Old photos and older gear

I wrote in another post that in an earlier photographic life — the film era — I gravitated from a Pentax K1000 to a Pentax MX, because I loved the styling’ all-black looks, but also because I wanted to be a purist, and choose all the settings myself.

But the Pentax MX was a piece of cake next to the first camera my father passed down to me nearly twenty years earlier: a 1951 Diax viewfinder with a Schneider-Kreuznach f2.8 45 mm lens and a Synchro-Compur shutter. (I have the camera, with its lovely brown leather case, in front of me as I write, but for ease of posting I’ll borrow the following image from the Leitz Museum site:)

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Diax I, 1951. I don’t think my father ever had the cool brightline finder on the top. It might have helped! Source for the image: http://www.leitzmuseum.org/CameraMakes/Diax/diax_I-1.html

The camera is a thing of beauty, but using it was just groping in the dark. Actually, darkness was your enemy, because there was really no convenient way to judge depth of field…you had to guess how far away your subject was. You could, and you had to, set shutter speed, f stop, AND distance. I had a simple light meter that was supposed to give me information to choose all those settings and make them work together. (Judging from the surviving indoor shots, I must also have had a flash attachment.)

Yet the punchline is cheery. The images I took with this camera really aren’t bad. Drafting this entry, I wrote initially that this was because of good old Tri-X Pan, which was extremely tolerant and very sexy. But as I think about it (and as my reptile memory is stirred) I’ll bet it was Plus-X film, with a slower and gentler emulsion.

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This picture was taken on the Boston waterfront in 1968 or 1969 — it was gritty and smelly down there, but it WAS a beach. A bunch of us prep school girls were doing that era’s diversity thing and playing with some quite awesome city kids. The sky was overcast, which produced filtered or diffuse lighting — great when you have NO idea what you’re doing. Groping in the haze, I guess that would be called.

Here’s another photo from that year. This time the children came to our campus. My son, who is African American, saw the computer screen when he came in from school and commented that it looks like an “old fashioned picture — a scene from slavery days.” ¬†It’s ironic and appropriate that the image feels that way to a kid forty years later. (On the other hand, it may be nothing more profound than the boy’s suspenders that elicited that response.) The children¬†had a great time that day, which was the point, but in that explosive era of social change we were hyperaware of the Lady Bountiful aspects of the occasion, and the whole relationship.

Boy on a fence, Massachusetts, 1969. Scan of the original print.

I’m so glad I took those pictures. I’m amazed they survived. What’s on my computer now are scans of several batches in drug store envelopes. I must say that was some nifty camera that allowed me to point and shoot and get ANYTHING at all with no autofocus or built-in metering.

But also I don’t remember who I was when I took these photos. I don’t remember having the nerve to carry a camera around and point it at people. The story I tell myself now is that it has taken me many years to become brazen enough to seize the street that way, even with my friends. But clearly that’s not exactly right: the nerve has come and gone, and come back again. I don’t think I’ve ever lost my interest in photography and taking photographs — just my nerve. There really can be a silver lining to growing older. Just as we must gracefully give up our illusion, when renewing our driver’s licenses, that our hair is brown or blonde, rather than gray or white, we may give up our inhibitions about invading people’s privacy or stealing their souls or presuming on their politeness. When you look like someone’s grandmother you might as well act like her, too. The privilege goes with the territory.

From that perspective, I like to think that I spent a few days as a kid practicing to be a middle-aged photographer.

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