Yes, I am a camera fondler. I’ll admit it. After all of the pretentious high-brow screeds about the superiority of film to digital you’ve read me post to this site; after all the barely concealed distaste for the basement bound losers and retired consumer drones who compulsively troll internets forums with their gross inanities, when push comes to shove, when I’m completely honest with myself, the biggest reason I dislike digital is this: digital cameras are boring, inconsequential utilitarian, soulless, artificial hunks of plastic incoherence. You can’t fondle them. Or, to be more precise, they give you no reason to. Fondle a Sony A7 with one of those Zeiss Tuit monstrosities? I think not.
Right now, as I type this into my computer, an obscenely elegant Leica IIIg with attached Leicavit and Carl Zeiss Jena 5cm 1.5 Sonnar, sits within arm’s reach, for no other reason than so I can occasionally pick it up and fondle it. It doesn’t even have film in it (ever tried to load a Barnack Leica?). It’s just there for emotional support. Next to it sits a Nikon SP with a W-Nikkor 3.5cm 1.8 and a external finder, also with no film, although I did take it out this morning and ran a roll of HP5 through it [and no, I didn’t take it to the cafe to take pictures of smiling people and their pets; that’s for fondlers who are also dilettantes. I’m not one if those. I took pictures of serious stuff]. The SP is there in case I can’t reach the IIIg, I suppose.
I’ve been this way since I was 12, when my seventh grade teacher, Mr. Smith, a slightly creepy middle aged guy who for some reason took a keen interest in me, pulled me aside in a vaguely forced conspiratorial manner to show me his…..Nikon F. Holy shit. You’d have thought he showed me a stack of Playboys. I was gobsmacked. Something about that Nikon F spoke to something deep within me, something in my loins, some inchoate desire I didn’t even know I possessed, and I knew then that my future would be as a photographer.
Yours Truly, at 13, with my first “real” camera, but already dreaming of a Leica. 1971. I was already ahead of the curve, taking selfies in mirrors, probably before even Vivian Maier. I was always a cool kid, ideas all my own.
That chance encounter with Mr. Smith’s Nikon set me on the road for my lifetime’s journey with film photography. Cameras lusted after, many bought with hard earned money, darkrooms built, tens of thousands of negatives sleeved and filed away. Discovering, some time in the early 70’s, an even more rarified object of desire, the Leica rangefinder – considered an esoteric, vintage throwback even then – and in particular, the new M5, a radical step forward for Leitz, and, based on how it looked in the pages of Modern Photography, now having supplanted the Nikon F as the ultimate object of my desire. I knew the hardcore Leica users didn’t accept it – too big, too boxy, too sophisticated, too expensive – but I didn’t care; this was my fantasy, not theirs.
Atlanta, GA, 1970, overexposed Tri-X, and an Argus/Cosina SLR. The first photo I’d ever taken where, when I saw it in a contact sheet I said, “Yup, that’s good – I don’t care what anybody else says.” I was 12. I entered it in a middle school photo contest. It didn’t win; it didn’t even place. A very nice shot of a horse in a field with a sunset won.
My first cameras were bought for me by my parents. Parsimonious hard working blue collar folks, they saw no need to spoil me with what I wanted; instead I got the consumer grade Mamiya/Sekor, or the Argus Cosina SLR, or a Minolta SRT. But I wanted the M5, or at the least, a Nikon F. So one day, having saved my after-school money, I walked to the local camera store and bought a beat up black Nikon F with a chrome FTN finder and a chrome bottomed back plate, everything all beat to hell. But it worked, and I loved it, and used a Vivitar 35mm 2.8 on it because I couldn’t afford the Nikkors. Had that camera for years, shot the hell out of it, used it till it was falling apart and then sold it to some naive chap on Ebay maybe 15 years ago. Bet its still working.
In 1977, one year out of high school, I finally scrimped and saved enough to buy my first Leica, a spanking new M5 from Cambridge Camera in New York City. It had been sitting in inventory for 3 years, an orphan. Nobody wanted an M5. But, it was my dream camera, and they were selling at a steep discount, and that’s what I wanted, damn it, an M5. I’ll remember that day till the day I die: the drive into NYC through the Lincoln Tunnel, walk to the camera store, the purchase from the slightly bemused salesman (finally, a sucker who wants an M5!) the walk back to the car with the M5 and 50mm Summicron in my hands, feeling like Robert Frank.
I still have that M5. It’s the one camera I will never sell. Bought an M6 as soon as they were introduced. Subsequently sold it to a guy in Paris in 2003 who neglected to tell me that it was a collectible, one of the earliest serial numbered M6’s he had ever seen. No matter; never much liked the camera anyway. It seemed emblematic of the beginnings of Leica’s shift from professional tools to collectors’ trinkets. In the meantime I was stocking my shelf with real Leicas – M2’s, M3’s, M4’s, a few more M5’s, a Barnack here and there. Along the way I also discovered the Nikon S rangefinders, late to the party no doubt, but fell equally in love with them. They are great cameras, every bit the equal of the Leica rangefinders, and a whole nother rabbit hole to jump into, but that’s a story for another day.
What my shelves look like
So the question I ask myself is this: to what end do I collect all of these cameras? Well, I use all of them, of course. Sitting on the shelf above me must be 150 undeveloped rolls of b&w film, all shot within the year, all waiting for a marathon week of developing and scanning. But it’s more than just that. There’s something that still moves me when I handle them and when I use them. It brings me back to those days when I was 12, and just discovering the joys of photography. It’s not often you can say something has given you so much satisfaction over such a long period of time. And it’s harmless, as I remind my wife when she asks why I’m spending more money on another old leica when I’ve got a ton of them already. Would you rather I be buying and racing Ducati motorcycles, as I once did, and have the broken bones, and depleted bank accounts that go along with it? No, but isn’t 20+ cameras enough, she asks? Would you rather I be spending it on hookers and cocaine, I respond? And, of course, good woman she is, she rolls her eyes, throws up her hands, and walks away, knowing how happy she’s just made me.