Did you hear about the airline passenger who wound up face down and spread-eagle on the tarmac at LaGuardia Airport this month? He’d been pointed out to law enforcement by a woman sitting near him on the plane who thought he had a bomb.
It turned out the guy didn’t have a bomb. He had a camera. A vintage camera, to be exact. I wish I could be exacter, but when I contacted the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, it couldn’t tell me what kind of vintage camera.
“It was probably something like a Rolleiflex,” David Silver told me. He’s the president of the International Photographic Historical Organization.
“I keep thinking: I wonder if the poor guy is someone I know,” said David, 64, on the phone from his San Francisco home.
According to the New York Daily News, a woman seated near the man on the American Airlines flight saw him scrolling on his phone through photos and videos of old cameras.
“She thought he was looking up bomb-making instructions, and when the man pulled out his own camera and adjusted it she was convinced he was setting a timer on a detonator, sources said,” the Daily News reported.
Said David: “That cracked me up. That’s what every terrorist would do: Open their laptop to look at pictures of bombs before setting their bomb off.”
Still, the episode didn’t surprise David.
“Something similar happened to me,” he said. “Nobody thought I had a bomb, but a couple of years ago, I was at San Francisco International Airport getting ready to take a flight. I had to go through the TSA checkpoint. I had a couple of film cameras.”
David was stopped. A TSA worker asked, “What are these?”
David explained that they were cameras.
“Then they said, ‘Well, show us. Turn them on.’ ”
But he couldn’t turn them on. They didn’t have batteries.
David was taken aside for further questioning.
“I had a hell of a time explaining that these do not take batteries,” he said. “They’re purely mechanical. You cock the shutter. You hit the shutter release. I had to waste a couple of pictures showing them how they functioned. Nobody there knew how a film camera functioned.”
One of the cameras David had that day was a Rolleiflex, a German make known as a twin-lens reflex camera. It’s a black metal box a bit squatter than a loaf of Velveeta. It has a viewfinder that pops up like a jack-in-the-box. It has knurled wheels and dials. Turn a wheel and its two lenses move back and forth.
“If you laid it down on your lap and were fiddling with the controls, I can see somebody might say you’re setting a timer to go off any minute,” David said. “But all anybody had to do is say, ‘Excuse me, sir, what is that?’ Trust me, if this guy was a camera enthusiast, he would love somebody to ask him what it was.”
All collectors are bores, just waiting to wax poetic on their particular obsession. I can say that because I am one. I have a bookcase — well, three — full of old cameras. Not a day goes by when I don’t find myself online looking at photos of more old cameras, wondering how much better my life would be if I had an Alpa-Reflex or a Hasselblad.
Film cameras are obsolete, but to people like me, David and the face-down-on-LaGuardia’s-tarmac guy, they are seductive. We like their heft, their symphony of moving parts, the way they scoff at batteries. Even a 100-year-old camera can still work as intended.
And like vinyl records, bell bottoms and straight razors, film cameras are making a comeback among the hipster crowd. The LaGuardia guy was also traveling with a skateboard. ’Nuff said.
I tried to imagine another example of old tech that might get someone in trouble, another once-revolutionary mechanical invention that is so removed from modern usage as to be mysterious — and suspicious.
I settled on the sextant. That mechanical handheld GPS may for centuries have helped sailors navigate the seas, but why bother when you’ve got your phone (i.e., your camera)?
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.