So now I’ve been asked which of all the many cameras I’ve owned over the years is my favorite. Let me put it this way: Just as a poor workman blames his tools, many a mediocre photographer praises his. I like to think I’m somewhere in the middle. On those rare occasions when I produce an exceptional photograph, I congratulate myself. On those all-too-frequent occasions when my work doesn’t measure up, I prefer to blame my equipment.
But getting back to the subject, yes, there is one camera in my arsenal that holds a special place in my heart. It’s the Bronica S2-A that I purchased at Shutterbug Photo on Highland Drive forty years ago. It cost something in the neighborhood of five hundred bucks—less than half as much as its pricier competitor, the exquisite Swedish Hasselblad 500C.
A poor man’s Hasselblad, that’s what everyone called the Bronica. Even so, I had to borrow money from my girlfriend in order to get one. Hoping to to repay her generosity, I immediately set my sights on winning a photography contest, and on my very first roll captured an image that took third place in the 1970 Kodak International Snapshot Contest. The $2,500 prize enabled us to get married and buy train tickets to Acapulco, where we honeymooned at a cut-rate hotel named El Faro—directly across the street from the upscale Mirador. A poor man’s honeymoon.
For the remainder of the decade, that Bronica remained my workhorse. And every time I whipped it out, people inevitable asked, “Is that a Hasselblad?”
Eventually I grew tired of apologizing. I became proud of my relatively inexpensive Japanese 6×6, much the same as primitive Amazonian tribesmen take pride in their ability to drop a monkey with a rough hewn blowgun—even as American astronauts on the moon were snapping spectacular images of earth with (what else?) a Hasselblad.
Meantime, I was photographing mundane terrestrial objects such as presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan, whose oratorical skills proved no match for my Bronica’s noisy shutter. In fact, when I fired, Reagan ducked behind the podium and his security detail rushed toward me. “What the hell is that?” one of them demanded. “Doesn’t sound like no Hasselblad.”
The reason my Bronica doesn’t sound like a Hasselblad is because it has a focal-plane shutter and a complicated mirror mechanism, which together produce a sound similar to what you get whenever a scaffold collapses and half a ton of bricks and a load of wet mortar plus a hod carrier and a mason or two tumble into a basement window well. Surely such a noisy shutter must result in a lot of vibration, everyone says. If it does, I never saw any signs of camera shake in my negatives. That is, except for the time I was in Tempiute, Nevada, photographing an old prospector by the name of Wesley Koyen.
Wes and his wife Eva were bonafide pioneers, having come into the desolate Penoyer Valley in the Nineteen Thirties. There Wes had struck a claim that eventually became a major tungsten-silver mine, complete with boom town. However, by the time I came along the boom town and mine had gone bust. Everyone—including their four kids—had move away, yet Eva and Wes remained, having been seduced by desert quietude.
I’d spent a day and a half searching for a good spot to take Wesley’s picture, and finally I found it: inside the ore concentrating mill he had built, next to a rusting ball mill, perfectly illuminated by an opening in the north wall. When I pulled out my Bronica, Wesley did not ask if it was a Hasselblad. He was probably wondering where was the squeeze bulb and the flash powder?
I fired once, twice, three times. Drat! Something was amiss with my Bronica. The film wasn’t advancing! Exposure after exposure was piling up, one on top of the other.
“Don’t move!” I commanded. Like a rabbit, I scurried back to my Volkswagen bus, fished out a spare film back and hastily loaded it with Tri-X 120 film. When I got back to the mill, I was pleased to see that Wesley, as ordered, hadn’t moved. I switched film backs and fired off one, two, three exposures. Ka-whomp! Ka-whomp! Ka-whomp! Unlike Ronald Reagan, Wesley didn’t flinch. He didn’t move an inch. For the life of me, I can’t tell any difference between the three negatives.
It was a magical moment, one that I shall never forget and one that lives on even though my beloved Bronica is now retired, Wesley Koyen is long gone from this world and I don’t feel so good myself. But as the poet John Keats once wrote, “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever. Its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness…”