THE PILGRIM’S PROGRESS
Cameras That Have Owned Me
By Jerry Page
When I reached my twelfth birthday, my father presented me with an Argus A, not because he felt I was mature, not to celebrate my imminent manhood, not for anything other than self-preservation. He had often noticed, when emerging from the darkroom, negatives on freshly developed strips that he could not recall taking. Of course not…
As long as I can remember, I have been obsessed with recording everything I could see, hear, taste, or touch. I don’t know why; I suppose it would take a psychiatrist specialized in manias to figure it out, but no matter. The sensation of having to “make sure” that I really did see a particular scene, really did hear a particular sound, has always been with me.
And one day while my father was at work and I at home, I discovered where he kept his Argus C-2. Eureka! I found it! Surreptitiously I began taking the C-2 out to record: the apartment, the new Philco radio which stood 3 ½ feet high and had push buttons, the tops of cars as they passed in the street below. My Argus A was my father’s defense against the clutter on his film strips, and clutter I had done, rapidly. Everything interested me, and anything particularly appealing (like a tree branch heavily bent with leaves, shimmering in the sun) I photographed from as many angles as possible.
Mind you, “Art” was not on my mind. I harbored no secret desire to be a photo journalist like Clark Gable in “Too Hot to Handle”, I just needed to be sure I could really prove to myself that I had seen what I had seen.
And so I passed a number of pleasant years. By and large my parents indulged me, with only occasional rumblings about the cost of panchromatic. We lived in Flatbush, a section of Brooklyn, New York, which was about equidistant from everywhere; I pointed out to them the money I was saving by walking, not spending carfare.
And so I am probably the only (then) sixteen year old who knows precisely where he was on December &, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked: I was shivering on the beach at Coney Island (a brief five mile walk from the apartment) racing up and back on the sand trying to frame a tanker lumbering up the Narrows dead center in the sun’s rays streaming from a broken cloud formation. I got the picture (one of my better ones right up to the present) and wound my way home, ducking into apartment house basements each time I heard airplane engines, since I guessed that after Pearl Harbor, Brooklyn was next.
I was eventually drafted, and I found myself at Fort Dix one cold February morning with my “quarter” moccasins (pennies were for girls), my Argus, and three rolls of film. At some point in the following years I discarded the loafers, but the camera went all through the war with me. Security in the Combat Engineers seemed to be confined to knowing the day’s password; no officer ever objected to the presence of the camera – and some of the scenes I recorded are moving up to this day.
The Argus survived the war, but not the return home. Three days after I returned, the girl I was with dropped it and cracked the bakelite casing. That ended the romance, as I mourned my friend’s passing.
But I also discovered that other cameras existed, and so did camera stores. It was quite a revelation, and the beginning of a six month quest.
I had no intentions of replacing the Argus with another. I really missed the rangefinder on the C-2, as a number of fuzzy prints showed, but what I really wanted was a Contax II. I settled for the C-2 and vowed the Contax would be mine eventually.
I eventually did get it, and it was a great disappointment. It had a 50/2 Sonnar; I was fascinated with the increased print contrast, and the opportunity to shoot in murkier light (f/2 was FAST) – and of course, it handled like an exquisite machine. But the hair in the sweet cream proved to be the rangefinder; I could adjust the focus for what seemed like minutes until I was “dead on”, then find the scene had changed. Candids were out of the question. I couldn’t yet afford the 28/2.8 Tessar which, I was told, I could leave at f/8, preset the distance to 15 feet, and voila! Everything would be in focus. But, I asked myself, if I could do that, why do I need a rangefinder in the first place? There was something wrong with either the argument or the camera, and I wouldn’t pierce the argument.
Someone mentioned that he’d tried a Voigtländer “Prominent” and was impressed. So what do you suppose I bought next? With the Prominent I gave up some shutter speed, but gained and (ever so slight) improvement in the rangefinder. The problem with the Prominent was the 100mm lens – the reflex housing weighed a ton and was very awkward.
I changed to a Robot Royal 36S. Scenes couldn’t keep up with the spring-wound motor, and every time I pressed the shutter release, all cats within 50 yards would arch their backs and wail to the winds - it was fingernails on the black board. The Royal 36S had only a few interchangeable lenses, and the rangefinder spot was still minuscule.
The first of New York’s Camera Barns opened one balmy spring day in 1959, on Liberty Street across from the building where I worked. I wandered in and met Fred, affable owner and ace salesman; after a few minutes of well-wishing on both sides, I erupted with my constant complaint, the shortcomings of 35mm cameras.
Fred (that marketing genius) suggested that I might try one of the new 35mm reflexes that were finding their way to market, but the black-out during exposure left me afloat in the ether, and the noise equaled that of the Robot. Fred continued the erosion of my soul and gave me a look through the current Canon and Nikon rangefinder models, probably aware that my disappointment was only increasing.
And then he reached way back on the shelf, turned to me and murmured quizzically (I’m positive the snake knew all along the nature of the Adam he had to deal with),
“Well, this just came in. I don’t know if it’ll please you more than the others; its called an M3…”
The instant my right eye opened through the viewfinder, that electric shock of recognition hit me. I KNEW I was going to leave the store with this camera. I didn’t know what it cost, whether it was new or used, not even who made it. But it was mine, and that was all I really needed to know. The rest was peripheral.
Some periphery. When my feet finally touched earth, I learned the camera with its 50/1.5 Summarit was used, cost $400, and was made by E. Leitz, Wetzlar, Germany. So this was a Leica! Where had I been the last 34 years, to remain oblivious? Ignorance, thy name is Page! At last I had discovered that Leicas existed.
To ease my anguish at the thought of having to sell my wife to a white-slaver and put my son up for adoption, Fred maneuvered my plastic, covetous soul away from the Summarit to an f/3.5 Elmar. He convinced me that with improvements in film emulsions, I really didn’t need the speed of the Summarit – as long as I had that marvel to hold and transport the film. And, he assured me, he’d always be able to get me all the other great Leitz lenses.
Leica M3 with 50/2 Summicron
Did he ever! In time, as Leitz produced new lenses, there I was with my hot little hands out, gleefully grabbing up a 135/4.5, a 90/2.8 Tele-Elmarit, a 50/2 Summicron (I really did need the speed – Kodachrome was still ASA 10).
And fortuitously, I got an unexpected benefit from the discovery of Leica, the benefit that to this day puts Leica atop Everest: the glass up front. My concern had always been focusing, the view in the finder; the Leitz lenses, beginning with that Elmar, changed all that – rapidly. From the first roll of film I was getting the sort of separation between planes in the pictures, the snap and contrast that I assumed only professionals with their paraphernalia could get. Instead of one or two pleasing pictures per roll, I could count fifteen or sixteen that had enough impact to make me go back and look at them again and again. I have an idea of what kids mean when they talk of a “high” – I can feel like that with almost every roll of film I get back.
Depth, realism, whatever term you use to express the essential of photography for you, is what those Leitz lenses deliver time after time, more consistently than any others I’ve tried, and as I look back I realize I have tried most. So while I was pleased to discover that I could truly “see” through the viewfinder, the greater pleasure took place when I projected those slides: what miracles those lenses were, and are.