Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Exa Excitement

Some time ago I posted about the excitement of receiving my first "real" camera, an Exakta VXIIa, that came all the way from Switzerland. That was back in 1958 when I was a high school senior. That wasn't quite so long ago as when imaging was the province of shamans with ground pigments in the secret recesses of caves, but it might as well be, given the vast differences in viewfinder imaging technology then and now. For those photographers who take for granted the LCD monitors of smart phones and the electronic viewfinders of today's mirrorless cameras, you need to know that once upon a time there were these tiny peep holes on the back of what were known as rangefinder cameras that revealed only an approximation of the crop that would be captured on film, let alone depth of field. And changing lenses involved attaching cumbersome auxiliary viewfinders that still only approximated the changed angle of view. The development of the single lens reflex (SLR) camera, that provided a through-the-lens view via a prism and mirror system was a giant step. Photographers soon separated into two camps: the rangefinder folks with their Contaxes and Leicas who extolled handiness and quickness, and the SLR folks that accepted the cumbersome size and weight and louder shutter in exchange for the enhanced visualization.

Aura Estes with San Rafael High School camera clubers
on a Marin County Beach, circa 1957
My first view through a single lens reflex was an exciting revelation. It came about through one of those educators; those underpaid, under-extoled folks, who so often change our lives. In  my case that was our chemistry teacher at San Rafael High School, Mr. Aura Estes. He'd established a darkroom attached to the chemistry lab, sponsored our camera club, and somehow acquired and made available a few cameras that we used to document school functions for the school newspaper and yearbook. As club members we could also check out equipment to use outside of school, and so it was that I got my dibs on the Exa as often as I could. It was made in Dresden Western Germany, and like its big brother the Exakta used a prism and mirror system to provide that single lens reflex view. I was enthralled with that shimmering image that gave such a good sense of the image projected onto the film, and enhanced my sense of exciting photographic possibilities. By the time I was a senior I'd I saved up my summer job dollars and mailed off for an Exakta and soon forgot the Exa.

But a couple of weeks ago during my all-too frequent rambles through eBay there was an Exa at a decent price and not even bad shipping cost, considering it would make its way all the way from Bulgaria. I once again got the urge to hold in my hands an example of a tool that had once inspired me, and also liked that it would be coming via post from Europe like the Exakta did.

An Exa SLR with big brother Exakta in the background
 I was not disappointed. Like the Exakta purchase, that came from South Africa a couple of years ago, it arrived in perfect operating condition. (I will not dwell on whether my Sony Nex 7 will still function, and if batteries or memory cards will be available for it  in 55 years.) I will soon run a role of film through the Exa, enjoying that old feeling of visualization, the feel of the machined controls, and the ker-slap of the shutter. But it is pleasure enough to just hold it, feel its heft, and recall those days when photography was new and exciting. And it still is.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful cameras!

    Back in the day, my parents had a very simple camera: a Kodak Instamatic they bought sometime in the 1960s. This was a little and very sturdy piece of equipment, but being of the viewfinder kind, most of our photos from that era feature headless persons... and some nice closeups of my mom's fingers (she was the usual family photographer back then).

    Apparently my mom never quite got the hang of the viewfinder foibles. She always framed their scene perfectly through the little window and shot... only to discover, two weeks later when the processed photos arrived from the local Kodak store, that her Christmas photo memories consisted mainly of pictures of the relatives' attires.

    In later years, when she learned to use the camera a bit better, we started seeing faces in the photos... but no hairdos. Which is a pity; those 1960- early 1970s bird's nest dos were memorable!

    Those photos always remind me of the old Peanuts strips, where the only thing you ever saw of Charlie Brown's teacher was her body from the neck down.