Three hundred millimeter zoom. Black. Slightly bumpy ridged leather, bordered by painted black metal. The hard edges of the camera reflect the industrial design of a bygone era, the early post-war years. At the top, metal dials and knobs protrude from the body, tiny visible screws anchoring them to the leather and metal. The lens zig-zags away from the front of the camera, connected not by a metal bolt but by a delicate leather bellows, folded crisply. The dials – aperture, shutter speed, rangefinder – gleam in the reflected light. An inscription etched into the soft leather reads, “Zeiss Ikon Super Ikonta 531/2.”
Seventy millimeter zoom. The camera sits, nestled under the arm of my great-grandfather, Henry. The two are frozen in an old snapshot, fading with time, yet still the quintessential portrait of photographer and equipment.
Henry and his cameras were inseparable. Throughout his life, he toted them wherever he went, looking for photo opportunities. Even in his later years, when his memory had all but disappeared and he no longer took pictures, Henry still carried his cameras. They were an integral part of his identity.
We still have his photographs, some hanging framed on the wall, others – thousands of them – stuffed into shoeboxes in the garage. Whenever I flip through the photos, I feel a visceral connection to my family’s past, and to Henry through the art he left behind. Henry died in 1994, but his memory endures through his photography.
Eighteen millimeter wide-angle. I sit on the sofa, the yellowing snapshot in my hands. Ever since I took up photography four years ago, my family has compared me to Henry. “You’ve got Henry’s gift for photography, Connor,” they say. I hope that mine proves as lasting as his. Throughout high school, I have quietly chronicled life through the lens of my Canon Digital Rebel XTi, attending most school events for my school newspaper, camera in hand. Sometimes, with my camera bag slung over my shoulder, I feel like Henry, tromping around Orange County in search of the perfect photo.
Today, my connection with Henry is even stronger: balanced on my lap is his camera. After years of neglect, the exterior is not nearly as pristine as it once was. The black paint has chipped off the lens, the viewfinder is yellowed, the rangefinder filled with dust. The faint smell of my grandfather’s cigars clings to the camera. Since 1994, the metal flap containing the bellows and lens has remained sealed.
I push the release button and, with a snap, the bellows pops out, freed for the first time since Henry’s death. The lens and dials are just as shiny, the bellows just as crisply folded as they were in that old photo.
A few days ago, I took Henry’s Zeiss Ikon to a camera store. I desperately wanted the camera to work, hoping that years of disuse and neglect had not damaged it permanently. For the second time, the bellows unfolded, the lens gleamed in the sunlight. The shop owner opened and closed the shutter, tested the bellows for pinpricks. Finally, the verdict: “The camera still works.”
Before leaving, I ordered rolls of 120mm film for the camera. Soon, I hope to use it again, 53 years after my great-grandfather bought it.
Three hundred millimeter zoom. Black. Slightly bumpy ridged leather, framed by chipped, painted black metal. But this time, the camera isn’t in an old photograph; it’s in my lap as I sit on the sofa, connecting past to present, present to past, me to my great-grandfather Henry.