A Look Back

“It’s a twenty!”

Larry wiped the sweat from his brow. It was a tough decision which could easily cause injury in lesser hands, yet, not a position to be envied.

“You have to do something,” was a statement Jeff felt was necessary. His words, yet, only added to the tension of the moment as Larry had already realized, moment by moment, time was ticking away leaving a vacuous void of indecision in its passing.

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Each and every second was a meditation upon possibilities, yet, none were presenting an ideal alternative designed to bring an affable conclusion to the situation at hand. The moments were filled with tense anticipation finding no break in the relentless, binding strain of indecision.

“Help me…” was the plea uttered in helpless desperation by Jason as his eyes stared blankly as in a knowing resignation to an inescapable fate, yet holding to one last thread of hope.

Larry lowered his head upon his palms, once again wiping his brow as he removed his palms from their supporting position. His posture straightened as, even with the fear he felt as a molten essence finding its way up his spine, he still had to face the unrelenting danger and set caution aside.

Jeff looked on, whether in amazement or fear it cannot be accurately described, as Larry made his move, for he could not, and never would, turn his back on one in need. Nobody took a breath for that split-second in which the outcome would come to fore in full force.

Jeff moved with such velocity to get to his feet as Larry inhaled deeply at what he saw, at what he had done.

“It’s a twenty!” shouted Jeff, “You scored a critical hit against the Orc and saved Jason’s life!”

The year was 1981. The game was Dungeons & Dragons.

1980, plus one year later

“There are more important things than role-playing… nah.”

Through the course of the ages, whether of remembrance or the written word, each and every year has its moments forever sewn into the fabric of history. 1981 was no different in respects to having its moments, yet, as with indelible memories; many of those moments will stand the test of time.

Among its many contributions, 1981 saw the inauguration of a new American president, and an assassination attempt on that same president. Moviegoers found themselves thrilling to the adventures of Indiana Jones for the first time as others wearing funny cardboard glasses were busy ducking and diving things which were promised to be ‘Comin’ at Ya’. Radio and television were seeing integration with the introduction of a 24 hour music video channel called MTV while another integration and breaking of boundaries was happening in the Supreme Court in October as the first female Supreme Court Justice was being sworn in to office.

October was also the month, around Halloween, when a teenager, a senior in high school looking to get his first 35mm SLR, went to the store to buy a copy of Modern Photography magazine. It was the December issue, as magazines were usually on the stands well before their cover date, which was traditionally a larger issue that provided an overview of available SLRs for that year and the coming year, as well, articles on products to come and the usual opinionated, yet, advertiser friendly columns. It was going to be an evening of reading for that teenager, who was me, and now, I am going to look back through that issue of Modern Photography and provide some reflections on the state of photography in 1981.

For Your View Only

“Watch the Graphic language.”

We have all seen the classic pose of the photographer with his head under a black cloth, focusing his old wooden camera. Cameras have certainly advanced since those days and who would want to use one of those old cameras anyway, right? After all, what can you do with just a lens mounted on a lens board, a simple bellows, and a film holder? Who needs front and rear movements, and what can you do with those anyway?

Steve Sint, a regular contributor to Modern/Popular Photography with his column, Sint’s View, appears to appropriately justify the title of his column this month as he waxes nostalgic… uh… present day… uh… something like that, about view cameras. Steve presents us with his experiences with the Crown Graphic and Toyo monorail view camera, among some other models. His focus (stop that) is on obtaining a view camera on a budget, under $300 dollars (a fortune for a teenager in 1981) and the benefits of using a view camera.

A view camera is basically a lens mounted on a board, connected to a bellows, which ends in a film holder back. The entire contraption is mounted on a monorail atop a tripod. This configuration offers the ability to move the front and rear of the camera separately, which can correct verticals which converge, elongate or shorten features within the subject, among other effects. And all this captured on 4×5 or larger sheet film. Yet, all of this equals an often heavy, if not at least bulky, outfit.

Enter the flatbed camera which takes the view camera and basically puts it into a box for portability. This type of camera uses a flatbed in place of the monorail and replaces the film holder back with a combination camera body/case and film holder. What many photographers consider to be the ideal representation of the flatbed camera is the various models made by Graflex referred to as Graphic cameras. Top among these were the Crown Graphic and Speed Graphic cameras.

