer, a math teacher, a computer troubleshooter and a studio photographer, who brings the cameras he can't fix himself home to Dad.
"I don't want to get tied down too much," he said, explaining why he prefers not to make appointments. "If I'm here, I'll answer the phone."
There are plenty of old, mechanical 35-millimeter cameras around for Jenkins to repair for as long as he wants to work. "I figure there's enough of this old camera stuff around to keep me busy," he said.