My Life in Cameras no.9

9. ZENIT B

The Zenit B was a Russian single-lens-reflex camera made between 1968 and 1973. Heavy, clunky, not a pleasure to use, it was years behind its East German competitor. the Praktica, which itself was years behind its Japanese competitors. It had no built-in lightmeter nor an automatic diaphragm. This meant you had to stop the lens down yourself after you’d focussed – automatic lenses do it when you fire the shutter; even in 1977 that felt very old-fashioned. Like Russian cars it was an argument against the Communist system, however it was cheap and fairly popular in Britain in the 1970s when I bought this one secondhand for 6 quid from a carpenter I was working for.

The camera was made by KMZ, the company that made the various Zenit and Zorki cameras until 2005. KMZ was a Russian optics company set up in 1942 to produce high quality optics during World War II. It was a established in the new town of Krasnogorsk (red mountain) near Moscow, which also housed the magnificently named Antifascist Central School. The quality of the KMZ output was improved when the German Zeiss optics company was captured by the Red Army in 1943 and largely shipped back the the Soviet Union. The Zenit is not a good camera by contemporary standards but it’s steeped in 20th century history.

My photographs with this camera were made of another placed steeped in history – Jerusalem.

Greg Neville, Jerusalem 1975

Greg Neville, Jerusalem 1975

Greg Neville, Jerusalem 1975

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My Life in Cameras no.10

10. PENTAX MX

The MX was one of the best products of the SLR era: compact, ergonomic and straightforward. This is a mechanical, fully manual camera which is the logical form for an analogue SLR. If you’re using such a sophisticated tool, why would you want it to be automated, surely the whole point is control. In my experience, autos and semi-autos were more complicated to use, not less. Matching a needle in a viewfinder is not hard work.

The MX was made between 1976 and 1985. According to the entry in Wikipedia it was their flagship SLR at that time. Mine was purchased in 1980 for $300. It was a great moment for me, I was a newly enrolled student at Photography Studies College in Melbourne, and very excited to be back in photography. In those days at PSC, you were only allowed to use a standard 50mm lens in first year, no zooms, wides or teles. This was a brilliant discipline that taught you to really learn the possibilities of a single lens.

Greg Neville, Flinders Street, 1982

Greg Neville, South Melbourne Football Club, 1981

Greg Neville, Flinders St, 1982

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My Life in Cameras, no.13

13. PACEMAKER SPEED GRAPHIC

I bought this camera in 1983 for $200 and I’ve loved it ever since.

It’s a 5×4 press camera, 1955. f4.7, 135mm Optar lens. Shutters speeds T, B, 1, 2, 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, 200, 400. Apertures to f32. Leaf shutter plus focal plane shutter. Rangefinder focus. Rear ground glass viewing plus optical viewfinder plus sports finder. Drop front, rise and tilt movements.  Lens panel extends 300mm from film plane for close focus of 9″ or 22.5cm.

Did I miss anything? The Pacemaker Speed Graphic was crammed with useful features, a sturdy, all-purpose workhouse to cover every assignment. It was made of materials tested in the war, and was a proud product of American industry at a time when that was in the ascendant. It cost US$404 in 1958, 10% of the average wage, and about $3000 in today’s money, according to Dollar Times. That was a substantial sum and indicates the prestige and expected durability of the camera.

Created by the Folmer & Schwing Manufacturing Company, New York, which originally made gas lamps, later bicycles, before turning to cameras. It was owned by Kodak from 1905 until 1926 when it became the Folmer Graflex corporation. Various Speed Graphics were made from 1912 up until 1973 when the company closed, a victim of 35mm photography. The plant was sold to Toyo.

The Speed Graphic was already mythic in the mid-1940s, going by Weegee comment in his book Naked City,  “If you are puzzled about the kind of camera to buy, get a Speed Graphic… for two reasons, it is a good camera, and moreover with a camera like that the cops will assume that you belong on the scene and will let you get behind police lines.”

Greg Neville, still life, 1983

As you can see from these images, 1983 was my Frederick Sommer year.

Greg Neville, still life 1983

My Life in Cameras, no.22

22. ERCONA II

Looking back at all the cameras I’ve had, I counted twenty two that have meant something to me, or that I used in some significant way. Photographers love cameras, I mean they’re in love with them, it’s a feeling that non-photographers don’t understand. So I decided to research these twenty two, to find out what it was all about, starting with the most recent one.

The Ercona is a 1950s fold-up bellows camera which weighs two pounds (765 grams) and takes a 6×9 cm negative. The lens is an f4.5 110mm Novonar. It has a Tempor shutter with all speeds up to 1/250th. There is no lightmeter and no rangefinder, focussing is by educated guess.

The 6×9 cm format is the sweet spot in roll film photography. Ideal for landscape and urban subjects, you don’t need to crop down from a square negative thus losing the advantage of its size. It has the same shape as 35mm – 1:1.5  – so it feels familiar when composing. And the negative is large enough that you don’t really need to enlarge, a contact print can look very fine – see below.

According to a post on apug.org “the Ercona is pretty much a post-war Ikonta 6X9 of immediate pre-war design under a different name, when Zeiss Ikon Dresden found itself on the wrong side of the political railroad track.” In other words, it’s East German and has the allure of history.

Zeiss was part of the East German conglomerate Pentacon that made the very successful Praktica SLRs. Wikipedia has a sad tale that would have been repeated all over the former GDR in the 1990s …

After German reunification in 1990 Pentacon, as with most East German companies, came to be possessed by the Treuhandanstalt (the federal board concerned with the privatisation of East German companies) and was selected for closure instead of complete sale.

It was deemed that the company was grossly inefficient, employing six thousand staff when it could have sufficed with one thousand, and selling its cameras at a loss. Liquidation began on October 2, 1990 (one day before official reunification), and production ceased on June 30, 1991. By then it had shed nearly three thousand employees to retain a total of 3331 – the next day all but 232 were laid off.

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Greg Neville, Glenlyon Reserve, Victoria, 2010

This photograph, made with the Ercona, is a handcoloured black & white darkroom contact print, ie the image area is 6×9 cm. The camera is from the collection of my friend and colleague Greg Wayn.