Wasn’t so very long ago that in order to take a picture, all you needed to know was just how to push a button and then wind a knob. The most popular camera, a Kodak Brownie, cost about ten bucks—which was as much as anyone expected to pay for a camera in the Nineteen Fifties. So imagine my parents’ dismay when I walked in the door with a camera that was bristling with buttons and knobs and which cost $225.
There was no way on earth I was ever going to save up that much cash working my paper route, but happily my supplier, Barney DeVietti, had agreed to sell it to me on time. That’s just the way Barney was. If I should begin to drool over something in his display case, he’d take it out and place it in my hands. And once it was in my hands, I wasn’t about to give it back. So we’d work out a deal that would allow me to take the camera home and pay for it in monthly installments. Which is how I’d acquired my Kodak Brownie, my Kodak Signet 40 and now my Exakta VXlla.
“Three cameras! Who needs THREE cameras!” My parents demanded an explanation.
“The first two were just toys,” I explained. “This one’s a real camera. A single lens reflex. Made in Germany!”
I made an attempt to point out the camera’s many features, but to no effect. As I chattered on about f/stops and shutter speeds, my father’s eyes became fixed and glazed. My mother wrung her hands in despair. To their way of looking at it, my Exakta camera was naught but a handful of magic beans.
Compared to today’s high end cameras, the comparison is not far off. True, it was made in Germany—but in Dresden, which at the time happened to be on the wrong side of the iron curtain. Many of my Exakta’s parts were stamped—not machined—then screwed together on assembly lines staffed by spiritless communist drudges. That it should cost as much as a Lear jet in Nineteen Fifties dollars remains a great mystery. I should have shopped around. I could have bought a Nikon!
Ah, but a Nikon F was much too simple. For instance, it didn’t have a slow speed shutter dial featuring approximately 26 settings, not including half a dozen time delays. It didn’t have a built-in guillotine, which enabled the user to turn one roll of film into two. The Nikon didn’t have an unintentional exposure shield covering the shutter button—and neither did my Exakta, once I determined that it was equally effective at preventing intentional exposures.
Unlike its Japanese counterpart, the Exakta’s shutter button and film advance lever were both the left side, the reasoning being that most users are right-handed, and it’s the right hand that does most of the work. First, the lens aperture had to be set, then the preset ring opened. Next, you raised the camera to your eye and turned the knurled focusing ring with your thumb and index finger until the split image in the center of your viewfinder became one. Then, using your right ring finger, you slammed shut the aperture preset ring and depressed the shutter button with your left index finger. K-whack! The viewfinder screen went totally dark and remained that way until you cranked the film advance lever, which also recocked the shutter and lowered the reflex mirror.
Alone in my room at night I practiced over and over and over until finally I could go through all the motions without hardly thinking about it. I’d pick out a spot, evaluate the light, estimate the exposure, set the f/stop and dial in the shutter. Then in one fluid motion I’d raise the camera to my eye, frame, focus and fire. Faster than you could say, “cheese.”
Today’s high end SLRs can fire off half a dozen frames in the time it takes me to shoot just one. But what’s the point? I’m not out to make movies; I’m a still photographer. As Shane explained to Little Joey, “One gun is all you need if you know how to use it.”
Here is a picture I shot with my Exakta in October, 1968, from the window of a train near Guaymas, Mexico. I was traveling light, wearing Vietnam jungle boots on loan from a friend and with no luggage save a war surplus gas mask bag. As the train came to a stop I spotted this young boy sitting on a parallel track. He was looking left. I raised my camera and fired once. He looked right. I rewound, reset, refocused and fired again. Booyah! The screen had gone black, but there was no need to repeat the process. I’d got what I came for—and in any event, the decisive moment had passed.