04 October 2010


Another inward trip down memory lane ... the same lane, though a little further along, as the one which inflicted "All for love of Halina" on the world, a few weeks back. Pauline Laybourn is still the prime culprit, but can share blame this time with Julie (Unreal Nature) Heyward and Luke (AcerOne) Palmer. In comments to that previous post, both Luke and Julie not only blatantly encouraged me but made reference to Pentax landmarks on their own memory lanes – a K1000 in Luke's case, unspecified in Julie's. For each of them, Pentax was a way station on a journey to somewhere else; for me it was an arrival.[1]

It's now 1969, I'm seventeen. Since the days of my pining over the Halina, and my pocket money imposed limit of not quite two photographs a day, I've now had two 35mm cameras: a Zorki 6 CRF (coupled rangefinder) and a Zenit 3M SLR. (Neither of them are shown here, and neither is still in my hands, but both deserve a deeply grateful salute.[2])I have a little part time income, I have been taken under the wing of the local Ilford Photographic importer who sells me short date film and chemicals at low prices, and as a result I am averaging fifteen or twenty frames a day, and can double that on special occasions (such as, for example, the day Suzanne Colley suddenly offered to pose for me...)

Despite all that, I'm still a long way from being able to fund the next step up: from the Zenit to a "professional" 35mm camera with access to a full component system. Especially as I've learned from the show so far that I want the largest available lens aperture. My infinitely patient parents are once again willing to carry the bulk of the investment, we are living in a low cost low tax economy where prices are well below European levels, but the Zenit will still have to be traded in.

What to buy? I will only have one bite at the cherry, and can't afford to get it wrong.

The top fashionable names at the time are Nikon (the iconic "F") and Minolta (specifically the SRT 101, used by W Eugene Smith). But there are other contenders – Mamiya's 1000DTL and the Canon FT QL being high on my list. I am lucky in knowing people who generously lend me all of these cameras for periods of real use so that I can see which suits me best.

I finally come down to a choice between the Minolta and the Canon. I travel with my father to a city 80km away where Andreas, a sympathetic photographic dealer, is offering us terms which can leave him very little profit (he sold me the Zenit at equally low margin, a year ago, and is accepting it back at more than I paid for it). Andreas is expecting us and has the two cameras waiting, ready for my final decision. He also has with them a third which I have never considered: an Asahi Pentax Spotmatic.

I don't at this time know, or know of, anyone who uses a Pentax, and I'm not very interested. But Andreas loads it with a 36 exposure cassette of HP4 and says, “Just give it a try for a couple of hours, have a coffee or some lunch, walk around the old city, take some pictures. Then bring it back here and I'll sell you whichever camera you decide.”

Andreas has been good to me, and never given me bad advice. so I am reluctant to reject his suggestion outright. To humour him, we walk around the old mediaeval city. I take photographs along the way. We get some lunch, and I photograph the staff and our fellow customers.

The Asahi advertising slogan at the time is “Just hold an Asahi Pentax”. As I take my first frame with the Spotmatic, I feel delight in my hands. I know, for the first time, what Henri Cartier-Bresson meant when he said that his camera became part of him. By the time we arrive back at Andreas' shop, I am besotted. I can no longer raise any of my earlier enthusiasm for the other two cameras, which now seem clunky and graceless by comparison.

Andreas insists on rapid processing, drying and contact printing the film, then waiting until I have inspected the results with a lupe, before I make any decision. What I see through the lupe does nothing to dispel my love affair; I know which one I want to go home with me. My only concern is cost; will such a beautiful, perfect thing be beyond the available budget?

But no; I needn't worry; the Pentax is actually less expensive than the original, less desirable alternatives. So much so, in fact, that purchase of a light meter which was to have waited for future funds could be brought forward to today as well.

Fast forward forty one years, and I still have both camera and meter. The meter (a Sekonic Apex) was my trusty workhorse until, as I've recorded elsewhere, it only recently had to be retired.

The Spotmatic still works perfectly apart from instability in its top shutter speed. Though other cameras have usurped its position as mainstay (more on that, perhaps, another time), I still use it for some things and feel that same rightness. Its black and satin chrome have, as you see in the photograph on the left, been painted green on one occasion, grey on another. There were good reasons for this at the time, though they are hard to explain now so I'll skip them. Its lens, a 50mm f/1.4 Super Takumar, has beautifully tactile visual/plastic qualities which I still value sufficiently to use it (with an adapter, in manual stop down mode) on my digital bodies for some types of work.

Pentax (as Asahi are now known, having renamed the company to follow the brand) Haven't always matched that beauty. The K1000 which AcerOne mentions was functionally a bayonet mount version (the Spotmatic used a screw thread lens mount), but somehow missed out on some of the grace. By choosing when to upgrade and when to stick, however, I managed to hang onto that handling delight over the years. When it seemed that Pentax were never going to produce a digital SLR, I wavered. I looked at Canon, Nikon, Sigma and other alternatives ... but I'm glad I waited: none of them sang in my hands as the Pentax (which eventually arrived) again does.

1. I'm not evangelising, here ... I don't believe that any make or model is better than another except for the person who chooses them ... what tools we choose to use is important to us, but not to anyone else. All that matters is what we do with them and that we feel at home with them. But I found my home in a place which they passed through. A bit like Shirley Valentine..

2. The Zorki, as I footnoted last time, came to me courtesy of generous, unstinting and unwavering parental support. I loved that Zorki, and still feel an ache when I look at pictures of it. It was what finally enabled me to explore contemporary photography and find my own limits. Through use of it, I ceased to be a child fascinated by photography, and became someone for whom the label "photographer" was part of my permanent self. But in enabling my growth, it also brought me to a place where I wanted to do things which it couldn't. In particular, an interest in science generally and biology in particular was another vital part of what I was becoming, and a CRF camera isn't well suited to either macro or micro photography. I managed a great deal using ingenuity and home made gadgetry, but there were limits. An inspirational biology teacher let me use a superb Alpa SLR on school premises ... a Rolls Royce, like the Leica and similarly out of even dream reach, but an example of what an SLR could do. So, it came to a choice ... and the Zorki was, with great misgiving, traded in against the Zenit.

  • Willy Russell, Shirley Valentine. 1986 (stage) and 1989 (film, Paramount).

1 comment:

Julie Heyward said...

Since you posted this, I've formulated many responses, all of which seem to be endless descriptions of my highly sensual relationship with my own Pentax (its feel, its sound, its silky openings and closings and clickings and ...). But I am shamed out of this kind of thing by the fact that I have no idea what happened to this object of my adoration. (You have your lovely camera; I have my three groundhog teeth).

So, ignoring the above, I will settle for asking: why does your camera have earrings?