Photographic Memories

I was always making something, model airplanes, electronic apparatus, musical instruments, books, photos, etc.

But taking pictures, and the things that go with it, have been a lifelong interest. Photography is, we know, a democratic, if not a universal hobby, but permit me to trace my own pilgrim's progress.

The underlined photo links in the story may interest camera buffs. Just click on them and then come back.

My father was still using his Kodak 1A Autographic Special in 1936. It had a Bausch & Lomb Anastigmat f 6.3 lens and a coupled rangefinder (the long box under the shutter). It used what we would call medium format roll film,about 2-1/4 x 4-1/4 in. This picture of Dad and me was cropped from a contact print. My mother was not a photographer, so he probably used his pneumatic self timer on the cable release, with the camera on his tripod.

"Autographic" meant that you could annotate the photo by opening a backdoor and writing a small note on the film's paper backing with the attached metal stylus. It looked rather untidy and few people bothered. By the time I was old enough to use this camera its bellows leaked light so I never did.

In grade school I was fascinated to read about pinhole cameras and made one with a glass screen "ground" with sandpaper, but I never got the sheet film to use in it. My teacher designated me to operate the classroom 16mm projector and the "Magic Lantern" slide projector, already an antique.

When I needed a real camera to take to Boy Scout camp, Dauby's Hardware had it - a Kodak Baby Brownie Special. It took somewhat fuzzy "fixed focus" but foolproof pictures with its meniscus lens. Not long after that I decided I wanted to develop and enlarge my own pictures. Schreibers' Drug Store had what I wanted, a Fink-Roselieve darkroom kit with a developing tank, trays, the Kodak Tri-chem Pack (developer, stop bath, and fixer), etc. Later I built my enlarger on a vertical wooden track attached to the wall, with a light in an auto headlight reflector at the top. Under this, in a masonite box were the plano convex condensers. These and the objective lens came from the Edmund Salvage Corp. (Later Edmund Scientific). Below this was the bellows that I folded from kraft paper and painted with flexible black model airplane dope, and the masonite lensboard focussed with a 1/4 bolt. Sorry I can't find my photo of this marvel, but it's no great loss.

Meanwhile, in another west coast world, my young and future wife met photographer Ansel Adams (strange but true) at the Healdsburg ranch of movie producer Jack Skirball, where her father was foreman. Here is a signed portrait of Susan, a gift of Mr. Adams, quite a departure from his grand Marin Headlands and Yosemite scenes. A photographic memory shifted in time and place - I didn't enter the picture until many years later.

In high school and college I shot Kodachrome slides in a Kodak Pony until 1960, when I made my own roll film camera. I cut out the parts from a cookie sheet and assembled it with aluminum solder and stubbornness in my college dorm room. The lens was borrowed from the enlarger that I was no longer using, having switched over to 127 Ektachrome "superslides" (40x40mm). It was a Tessar 1:3.5, f = 7.5cm, Carl Zeiss Jena in a Compur-Rapid shutter. The pop-up viewfinder was a found leftover. I had to watch for the the number in the red rear window while advancing the film, and loosen a screw (center left side) to open it and relace the film! The inside was painted flat black, with a light blocking channel around the front frame. It's just 2-3/8 inches (60mm) wide. There's a tripod mount on the right side. Focusing was improvised by rotating the threaded front lens element. In the photo you can see the index mark I installed left of the lens, but the calibrated focusing scale got detached. (It's around here somewhere, but I haven't used this camera for forty years.) I actually did use it for three or four years!

Oddly, I don't remember my next camera at all (I can see it was a 26x26mm), but it served me well enough through most of my Air Force tour of duty in Scotland, when I bought a tidy Fujica Half (frame) in the PX in 1964. I suppose I did it to get twice as many pictures on the film I carried on my farewell European trips, 72 on a 35mm roll. But the small vertical slides (18x24mm, as in standard horizontal movie frames) did not mix well with normal 3:2 (36x24mm) slides. Not sure what happened to it; probably lost in a sailboat accident on San Francisco Bay. It was no great loss. I had come from the Air Force to San Francisco in 1965 as a student, engineer, and entrepeneur. Photography was on the back burner.

1970s: I was a busy engineer in our new company. I did dabble with a small Durst enlarger with 126 and 35mm holders and a color filter pack. I intended to print Cibachrome from slides, but had little time for darkroom adventures. I got an AireQuipt slide projector for family fun. Most free time went to my real passion, violin making.

(My receipt for the Rolleiflex, next, indicates that I traded in a Zeiss Contessamat, apparently not memorable.)

It was 1974 when I found my classic Rolleiflex SL26 at Brooks Cameras in San Francisco. It's a wonderful compact single lens reflex with interchangeable lenses: 40mm normal, 28 wide, and 80 long, the last two seemingly immense chunks of glass for such a small camera.

It has through-the-lens match-needle metering, a split-image rangefinder, 1/3 f stops, hot shoe, cable release, tripod socket, and takes bayonet-mount filters. I went bonkers over this camera and got the extra lenses, leather cases, rubber sunshades, operator's manual and repair manual. The works!

It is the smallest (4 inches wide) SLR to use the convenient but ill-starred 126 cartridge in a 26mm square format. For years it was my close companion. Of course I still have it. But it's no longer worth finding and processing film for it (or perhaps film for any camera now, in this digital age!).

