The most common question I get when people learn that I’m a camera collector, is “do you have a favourite?” I’ve never been able to find decent answer to this question, beyond some pithy response about “having to choose between your children”. I have over 50 cameras in my collection after 6 years of researching and buying them. Choosing one that stands out as my favourite is a problem for me, because the motivation behind their acquisition is pretty much unique for all of them. It’s true that some were seen as exotic, some were an opportunity to explore a new format, and some had a specific connection to my past. I’ve been interested in photography for most of my life and follow in the footsteps of my father and grandfather before him. This means that I have childhood memories of both taking photographs, of my thumb covering the lens mainly, but also captured by particular cameras. In a perhaps futile attempt to answer the question about favourites, I’ve recently tried to document the thought processes that led to the collecting and I’ve concluded that in most cases, their story is the thing that initially piques my interest. It’s worth pointing out at this point that the story is often not mine, but the previous owner(s). Given that the majority of my collection is over 50 years old, it’s fair to assume that most of the previous owners are no longer with us. One of the earliest examples of this influencing my decision, was when I bought my rather wonderful Rolleiflex T.
My Rolleiflex T working in the studio. The name is covered with tape to preserve the selenium light meter and note the modern flash cable. Works perfectly with the studio strobes
For those who’ve never used one before, Rolleiflex was the name of a high-end camera line made by German camera manufacturer Franke and Heidecke from the early 1920s, and were what’s known as Twin Lens Reflex or TLRs. As the name suggests, the cameras have two lenses, one that is used for viewing and one that has the shutter behind it. Like the Single Lens Reflex (SLR), the viewfinder’s focussing is achieved by reflecting the light coming into the viewing lens onto a ground glass ‘screen’. Unlike the SLR, which then moves the mirror out of the way so that the focussed light falls on the film, the TLR uses its ‘taking’ lens to make the picture without having any other mechanical movements. As both lenses are physically aligned and mounted on a single structure, they are focused together with a single control as with any other camera. TLRs tended to be medium format with 6x6 negative size, and Rolleiflexes were considered the premium brand, boasting high quality optics and precision manufacturing. In use, they are wonderfully quiet because of the lack of a big flapping mirror, and the viewfinder is accessed from above. By looking down into the camera rather than holding it to the eye, it didn’t draw the subject’s attention to the photographer. It also offered a slightly different composing perspective with the camera at waist-level, again very different from the traditional SLR. I first became aware of them after I saw an exhibition of Vivian Maier’s work in Chicago in 2012. Maier was a nanny who spent her time walking the streets shooting her Rolleiflex, often with the children she was looking after. As she blended into the background of daily life, most of her subjects were unaware that she was photographing them. Even when they were aware, there was something non-threatening about Maier herself as well as the waist-level camera. The story of her life, obscurity and being discovered as a photographer after her death is a fascinating one (see the link below). It was several years later than I came to own my own Rolleiflex, though.
I was talking to my neighbour one day and she mentioned that her father had recently passed away and that he was a very keen amateur photographer. What followed was a question that I’ve become fairly used to, “would you be interested in any of his camera gear?” We arranged to get together to have a look through the box she’d collected from his house. When it came to the meeting, she couldn’t face the task of going through them, which when we think of it, is no surprise. We all associate something that our late loved ones did as hobbies with the tools or objects of that hobby. We might have memories of them using it or their teaching us how to use it, or we may just remember how personal the hobby was to them, which brings out a nostalgic sadness that is part of grieving. On this occasion, her husband stepped in to help. The box contained a lot of cameras, but mostly 35mm consumer kit that, while good quality, weren’t of interest to me. The two Leica 3s that were there were earmarked as heirlooms for her children, something that I thought very wise given their rising value. Then, in the corner of the box I noticed a small brown leather case. When he picked it out for me to look at, it was immediately obvious that this was a Rolleiflex. Before I could really look at it, he started pulling and twisting at its controls, which were more than a little reluctant to cooperate. One thing you never do with a mechanical camera is to force something. The older the camera, the more likely it is that some lubrication has dried out and delicate parts are subject to stiction that prevents them from moving. This can spell disaster, so this display of ignorance was not appreciated by me; I winced at every action to try to get it to work. When I was able to talk to the owner again later, it transpired that what she really wanted was for her dad’s camera to be used and cared for by another photographer. She didn’t know if it worked (neither did I now, of course) but she also didn’t want much for it. I bought it for the collection, with a view to get it repaired and back in use. Therein lay my next problem. Rolleiflex servicing isn’t all that common these days with the last TLRs being made in 2012 and the ‘T’ ending in 1976, so I struggled for a while to find an expert to take it on. Eventually I found a mysterious chap online who was reputedly a retired Rolleiflex service engineer with an excellent reputation for the quality of his work. His online presence was a mobile phone number being shared around Rollei owners like some dark secret. After some exchanges of texts, I sent him the camera. Within days, I received a call. “It’s Brian. How much did you pay for this, son?”, he said cheerily. That wasn’t a good start. Turned out that my new (old) camera had a long list of issues, some of which my neighbour’s dad had tried to fix himself. My favourite one, if that’s the right expression, was the very delicate moving-coil light meter, which upon realising was beyond his repair capabilities, he’d superglued back together to make it look tidy. My new friend Brian’s rather blunt question was aimed at determining whether I’d been ‘had’. When I told him what I’d paid, he got very excited. “Once this is repaired, you’ve got one hell of a camera for the money”, he said. He was right. The Rolleiflex T is a brilliant camera, even though it’s not regarded as the best in the line-up. Brian’s enthusiasm for the old camera was palpable, even asking about it when he later serviced my Rolleicord (a more basic version of the ‘flex), which I was gifted a few years later. Whenever I go out with the T, I regularly get questions from passers-by who are fascinated by its unusual appearance. Some people want to know if it’s ‘the Vivian Maier camera’, which is testimony to how her story has captivated photographers many years after her death. Fast forward 4 years and I’m still regularly using the Rollei. In fact, my current university assignment is being shot with it alongside my digital camera, so that I can get that medium format look that people bang on about. It might be 65 years old, but thanks to Brian, it’s the most accurate film camera I own in terms of speeds and focus. What’s most satisfying to know is that in its current state, it will keep producing photographs for many years to come, probably outlasting me. Who knows how many lives it may have if I continue to treasure it the way the previous owner did, minus the adhesive repairs of course. What I do know, is that I intend to make as much of my time as its custodian as I can.
Some photographs made with my Rolleiflex T
Vivian Maier's work: http://www.vivianmaier.com