I remember the little Italian-made camera my father gave me when I was seven or eight years old. I didn’t know it was Italian at the time. I’m not sure I even knew what “Italy” was. But the camera I remember. It was mostly silver and black, and had a shoelace for a camera strap, and the film was a paper-backed roll and had to be loaded carefully or it would unroll itself and be ruined, and film was expensive. Or at least my father instilled that particular fear into me at an early point of my photographic adventure. My father did the film loading and unloading. What I did with the camera in between these two events was up to me.
The camera, I know now because I still have the thing, was a Bencini Comet S that fed on 127 film. Because nostalgia is a powerful drug, I’ve recently asked TheInternet™ if it would care to share with me a source for 127 film. TheInternet™ laughed at me. It would appear Amazon’s singular failing is that it’s not a source for film that hasn’t been made in twenty-three years. That doesn’t lessen my disappointment in Amazon. I pay for a Prime membership, I expect better.
Maybe it’s best that I can’t easily get film for this camera. Maybe the memory of it is better than the reality. I still have (somewhere, I think, in a shoe box) prints captured by the Comet. There’s a picture of my Uncle’s Golden Retriever wearing a cowboy hat, and of my cousin as a toddler, and there was even a great photograph taken of whales or dolphins flying through the air at SeaWorld in Florida, a common destination for my family during the spring breaks of my youth. At least I think these were the photographs I took. I can’t find them either.
Photographs are memories, or representations thereof. They transport us through time and space to remind us of the good times, of how skinny we were, of where we spent a few days in March of 1980. In this case, the missing photographs themselves are a memory. They’ve become a memory of a memory, reinforced by the memory of a moment spent staring at small, glossy, black-and-white squares containing images slightly blurry because, well, the Comet S has a stiff focus ring that was hard for a young kid to deal with, assuming he even remembered that “focusing” was a thing.
Another feature of the Bencini Comet S was the film advance dial; a knurled aluminum knob standing proud on the right side of the body that you turned (if you remembered) between exposures, just far enough so that the number printed on the film’s paper backing identifying the next frame was visible through the little red portholes in the back of the camera body. The shutter was always live, and double or triple exposures were common. And there was no indication of shutter speed. 1/60th of a second? Maybe. That’s about as good a guess as any.
Truth be told, it was a shit camera. There was no ISO setting, no shutter speed control, no light meter, or aperture adjustments. There was only a poor excuse for a focus ring, and no focusing mechanisms in the viewfinder to let you know you’d done a good job of focusing. You just hoped the scale on the focus ring was relatively correct, and that you could judge distances with some semblance of accuracy. The viewfinder was nothing but a vague rectangular-ish hole on the front of the camera fed by the smallest of circular eyepieces on the back, with a suggestion of framing that amounted to “best guess.”
Yeah, it was a shit camera but it’s where I started. And I still have it, for better or for worse.
What the Comet did do successfully, was foster an interest in photography that eventually led to my father letting me use his prized Pentax Spotmatic, and that experience with the Spotmatic lead to a level of brand loyalty and sense of devotion that I didn’t fully comprehend the first time I spent my own hard-earned cash on a camera. That was a 35mm Pentax SF10, which was fancy because it moved the film by itself with electric motors, could autofocus with the right lens, and would rewind the film automatically when it was done; all technological marvels in my experience.
This camera was later stolen in Vancouver, containing the last roll of film I’d shot driving across Canada with a woman I thought I loved for the second time. We eventually broke up a second time, and I still wonder what happened to that roll of film with the carefully-posed and timer-delayed portraits we made standing in front of the “Welcome to BC” roadside sign. Undoubtedly it was thrown away. Even permanent memories are fleeting.
I eventually bought a slightly better Pentax SF1, second hand, and carried it around for a long time despite limited use. Digital was a new thing, but a powerful thing, and I was keen to invest.
My dorky tech-loving younger brother had bought one of the first “real” accessible digital cameras, an Olympus C-3030, and through some quirk of bad pixels and underpaid employees in the Olympus warranty department, not to mention some critical comments about Olympus on internet forums, my brother ended up with two replacement cameras in exchange for the one he sent back to Olympus. So I bought one from him.
It was a terrible camera that retailed for the better part of a grand and a half in the year 2000. Three megapixel images, 32-96mm focal length equivalent, 1/800 of a second max shutter speed. It was the most amazing digital photo technology available, and total junk at the same time.
It was this camera that had me thinking I didn’t know how to take photographs anymore. The images it made were appalling at best, and often blurry. I think it had one very slow auto-focus point, though that might be optimistic. It had one thing going for it though, it didn’t use film. As my father had told me, film was expensive and easy to ruin.
When it was time to replace the Olympus with a more capable digital camera I re-embraced my Pentax loyalty and walked into the camera store demanding a camera with one of the worst names ever, an *ist D. The salesperson quickly talked me out of that camera. He told me to buy a Nikon D70, and so I did. I’ve been shooting Nikon ever since.
Armed with a functional digital camera I fancied myself a rock concert photographer and took photographs for a local music paper. The photos were alright, and photo passes to some of my favourite alternative shows didn’t hurt either.
The photos of rock bands still happen to this day, sometimes, when I get the energy to fight people half my age or less to see a band I still care about enough to stay up late. I wear ear plugs now, and have a fancier full frame digital camera, and some decent lenses to make the “work” easier. And through it all there have been a dozen or more side cameras.
There was the quest for a pocketable point-and-shoot that knows what to do with “blue” (which is somewhat important, because; sky), the long term loan of a Leica M3 which ended a few years ago, and garage sale Yashicas, a “new in box” Rolleiflex a friend’s Uncle left to him upon his death that I should have bought but instead borrowed until he sold it to a good friend for a stupidly little amount of money. There’s a medium format Mamiya I innocently bought for next to nothing because the owner had had a stroke and he thought the light meter was busted when all it really needed was a battery.
And I’ve found myself going nearly full circle.
Copies of my father’s Pentax Spotmatic litter my apartment. I’ve had near a dozen pass through my hands over the last few years. They regularly show up on Craigslist for less than $100, these beautiful and well-made Japanese stars of photography sporting fast Super Takumar lenses (how could anything with “super” in the name be bad?) and I would buy them and give them away to friends who were interested in trying film photography.
I still have three Spotmatics, but I can’t give any of these three away. One of the three used to belong to my father. The light meter in it died, along with a couple of others I collected along the way and I sent the bunch of them to be fixed by the noble and near legendary Eric Hendrickson. Problem is, when I sent my father’s camera in with the others there was a drop of paint on the back of the body that matched the colour of the kitchen of the house we lived in in 1976. When I got the trio of cameras back with fully functional light meters, Eric had also cleaned them all, including removing the paint spot. Now I’m not sure which one is the one that belonged to my father. Nostalgia, as mentioned, is a powerful drug.
Going back to taking photographs with the Bencini Comet S might have fully closed my photographic circle, but the soulfulness of shooting and developing my own 35mm black-and-white film in a camera that may or may not have been my father’s is close enough. This I’ve learned.
Oh, and I’ve also learned that there’s no such thing as a bad photograph. Some photographs are better than others, for sure, but that photo I took of my Uncle’s dog wearing a cowboy hat was the best photograph ever taken, even though it was blurry and badly exposed, and may not even exist anymore.