A decade ago, we met good friends for a couple of weeks exploring Guatemala. It’s a great way to travel, with friends who know the country well. We went places and saw things we would never have found on our own. And it’s only better when friends have someone to share them with.
A good friend, a lifelong professional photographer, still had his old film camera kit from back in the early 70s. We share a fondness for old tech, and hang onto things longer than most rational people. When he saw that I was playing with my grandfather’s Grayflex, he offered to give it all to me. Just wanted to see it used again. I had some old computer hardware I no longer use, so we worked out a nice barter.
When I went to pick it up, I found a whole pile of stuff in boxes. He threw in a bunch of other old gear, too: Developing tanks, a darkroom timer like the one I had, light kits, a meter, cases, even the original boxes, film, winders, some Holga plasticams, etc.. Quite a haul.
I won’t have film developed from this for a few more days, but the camera is an amazing piece of brilliant engineering. Like the Grayflex, there are no electronics. Everything is mechanical. And it’s completely modular. The film backs are interchangeable, and can be removed mid-roll so that different types of film can be used for the same shots, moments apart. The view finders are interchangeable, as are the lenses and even the focusing ring. The dang thing weighs 4 pounds.
I’ll be posting photos from this one soon. This will be fun.
These Black and White images were all shot on Ilford HP5.
I say first photos, but it’s 75 or 80 year old camera. It took a LOT of photos through the 40s and 50s. Then a few more in 80s when it was handed down from my grandfather to me, and I first played with it in college. So these are the first photos taken with the camera in about 40 years.
I no longer have my darkroom equipment, or even a scanner, so sent the film out to a mail order place in California. They develop the film and post the high res scans online for download. I should get the film back in a few days. It’s a good way to see if the camera still works, before considering replacement of any darkroom supplies.
I had no idea if any of these would come out. What a pleasant surprise.
The camera has certainly been through a lot over the better part of a century, including a fire. It was stored in a camera bag on a shelf in my office. The bag melted, along with everything else on the shelf. But what was inside the bag was remarkably well preserved. A few accessories were stored in tubs in the basement, and those came through fine, aside from some mildew. It’s all been sitting in the new bookcase for the past two years, and looks nice there; but I grew increasingly curious to try it again recently. Mostly inspired by reading the remarkable autobiography of Sally Mann, Hold Still.
But wow, it still works amazingly well. The light meters are toast, so I have to take readings with my phone and translate, sort of. And the mechanics of all the old analog dials and knobs and buttons is a charming challenge. But it clearly works.
I still get confused. There are so many things to remember. More than once I got everything carefully set up and took the shot, only to realize I forgot to remove the protective light shade from the film pack. So no exposure.
Or forgot to wind the film between shots, resulting in double exposures. Some of which are interesting duds.
Or trip the shutter by accident, while trying to figure out the cable release.
But overall, it’s amazing how well the camera still works. I sent out another three rolls today. They should be ready in about a week.
It’s definitely not an “everyday shooter” but fun to experiment with. A creative diversion from the easy and always perfect iPhone photos, the magical camera always ready in my pocket.
I’ll also be curious to see what’s on the rolls of those expired-30-years-ago rolls that I shot when Doug and I first went out with it. Those won’t be ready for another month or so. A couple of those rolls were already exposed, and may have been shot by me long ago, or even by someone else – I won’t know until I see the results, if any.
While that may be normal for some parts of the country, it’s uncommonly cold for what most people consider “The South”.
Like most of the world, we’ve been suffering through serious cases of cabin fever, on top of normal winter blues. We go weeks without seeing other people, other than to wave in passing. This is not uncommon. So despite the cold, on Saturday afternoon, Doug and I arranged to meet for a couple of hours, if only to get out for a little daylight.
I still have my grandfather’s old Graflex 2 ¼ x 3 ¼ press camera. It was on the top shelf in the office next to the worst part of the fire, but in a padded camera bag. Everything on the shelf melted, and everything on the floor got soaked in standing sooty water. But somehow the camera and a few accessories survived.
The thing is built like a tank, all mechanical knobs and dials. No batteries, no electronics. No plastic. In the bag with it were a half dozen rolls of 120mm film. Why not try them out?
OK, the film expired 30 years ago, and went through a fire, but what better reason to get outside than to find out of all this stuff still works?
Doug has a couple of plastic Holga cameras he could bring that use the same size film. Part of the charm of those gumball machine cameras is the crappy pictures they take. I mean, he has duct tape over the back to stop the light leaks, and they rattle when you shake them. Putting rolls of crappy film in them is just icing on the cake.