The Speed Graphic has been my dream camera for years, although I still have never owned one or its sibling, the Crown Graphic. Both cameras used 4X5 sheet film and offered the advantage of a rangefinder for the purpose of finding your focus for the distance of your subject. The Speed Graphic offered a focal plane shutter in addition to the leaf shutter in the lens, where the Crown Graphic did not have a focal plane shutter, just the leaf shutter, which could be quite an advantage for the photographer who keeps forgetting to open the focal plane shutter. Both offered front movements, limited compared to a monorail camera, but not rear movement due to the design of the camera. The Crown Graphic camera had a different front, which, due to its design, allowed for the use of wider angle lenses than the Speed Graphic as both cameras offered interchangeable lenses.

I do not have a monorail or flatbed camera and, as practicality rules, it is very probably something for which I would have little use. Yet, as just a matter of desire, for practicality or not, I still want one and will one day get one, fulfilling a desire since 1981.

Raiders of the Lost Art

“I’m developing them as I go.”

It may seem like an odd statistic to a young person just getting into photography today that through most of the 70’s and 80’s, the most common camera that could be found in most households was a Polaroid instant camera. The instant camera offered results on a print in usually 60 seconds. Certainly to a family taking pictures at a child’s party or a reunion this would be appealing to add to the fun of the event by showing and sharing prints shortly after they were taken.

The redoubtable Polaroid found a place in homes, business and industry, and with commercial and professional photographers alike. Whether at the DMV, a family picnic, with your insurance agent, at the dentist’s office, the Polaroid provided many uses for its ability to deliver a finished print on the spot. To that end, various models of Polaroid cameras have been made available over the years with many being specialized for the specific field in which they would be used. Yet, others always strived to cut in on Polaroid’s market by developing their own attempts at an instant camera, most meeting with failure due mostly to Polaroid’s well protected patents and aggressive strategy; Fuji film being the only company to successfully offer an alternative, but only in a very limited market.

Although Polaroid’s market has been taking a dip over the past several years due to digital cameras offering the ability to take and print a picture without a lab, they are still very active in the commercial market and have adjusted their consumer market to appeal to more younger people, especially teenagers, who can find enjoyment in an inexpensive camera with instant gratification, and what could be more fun than sticking a photograph on someone’s forehead. Yet, in 1981, even with the extensive popularity of Polaroid cameras, they were not often popular among teenagers due to their size and cost, however, they did offer many advanced features among cameras of the time and no less than three of them were covered in this issue’s annual guide to top cameras.

The Polaroid SX-70, without a doubt, is one of the most memorable Polaroid’s as it provided a compact size which unfolded into a sizeable Polaroid which was, yes, an SLR, which allowed the image to be taken to be seen through the lens taking it. The model in this issue is the Polaroid Time Zero SX-70 which uses an ultrasonic, sound wave, autofocusing system, to focus as close as 10.4 inches. With its many advances, this model still used the ten shot flash bar which used bulbs and left that loveable, lingering blind spot in the subjects eyes, which lasted at least a good minute or two.

A more budget minded model, though still out of range for many teenagers, was the Polaroid Autofocus 660 which offered the same ultrasonic autofocus system as the SX-70, yet lacked the compact size and offered a viewfinder for framing rather than through the lens framing. The model 660 was boxy, and frankly ugly, yet it did offer a built-in electronic flash which folded down, thus protecting the lens.

Polaroid did not forget about the advanced amateur and the professional photographer as they made the Polaroid 600 SE available, which was actually manufactured by Mamiya for Polaroid. The 600 SE was a redesign, in minor terms, of the Mamiya Universal Press Camera, making it a medium format rangefinder camera for Polaroid pack film, and pack film only, providing 2 7/8 × 3 3/4 in. prints. It had three interchangeable lenses available for it and a starting price of $550.

Although Polaroid, like many more advanced cameras of the time, was not a cheap camera, an older model could on occasion be found at a flea market for a substantial savings, and, as Polaroids were well designed and built to last, this provided a very feasible alternative. Being that many of the models to be found at a flea market were the pack film, pull-and-peel, models, and I prefer pack film, it worked for me.

Comin’ at Ya, uhhh… soon

“Look through these glasses of wonderment into… to be continued.”

