In Praise of Older Cameras
(that’s for those who remember Stephen Vizinczey’s book)

Now that smartphones fulfill all our normal camera needs…… No, seriously, take a moment later to look at the video about the future of photojournalism at the bottom of this newsletter (but not right now, as it takes several minutes). There’s a lot that you can do when you’re not tweeting or using the GPS or even calling someone. I was even considering using the older iPhone that got replaced with the newer as a second camera on the other side of my head to do stereo photography. And I was fascinated by this YouTube video on a 1.8 billion megapixel spy camera that is apparently constructed from a few hundred smartphone camera elements: It seems that every week there’s some new improvement to smartphones that reinforces their position as most people’s main camera, but even this is no longer news.

So, now that we can be confident that all digital photography issues are in the process of being solved once and for all, and that everyone will soon be able to capture an image of anything, anywhere and anytime, as opposed to currently just 90 percent of the time, what else? As I mentioned in the July newsletter, I’ve been eyeing some camera cases in the attic that haven’t been opened for a very long time. I could never bring myself to get rid of some of my old film cameras. All right, the Linhof Technorama had to go, but not the Hasselblads. Not the titanium F3s either, and not the handmade Ebony SW45. And certainly not the Sinar P and all its accessories. That’s what happens in this creative business. As soon as things start to get easy and sorted, some of us just want to go against the grain. We want to try something else, even if that means going back in time to re-purpose old stuff.

It’s only partly nostalgia. Each of these cameras actually had a function. It’s own speciality. Some of these qualities have remained unique, even though it’s often difficult, and even sometimes impossible, to use them digitally. Take, for example, a camera very close to my heart because it was one of the first I owned: the Hasselblad Super Wide. Alone among Hasselblads it was a fixed body-lens combination. But what a combination. A 90º angle of view on 6x6cm rollfilm, sharp wide open right to the corners, no vignetting, no geometrical distortion that you could even measure, let alone see, and compact and rugged. In fact, it was a camera built around a lens, but this, ultimately, was why it was impossible to use it digitally, or even in an SLR. The lens was the legendary Biogon. The design came from the Carl Zeiss works, and in the 1950s it was the lens that introduced super wide angle to photography.

This was no small thing.
Photography until the middle of the 20th century for the most part didn’t play much to the graphic effects of optics. Lenses were there to do a job, and for a long time that job was recording. The idea of lenses doing more for the image graphically had not really taken hold. But this is exactly where things start to get interesting for photographers—the point at which you can choose between different optics to get certain visual effects. And not just surface visual effects, but ones that change the viewer’s relationship with the image. You want cool, dispassionate and distanced? Look for a telephoto. You want immersive, pushing the viewer into the place and the situation? That’s what certain wide-angles do.

As in most things to do with photography, it’s not so easy to strike a balance between feeling the creative potential of a piece of equipment like a lens, and just getting mindlessly bogged down in the technical details. I don’t even find it particularly easy to write about, because as far as I’m concerned catalogue-gazing is the road to perdition. I may have a collection of cameras and lenses, but I certainly don’t collect them. They simply accumulated for what seemed like good reasons at the time. I’ve even deliberately backed off in recent years from writing about equipment because there’s simply too much of it about, and not enough on visual decisions and ideas.

And yet… the idea of the tool playing a key rôle in fashioning the image to the way the photographer wants is hard to resist. That may mean reaching back in time to something older, that perhaps should be out of date, but which offers a different take. A special take. I stay happily surprised that old cameras are still being used, often on serious jobs. Fuji may have stopped film production, but there’s still film being made. Even ‘Polaroids’ by the Impossible Project. I was talking to an old friend, Julian Broad (Vogue, Vanity Fair, etc.), who was in the middle of shooting one story, on Wales, on 4x5 in colour. Yes, there’s definitely something to be said about the real relationship between photographers and their equipment. I almost feel a book coming on…

And the Biogon, or rather the Hasselblad Super Wide, did make a difference, to me at least. I bought mine, secondhand from a Swedish client of the advertising agency where I worked, in 1971. You couldn’t get wider at the time, and I wanted to be different. I realised I simply liked the graphics of making images, and the more extreme the better—angles and lines that you wouldn’t expect or predict. There was actually a mood for this going around, with extreme wide-angle being taken up in Vogue fashion shoots, and by an American idol of mine, Art Kane. With this solid little chromed baby in my hand, I could change my imagery, I thought. The extrovert Swede was my fairy godfather, because this was certainly an expensive camera. We’d chatted over dinner once about cameras, and when I mentioned the Super Wide he said he had one and didn’t need it and would sell it to me for next to nothing. Which he did, on his next trip over from Stockholm. This was to be my secret weapon on my two and a half month sabbatical that I’d talked the agency into, and which I spent travelling up the Amazon. This was how I was going to handle all those images waiting for me, with strong, crisp graphics.

I looked at it again recently, because I’d lost a certain way of doing things when I switched to digital and gave up the Super Wide. The problem is that it’s pretty well unusable digitally. You might think, well Hasselblad make digital backs, and so do Phase One; why not adapt it? Unfortunately, the very excellence of that lens design meant that it sits really, really close to the film, and with a 90º view, the light coming out of the edges of the glass strikes the film at a very shallow angle. Sensors work with pixel-sized photosites that are like little wells, and some of those light rays would just graze the openings. So the only way to use the camera is as it was built, with film. It’s a little strange, but I’m getting used to it.

There’s more to this amazing lens than I’ve just written, but it would probably bore the pants off some people. If you want to look at it in more detail, go to this page on my site:
And here’s the ‘future of photojournalism’ link:

Photographs (from top to bottom)
Sunrise on the lower Amazon, Brazil, 1971
Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite, 2011
A 1960s Hasselblad Super Wide
Children, Cartagena, 1973
St. Mary Magdalene's, Oxford, 1974
Copyright © Michael Freeman 2013, All rights reserved.

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