Jul 27, 2016

Photography II

In which Alec talks about how he got started on the latest photography kick, muses on German drugstores and what they say about Germany, and goes into detail about the provenance of their oldest camera.

Saori and I had toyed with the idea of buying a bunch of disposable cameras for guests and having the film film ourselves, but we abandoned it as too complicated. We would need, after all, a system of distribution, recording who got what camera, collecting the cameras, and developing them, et al.  

Instead, we went the easy, self-indulgent route, and got an Instax camera. Instax is basically a mini-polaroid camera. The thought was we would pass it around at the wedding and let guests play with it and shoot us and each other. It didn’t really happen because we frankly didn’t tell anyone about this plan or bring out the camera and pass it around, although our friend Emily was game enough to take it and shoot a bit when Saori gave it to her at the reception.

The Instax is quite fun- credit card sized photos, perfect for selfies and textured photos of whatever, all with instant gratification. And importantly, a print. A chemical process which creates a tangible artifact, a photograph in your hot little hands, which has really made the difference between the success of the Instax vs a cell phone camera or even Polaroid’s digital camera attached to a miniature printer which prints out instantly your photos. Polaroid totally missed it.

Anyway, the other advantage of the Instax was that it was fun to take around and use before and after the wedding too, and to use around the house and experiment. We tried some long exposure shots where Saori drew a penguin with light from my cell phone screen. I bought more film cartriges for it from a camera shop downtown and the seller and I got into a converstation about Instax and he showed me a book of architectural photography, some of which were actually shot with the Instax.

Not really happy with the credit card sized images, I scanned them all at high resolution and took them into Photoshop, when they took on a new definition and a new life with cleaned up toning and levels. I know this is something that purists would decry, insisting that the expertise with the camera and the film be the only artifice, but this is not about photographic purity.

They were still too small and too grainy, so I bought a dispoable film camera, and used it to shoot some summertime life here, as well as some of the European Championship events we went to. And the photos were so much fun.

I had been eyeballing some used cameras (“No Guarantees!”) at one of the big camera stores downtown, and took the plunge buying one. In true German style, the clerk we asked to help us had this “you customers are the reason I can’t enjoy my afternoons” attitude, but he struggled his way across the store and retreived the camera we had been eyeballing, and we excitedly looked it over. We decided to buy it.

A Minox 35 PL. Tiny, tiny, camera. Minox also makes basically spy cameras for tiny format film, but this one took standard 35mm film, actually one of the smallest cameras in the world to use this format. It actually feels like a toy. Good lens though, and an automatic exposure control. I learned later that Andy Warhol on a tour through Germany had picked one up and delighted in shooting with it back in the US. He sold a book, mostly selfies and party shots from the big clubs.

Anyway, It was made in the 60s and 70s and 80s, and miraculously, ours came with the original box. The battery it used was no longer in production but it came with an adapter, so the clerk, unprompted, brought out the batteries we would need, and helpfully loaded it up with the fresh batteries and even a new roll of film. $40, or, the equivalent of four disposable cameras.

We shot about a third of the roll before figuring out the camera wasn’t really “on” because the clerk who works professionally at the specialty camera shop had put the battery in the wrong way. But we flipped that sucker around (the battery, not the clerk) and to our delight all the lights lit up that were supposed to light up and we were on our way.

I was a little worried I was going to have to take it to speciality camera stores and labs to get it developed, but for once, Germany’s refusal to leave the 1980’s paid off- you can get film developed practically anywhere. We have a DM five minutes walk away.

DM, which stands for Droggerie Markt, I’ll let you puzzle the meaning out, is a typical German drugstore, which is to say, basically a Walgreens or CVS but a smaller selection of everything and nothing with an actual medicinal value. No aspirin, no cough syrup, no cough drops. They do have an aisle of bad-tasting teas and herbal supplements. They mostly sell toiletries and hair tools, with some organic foods, baby supplies, etc. Every time I go in, women outnumber the men five to one. I am worried I am making this place sound more interesting than it actually is.

I will add they have a photography wall with some Kodak instant-print kisoks set up so you can order prints from digitals, OR print directly from the machine. They also have a film drop. You write your name on the envelope, drop in the film, and then seven to ten days later, you fish around in the big drawer for the envelope with your name on it with the finished prints inside.

Actually, the whole thing is quite typical for Germany- you could, and quite easily, take your envelope, or hell, a handful of envelopes and walk right out the sliding doors (since it's right next to the door) and nobody would even notice. And then when you get in line at the cashier to pay for your envelope full of photos, they ask you for photo ID to make sure that the photos are really yours. When I think of the story, now, about the bank robber who was caught because he put his name and address on the deposit slip he filled out right before robbing the bank, I think, “ah, he must have been German!”

Inspired by the first prints we get back from DM (I think it was only about $5 to develop a roll!) we pulled out and cleaned off the old Rolleiflex automatic I salvaged from the house on the hill before I left.

This was the boarding house where I lived for a few months before Saori and I found our current apartment. The old man, a one time evangelist and textile merchant by the look of it, passed away, and his wife, for various and unknowable reasons, lost the house and it’s contents to the lawyers. She was actually barred from the premises. She told me that I was free to take anything I wanted, *ok, so actually, it was actually probably all at this point, property of the law office, but we we took, no one missed, and frankly would have been tossed at the curb anyway.

In the study, piled high with dusty and musty books about politics and religious tracts, I found a beat up leather case containing a boxy camera. Like most used things, condition is key, but I think this one would be worth about $200-$300 on the market. Rolleiflex cameras are known for high quality optics, build, an a unique configuration where there’s actually two lenses, one above the other, and you look down into a clever viewfinder which shows you exactly what the camera sees, on a 2” by 2” window. The camera is supposed to be very easy, intuitive, and fast to use, despite the medium format film, which is a big square. Fortunately, it is a film format which is popular enough today that I could go to a specialist film store and buy a roll. Unfortunately, the camera I brought back was also filled with what Saori identified as “roach droppings” so we had a bit of cleaning to do before we could even start testing it. Could be a lot of fun.

Next step- dark room?

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