It has been said that medicine is not an exact science, and many doctors have gone on to prove exactly that point. Yet, predicting the future, whether considered a science or not, presents a statistical risk due to unknown variables. Looking back, however, at those first steps which led to where we are today can, if nothing else, provide for entertainment.

Camera developers and manufacturers have continually advanced that little mechanical box for the purpose of making it more user-friendly while trying to pump in features which will appeal to all photographers. Sometimes this led to optimized developments which led others to further the course leading to an accepted norm which would now seem odd to us if such did not exist. Others, well, frankly fell flat on their faces, such as one camera manufacturer who felt a more ideal placement for the flash would be the bottom of the camera, which is now a collectible due to poor sales making it hard to find.

Prime among the desired optimization of user friendly features in camera design has been the advancement of focus assist options for the photographer. From TLRs, to rangefinders, to SLRs, focusing a camera has had many options over the years which required the photographer’s ability to distinguish whether the subject was in focus or not. But what about the visually impaired or the photographer needing more speed in their ability to focus?

Although we have become used to the availability of autofocus in many cameras available today, even before it was generally incorporated into cameras, options were being offered to make focusing easier. One of the earlier attempts at an autofocusing system of sorts was in the sixties with a 35mm viewfinder camera. It offered the usual suspects for its design in shutter speed and aperture selection, yet it had four shutter buttons. When depressed, each shutter button would set the lens to a preset focal range, hence offering four, and simultaneously trip the shutter.

In the seventies, Polaroid proved that they still walked the same path of technical innovation which was pioneered by the undisputed genius of their founder, Edwin Land, as they introduced to the world an autofocus system integrated into a compact camera. Polaroid introduced the world to the SX-70, an SLR no less, and it would take several years before even 35mm SLR manufacturers would offer an in-camera autofocus system.

The first option for 35mm SLR manufacturers was to put the autofocus system in the lens as this offered the ability to use an autofocus lens on your manual focus camera. These lenses were so lightweight and compact in design that, if for nothing else, they could prove to be an effective club for the purpose of self-defense. Yet, they were a viable option for the photographer wanting such until something different was offered from a manufacturer.

The year was 1981 when Pentax unveiled its model ME-F SLR; the first 35mm SLR to offer in-camera autofocusing. The ME-F used a contrast measuring autofocus system which offered the ability of focus assist with regular manual focus lenses or full autofocus with the specialized lens made for the camera. Being an early model, the lenses made for the ME-F were chunky and heavy as they incorporated a built-in motor for the lens and required 4 AAA batteries to power it. The contrast focusing system would prove to be the standard as manufactures worked to reduce the size of the motors for the lenses and to put the power supply in the camera, thus making the compact lighter lenses we are used to today.

Does it end with autofocus though, or is there something else in the works? Sony was busy in 1981 producing a prototype camera which picked up on an idea which started with Texas Instruments in the seventies and was now about to be released as the first available consumer model. Sony introduces their first video still camera called the Mavica which would set the way for their further development of the Mavica and lead to what we know today as digital photography.

Digital photography the Mavica was not as it captured video still images in analog video which is measured in lines of resolution not pixels. If you were to translate its resolution into pixels, it would come out in the range of a 570×490 image which provided better resolution than a still image on a VCR, yet slightly less than broadcast television. The Mavica recorded 50 images on a magnetic media disk about 2 in. square, somewhat like a small floppy, and connected to a television set for viewing.

Student Camera Bodies

“Yeah baby… looking boxy.”

The basic manual-everything camera, the standby of many photographers, the workhorse of others, and the learning tool for students. In 1981, while many advanced feature cameras were on the market and the Canon AE-1 Program was just being introduced, many a photographer still used a manual everything camera. You focused the lens, set your shutter speed, set the aperture, and, on most models, advanced the film manually; ah, the good ole days.

One of the cameras I remember having seen most of the members of a junior high school paper/photography club using is the Yashica Mat TLR. In this issue’s Top Cameras is the Yashica Mat-124G which used 120/220 roll film producing 6×6 images (actually 56mm x 56mm). The Mat-124G came with an 80mm f/3.5 lens with shutter speeds from 1 sec. to 1/500 sec. plus B. The camera offered a waist-level finder with a match-needle Cds meter. The Mat-124G offered an ideal leaning tool for photography as well a useful camera for seasoned photographers and kept a low price. How can you beat that?

