One afternoon, when I was about thirteen, I had an idea and built a camera from cardboard and a plastic lens salvaged from an old toy. It had an open back with grooves on top and bottom. You could slide in a piece of semi-transparent paper for focusing and then replace it with another piece that acted much like a sheet film holder with a cardboard 'dark slide'. (Except I had never seen a sheet film holder at that time, so I was very proud of myself for figuring out how to solve this problem.) I used photo paper for film, since film was too expensive for this kind of experimenting. Exposure time was determined by trial-and-error, but from memory, it was long enough to use a lens cap for a shutter (or the dark slide, or the ceiling lights). Needless to say, the pictures I got were pretty primitive (and reversed, of course), but it was fun and kept me excited for a few days.
Not that I did not have a 'proper' camera, but this cardboard thing was my own creation and I had to think fairly hard about what it really takes to create an image. By the way, my 'real' camera was a Smena-8 at that time, and it was another two or three years before I graduated to a much desired SLR - a Zenit-E.
But that's all in the past. I have since acquired some twelve Zenits (almost all the different types), and many more, far more expensive cameras; Minoltas, Canons, Nikons, Mamiyas, Linhofs... Yet, and this is a curious thing, the memory of that cardboard camera and the adventures I had with it seem to compete quite successfully with the anticipated joy of obtaining a new wonder-camera of uncomparably higher caliber (and price).
Now, that digital cameras revolutionised the photography industry (by rendering traditional equipment and materials obsolete - at least for the professionals), one suddenly finds oneself within reach of formerly prohibitively expensive cameras. In fact , with the roughly concurrent emergence of eBay, there is a bonanza of inexpensive, yet high quality and very capable photographic equipment. In theory, this should create a fertile ground for a new generation of amateur photograhers, who, taking advantage of easily accessible professional tools, lift the standard and produce more and - on average - better pictures than previously seen.
Is this really happening? Somehow I don't think so. Yes, there are plently of photographs
taken each day, but judging from publications and exhibits of recent
years there doesn't appear to be much of an improvement in what might be termed
'creative expression'. I guess, we are seeing more 'razor sharp' images and fewer
blurry, grainy, or incorrectly exposed amateur photos. However, technical excellence
is only a starting point, a base line. And that's all a quality equipment can help
achieve. What really matters must come from the person who presses the button.
(A photographer I talked to recently at a camera market sees things differently. I'm open to persuasion, but right now this is how I feel about this.)
So, what is all this talk about cameras of this brand or another? Lenses and their resolutions, and so on? So many people seem to be so excited about these technicalities. At the end of the day, all cameras do the same thing; allow a beam of light to fall onto a light sensitive surface for a predetermined length of time. An image forming device (lens) and a light tight box with a gate (shutter) is all you need. But there are many-many variations on this simple theme. Some make the job easier, some quicker, others make the necessary decisions for you. Features are combined in various ways to appeal to different users.
Under the guise of searching for the 'right' tool, what we really are fascinated by - I think - is how ingenious engineers came up with clever (or just plainly odd) solutions to the same old problem. Surely, we can't seriously think that a Nikon F2 will make us produce better photographs than a Canon F1, or a Minolta STR101, or a Leica or whatever... Even the cheaper lenses have enough resolution to create technically acceptable photographs, and if the only thing one can boast about is the sharpness of the image, then that's pretty sad.
So, is there a point in spending many hours discussing the merits of one camera
(or lens) against another and spending much money on acquiring and trying this
and that ad nauseum? Is there a point in accumulating them until they almost completely
overtake the house? (My god, they even moved in to the bedroom! At this point
your wife/girlfriend tells you you can sleep with your ^+$*@! cameras, she's outta
I've asked myself this question many times as my arsenal of old cameras kept increasing (and my bank account balance decreasing at a similar rate). But I still don't know the answer. I sometimes discuss this with other collectors...
Like the word art is used very loosely - for instance, in relation to a Van Gogh, as well as, the graffiti psychologically handicapped youngsters smear over your wall -, the word collection is often misused. I distinguish between collecting and just buying up/accumulating stuff. I think a collection is only a collection if it has a prominent theme. I'm not sure if, as is sometimes the case, collecting one particular make (e.g. Leica) fits the bill. Is this interesting/important enough to make it a collection? More than anything, it just reflects the individual's admiration towards a particular manufacturer's products. (I almost said "financial status".) I find it similarily weak, when someone specialises on, say, range-finders, or folders, or whatever. While this is not collecting in my definition, it does serve an important purpose; to focus one's attention and not get lost in the sea of photographic goodies that are out there waiting to be acquired.
To find a good theme is hard. Or, perhaps finding one is not that hard - one can learn from other examples -, but to stick to it, once selected, is hard. I haven't been able to - yet.
Most would be collectors, myself included, start by just buying up whatever takes their fancy (and they can afford). It would be interesting to identify the various stages in the evolution of the 'collector'. Hmmm... Let 's see. Perhaps it's like this:
Ok, now that's all very well, but I still think cameras are for taking photos and not to collect dust on a shelf. The really old and interesting ones belong to a museum, of course, as signposts in history. But because I'm still at Stage 3 (moving on to Stage 4), I only say this, but don't do as I preach. So, for now all this is just hot air. With that I move onto presenting some of my cameras...
Sydney, January 2008