But wait - I find 126 film cartridges are still manufactured under the Adox and Solaris brands. I just bought some to revive my SL26. I went to the local PhotoVision, and amazingly they not only developed the film but made fine, if not square, prints. Example

When I came to Oregon in 1985 and began writing, illustrating, and publishing my books on violin making I found I needed an SLR with more film and lens flexibility. So in 1989 I shelved the made-in-Germany Rollei and got another classic, the made-in-Japan Pentax K1000. Mine was new, but they were manufactured for over 20 years, beginning in 1976. I have and need only one lens for it, a 28-100mm zoom. It's hard to say anything bad about this straightforward, sturdy camera, except that it's all manual (is that bad?) and uses film (it's my last analog camera). As a publisher I've spent years at the computer, writing, scanning, and editing text and graphics. (I still do except that most photos are no longer scanned but come directly from the digital camera into the photo editor.)

As part of my work with violins I frequently had to photograph them, whether for books or appraisals. I wrote a "how to" chapter on this in Violin Maker's Notebook, 1990. From that:
"Color (subjective) is the light we see - hue, brightness, etc. Color (objective) is a property of the varnish the artist (maker) paints on. The photographer is a painter whose varnish is light . . He also controls what we see by lighting it. . . . We can illuminate selectively, clarifying, showing, emphasizing some truths about the object, downplaying (concealing?) others, as epitomized in portrait photography. What is the truth we want to show to the eyes of the camera, the reader, the customer (the patron of the art)?

"Examples: 1. To emphasize the wood flame we use a single, distant (collimated) light, like the sun, not flat, multiple lighting, which conceals curl.
2. We would not want to display an unfortunately red fiddle in incandescent light any more than we would want to varnish or retouch or photograph in such light.

"So we can [and inevitably must] manipulate color as maker or photographer or presenter. There is yet another level of control, a post "paint brush" available to the photographer (photo-retoucher) and publisher. Most prepress (even mine) now comes from the computer. In addition to changing brightness, contrast, hue, perspective, etc., we can easily add or subtract a tattoo or a knothole. While the human eye automatically compensates to a degree for lighting conditions, it does not usually overlook a pimple, except in love (which may apply to violins). What is the truth of color, the color of truth? In what light do we want to see or show our things, ourselves?"

I suppose I might mention my one foray into video, 1997. It was Watch Me Make a Cello, Step by Step, nearly six hours. For this I bought a Canon ES 3000 (analog) camcorder with 20x zoom and image stabilization. I edited it with primitive Pinnacle software controlling a Sony Hi-8 VCR, output to an RCA super-VHS VCR, printed and sold in NTSC and PAL VHS. I dislike videography, and especially video editing. I'm sure it's easier with digital - but never again. (Yes, my video continues to sell, there being no competition.)

It was inevitable, and in 2000 I finally got my "Digital Still Camera," DSC S70, (photo Digital Camera Review). I still use it exclusively, which may be shocking in this day of instant obsolescence. It was a top camera at the time, costing nearly a thousand dollars with the 32 Mb memory. 3.3Mp is not a lot now but is still enough for my purposes. It has a large lcd display and a long battery life even by current standards - and by now I know how to use it. Of the lens, we read this encomium on the Carl Zeiss web site:
"The 7-21 mm Vario-Sonnar® f/2 lens from Carl Zeiss has been specially designed for the high-resolution 3.3 megapixel chip used in the Sony DSC-S70 digital camera. This fast zoom lens provides an optical zoom range of 3x which corresponds to focal lengths of 34 mm to 102 mm in 35 mm photography. The lens is composed of 8 elements in 7 groups. The use of 4 moving zoom groups and 2 aspheric elements ensures that the lens displays exceptionally high image quality and well-corrected distortion over the entire zoom range. In addition, the Carl Zeiss multicoating guarantees vibrant pictures with superior definition and natural color rendition. With these features, the camera is sure to meet the demands of professionals and "prosumers" too."
True, it's not an SLR, and I never quite got used to the shutter delay. But here too I am a minimalist, as mentioned in My "Personal" Computer, preferring the tools I have and know to the "latest thing." (I did upgrade the memory to 128MB.) The current cameras look either big and black or small, slim, and silvery, hardly a handful but no doubt improved.

Occasionally I need to digitize an old slide or negative. One way would be to screw a slide copier over the lens of the Sony in macro focusing mode and photograph the slide. Here's how it looks in the camera viewfinder, after which it is cropped as usual in the computer. This quick, simple makeshift is OK in some cases, but nowadays there are inexpensive very high resolution flatbed scanners that do the office work as well as transparencies and negatives, removing the dust at the same time. (I just got an Epson 4180.) It still takes time, skill, and patience!

March 2007. Time has flown, time to catch up. My Sony has served me well these seven years. But I've followed the advances in digital cameras. Finally yielding to the siren song I bought the latest thing, a Canon A570 with optical image stabilisation. See the front, and back.
It cost a fourth as much as my Sony did - seven years ago. Weight and size about half. Less glass, lots more computer. Enough pixels, enough zoom, image stabilization! Has an optical viewfinder - most no longer do but you need one in the sun! And the large LCD reminded me how far we've come from getting under a black cloth to compose the picture upside-down. (Yes, that was before my time. No, I don't work for Canon! And yes, I could afford a more expensive camera, but why?) I first used it for my daughter's wedding:

My Daughter's Wedding, April 2007

Our challenge is to bring order out of our expanding chaos of images, to present our work with taste, selected and suited to the context. Don't get hung up on the hardware. Cameras are like violins - it helps to have a good one, but it's the music you make that matters!

My portfolio is my web pages and books. Most of those photos are firstly functional, with a smattering of the artistic among them.

Henry Strobel 2005-7

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