The Pentax MX kept up the spirit set with their own legendary K1000. The MX was fully manual in all respects of the term even offering a fully mechanical shutter like its older sibling while being more compact and lighter. Offering shutter speeds from 1 to 1/1000 sec. with a cloth focal plane shutter, the MX was basically a smaller K1000 with a meter added. The advantage that the fully manual, mechanical shutter model MX offered was if the battery went dead, so what, it still worked; and it was great for learning photography, much like the redoubtable K1000.

Many photographers, including me, have cut their teeth on cameras like these and the Praktica MTL3, among other fully manual models. They represent a good value for a solidly built, dependable camera which many photographers still use, as do I.

An American Werewolf in… New York City?

“Put some teeth into your sales pitch.”

Ah yes, the sellers. You could not read an issue of Modern/Popular photography without being bombarded with the ads as the columns were basically filler being broken into multiple parts so you would have to see the ads just to finish the column, yet we still loved the ads and especially the seller section at the back of the magazines offering cut rate prices on brand name equipment and even lower prices on ‘famous brand’ equipment.

Many a local camera shop warned about buying from these sellers using terms like gray market, green market, brown market, or whatever was their favorite color of the week. Although there is a gray market, it involves importing cameras and film intended for sales outside of the states. This can result in lower prices with the trade-off that your warranty may not be honored. Although many sellers offered gray market items, and even some broke up sets to sell the parts individually, volume buying resulted in the many of their discount prices, which was not something the local camera shop could offer. Some of the larger sellers would even simply cut their prices on equipment since 35mm equipment was not their bread and butter, as that was medium format and other pro equipment, but the 35mm did bring them customers.

Another item offered by many sellers was the ‘famous brand’ lenses often included in their camera packages where you could get a complete starter outfit with your choice of brand name camera body with ‘famous brand’ lenses included. The ‘famous brand’ lens was a no-name lens often manufactured in places like Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong, and even Japan. They were a pig in a poke as you could get a winner for a low price, but your bets would pan out better if you guessed it was at best average to low quality.

Yes, I love the low cost equipment. Lenses like the super telephoto 400 f/5.6 and 500 f/8 lenses were a bargain, especially for the amateur or someone who did not use it that much. There were the AC studio strobes which screwed into a common light socket and offered an inexpensive, if not outright cheap, alternative to expensive studio flash units. There were many other items, each appealing differently to different photographers, but offering an inexpensive alternative.

Yet, some local camera shops still warn against inexpensive equipment and New York sellers. Some of the local camera shops which warn against the inexpensive equipment and what they like to call gray and green markets will be happy to sell equipment to you which you may not be able to afford, as they are trying to make a living too, but since they primarily make their money from local studios and professional photographers who can afford and need the equipment, their advice is hypocritical. If I had taken the advice of my local camera shop, I would, most likely, never have become a photographer because I could not have afforded to start.

That is not an indictment of local camera stores as the majority of shops are filled with hobbyists, many of whom will be happy to recommend alternatives to expensive equipment. Yet, if you are in a shop where they are trying to veer you away from something you can afford and sell you something you cannot, you are dealing with someone who is basically a supplier who is not concerned one way or another whether you are able to buy the equipment, just so long as you don’t buy it from someone else. It just goes to show that werewolves are not unique to New York City.

Whose Camera is it Anyway?

“Well… are you going to roll the dice or what?”

The year 1981 had many memorable events, fun to be had at the movies, pop music breaking out into a carefree style which would be shared through a different medium, and many innovations which lead to the so familiar technology we have today. Many other innovations I have not mentioned include the first laptop; the introduction of the CED disc which would oddly pave the way from laserdisc to DVD; and the introduction of a computer operating system called DOS. In many ways 1981 was eventful, on the edge of what was next, and, frankly, fun.

It would be a little over a year later until I acquired my first 35mm SLR, which was a Praktica MTL3 I bought at a pawnshop. Although I continued to look through the camera magazines coveting all the different equipment I saw advertised and ignored the advice provided by a camera shop. Why not; it was going to be my camera, and I might add that the so-called gamble paid off. But, until I acquired my SLR, I still had my Fujica, and there was still role-playing.