We met at a little farm brewery a few miles west of here in Nelson County. A beautiful spot high on a hill with a fine view of the mountains. The snow from last week had melted a bit and refrozen to a thick crust over the fields, making walking more like skating. But wow, what a clear, blue, cold, winter sky.
There’s an old road nearby I know well. It’s narrow and curvy and runs along the Rockfish River as it winds through a gorge cut into the next ridge, past old farmsteads and quarries. With just two hours of daylight, we could follow it to the quarry town of Schuyler, then head back by sundown.
The first stop is a bit inauspicious. I rediscover how far technology has advanced in the past 70 years. It takes a good half hour for me to fumble with all the camera components, set up and fiddle with the various settings, just to take one photo. Tripod, light meter, film cartridges, and all the fidgety settings to twiddle on the camera:
Take a light reading
Manual shutter speed
Wind the film cartridge
Cock the shutter
Compose the shot
Remove the light shade
And finally trip the shutter.
Dispensing with the tripod speeds things up, but even in daylight, in the shade this camera is bumping the limits of what you can do handheld. Doug is done long before I begin the second shot, and we’re both already cold.
My foot breaks through the crust of ice over the ditch, and into the cold black muck. Great. The one-finger wavers in pickup trucks don’t seem to be into the whole art photography thing, studying my odd rig as they pass.
Doug has an app on his phone that takes the perfect digital photos and converts them to look like old analog film images. He snaps a few shots, flicks a couple of buttons, and texts them to me. Takes a couple of seconds.
Down the road is a covey of old barns I’ve admired over the years. It’s a nice balance of shapes, beyond basic vernacular architecture. Well made. Dovecotes in the eaves. The foundations made of cut field stone and river rock.
A small graveyard in front has a mix of very old headstones and newer ones. It’s clearly tended more frequently than the old barns, which are slowly melding into the hillside. Trees grow up around and through them. The wind has peeled back sheets of tin roof like rusty soup cans. But they’re still standing after maybe 100 years. Not unlike the old camera.
Doug goes to explore while I load more film, which becomes increasingly difficult. The sun doesn’t reach this part of the gorge along the river. I’m wearing flannel-lined pants, wool socks, two shirts and two jackets, and a scarf, a hat, and I’m still cold. Can’t wear gloves and still turn all the dials and switches, fingers are numb from the cold
I set up and take a few photos and realize, by the feel of the winder, that the film is not advancing. I’ve loaded it wrong.
I pull out my phone and take a couple of photos, then go back to the car and reload.
Meanwhile, Doug finds lots of cool stuff to see. From the doorway of the big barn, he finds a deer has wandered in and died, now just a bare skeleton on the floor. Old equipment and tools covered in dust catch the late winter sun through the windows and gaps in the walls.
I finish reloading the film cartridges and we head down the road, the heater turned up high.
A stone church sits on the hill above the town. It looks abandoned, and mostly is during the pandemic, but still has a small Mennonite congregation. We stop and get out to take more photos, glad that this high point still gets some sunshine.
The low sun shines in through the west windows, across the nave, and strikes the stained glass windows from the inside, setting them ablaze with golden light. Lovely. I’m starting to get the hang of the old Graflex now. It helps that I’m a little warmer.
Doug takes a photo of me holding my two top-of-the-line pieces of photography tech, a 70 year spread between them.
We pack up and head back.
Up on the hill at the brewery the sun is going down fast. I get a few more shots with the Graflex with the last roll of film I have.
Then put it away and pull out the phone again. Just a stunning panorama of light and color everywhere you look.
All these photos were taken with iPhones, which are ready in an instant.
I have no idea whether there’s anything on the film we shot. Probably not. Even if the film still had some life, operator error likely nuked whatever was left. Heck, the camera may not even work right. Won’t know for weeks, months even.
Doesn’t matter really. Just getting out, looking deeply, and with purpose, makes it worthwhile. New fresh film has been ordered, so we’ll try again soon.
Still one of my favorite photos. Might have been my first overnight sleeping on one of the boats.
I remember waking up to the sound of wild turkeys and owls along the shore, seeing the clouds turn from cool blue to vivid crimson as the boat wandered slowly at anchor. Then sitting up to see the lotus leaves floating in that same reflected sky.
And the soul is up on the roof
in her nightdress, straddling the ridge,
singing a song about the wildness of the sea
until the first rip of pink appears in the sky.
from The Night House by Billy Collins
Renate climbed out the window after a bath
to sit on the roof in her nightgown,
combed her hair dry on summer nights
thick with fermented honeysuckle and magnolia
glowing up there in the moonlight and fireflies.
I liked to sit on the porch in the evenings,
in the swing behind the wisteria,
and could hear her up there, singing with the cicadas.