The Dream Camera

by RICHARD L. SIMON

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DURING the past eight years I have taken, developed, and enlarged thousands of pictures. I have seen scores of photographic exhibits and have read hundreds of books and magazines on my favorite subject. In all, I must have seen and “studied”1 more than twenty thousand photographs. A few of the pictures I have made, and hundreds that I have seen, have been pleasing. Some have been exciting, some beautiful. But, by and large, I doubt whether many of the photographs I have ever seen have been as thrilling as the cameras that took them.

I wonder whether the non-photographer can grasp the peculiar quality of the pleasure of being an amateur photographer. It is unlike that of the bridge player who, after he has effected a Vienna coup, spends the next few days telling all his friends exactly how the cards were distributed. Nor is it like that of the golfer who makes an impossible approach and an impossible putt on the eighteenth hole to win the match. Rather is it like that of the receiver of an extraordinarily lavish gift, wrapped with loving care by a particularly dear friend. Perhaps this gift is a jade vase; or an electric razor; or a set of Bobby Jones irons; or a Spanish mantilla; or a Swiss watch that comes equipped with stop-watch mechanism, compass, and a set of gongs. The anticipation of opening the package, the reading of directions (including the manufacturer’s guarantee), the fondling of the gift itself — all are emotionally akin to the pleasures of photography. But closest of all is the Swiss watch. Not only is it beautiful, but it is precision-made. And it is functional.

Imagine, then, you unhappy non-photographers, a glorious piece of mechanism like this that has within itself the ability to capture for posterity a baby’s smile, a setter at point, the kindly wrinkles of a grandfather. With a telephoto lens (ah, that supply store window!) it can reach out for a close-up of the sloop in the bay. It can magnify a hundredfold the pollen on the rose petal. It can re-create the glistening of the snow and of the trees on a frosty February morning. No, it cannot tell you the time, but it can immortalize the scenes, the moods, even the overtones 2 of daily life.

These moods and overtones of daily life will rarely appear in the snapshots that come back to the photographer in a double envelope, the prints in one flap, the negatives in the other. Good pictures come out of the photographer’s own darkroom. it is there that he learns the secrets of correct exposure, development, the laws of photographic optics, and the all-important factor of light and shadow. After his tenth or fiftieth film he will realize the supremely fascinating tact that photography is a craft of involving whites, blacks, and the many grays between. It is only when the concept of what photographers call “gradation” becomes clear that he can make good pictures. It is during this educational period that the pleasures of photography become apparent. His pictures become more beautiful. But what is equally joyous, his camera becomes more miraculous than any Swiss watch ever made. Well, not necessarily his camera, but the camera, the ideal, the ultimate, the Dream Camera. With all the gadgets.

Does this darkroom Freshman have a box or folding camera? If he does, you can bet your second-last dollar that a friend of his will whisper in his ear that the Leica or the Speed Graphic or the Rolleiflex or the Medalist will do things undreamed of by that old crate of his. And you can then bet your last dollar that he will begin to look into his bank book or budget and devise means to buy that Dream Camera. Sooner or later he owns it. Or should I say her. The love affair begins.

This new Dream Camera is a mistress who demands time and money. She is the mother of his pictures. She craves adornments, though photographers will persist in calling them gadgets. These are the jewels you see in the supply store window, and read about in the photographic journals: filters (they come in beautiful hues — blue, yellow, red, orange, and green, and rare is the photographer who is satisfied with one Yellow K-2); lens hoods (to protect the lady’s eye); view-finders, supplementary lenses (with romantic names like Proxars and Distars); exposure meters; and lens “rings” (a peculiarly apt word) to make close-ups.3

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But our darkroom Freshman is still lost. Of course, he has bought his trays and darkroom lamp and a few chemicals. His belt needs further tightening. And, somehow, nothing he has ever bought before seems more worth the price of: ... a developing tank, a darkroom thermometer, an enlarger, a constant supply of paper in all grades and sizes, clips for hanging up negatives, filing cabinets, an enlarger, new film (all the books and magazines tell him to stick to one kind, but his moral fiber is shot and he wants to feed variety to his Dream Camera), larger trays, pairs of tongs, a darkroom clock, new kinds of developers (the ads

say they do the most astonishing things!), a pair of chemical scales, a print trimmer, an electric dryer, a siphon washing apparatus, larger trays for larger enlargements, sepia toners, lens tissue, a supply of bottles, a funnel, a graduate, desensitizing solution, mounts and mounting tissue, glassine folders for storing negatives, ferrotype tins and the solutions to keep them shiny, and a constantly renewing supply of hypo, metol, sulphite of soda, hydroquinone, carbonate of soda, potassium bromide, acetic acid, and the other magical chemicals that alone can do justice to the Dream Camera.

Does this italicized list sound exaggerated? Ask your friend who owns a darkroom. He will probably supplement the list with some possessions of his own — and do so with great pride; or he may make a mental note that he needs one or two of those items himself.

The equipment and series of gadgets enumerated in this paper are those of the average advanced photographic amateur. I know many men and women who would feel pauperized by being reduced to so beggarly an assortment. There is a world-renowned psychoanalyst with a hideout in Connecticut. Not a hideout for attending to his more obstreperous patients, but actually a laboratory finished in stainless steel, with thermostatic controls of the temperature of both air and water. This doctor is interested not so much in the final photograph as in the light and chemical processes of photography. The directions say “develop at 70 degrees Fahrenheit,” and, by golly, those films are going to be developed at 70 right on the button, and they are going to be rinsed at 70, hypo-ed at 70, washed and dried at 70. Don’t smile. Every photographer who knows about this equipment (including the writer) is really in his heart green with envy. His actual photographs may not be as good as those made by us proletarians, but boy, what we wouldn’t be able to do with such a layout!

Then there is my friend, George Waldo of Bridgeport. The evening I first met him he took me to his kitchen to help make the cocktails. I admired especially his ice-chopping machine and his Fred Waring mixer. Facetiously I asked him which one of the two was equipped with an F :2 lens. “Oh, you’re interested in photography too,” he said; “you’ve got to see my cameras.” After dinner I was treated to the sight of the most magnificent battery of cameras and lenses this side of New York’s 32nd Street, to say nothing of his darkroom, which I can only describe by saying that it has three of everything. It never occurred to either of us to mention photographs. When I finally asked if I might see some he replied, “Oh, those. I almost forgot.” Whereupon he showed me thousands of photographs as beautiful as any I had ever seen. I asked him whether he ever sent them to exhibits. The inevitable answer was No, he just did them for the fun of it, and they really weren’t much good. Actually, if George Waldo were not one of the distinguished newspaper publishers of the country, he would be one of the leading photographers.

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Two or three years ago I read a short news story in the New York Evening Post. It fascinated me at the time, but if the follow-up was ever published I never saw it. It concerned a youngster of seventeen who was going to get the camera he wanted, and no nonsense. He had written a threatening letter to the owner of a camera store, demanding on penalty of death that a certain Contax camera be left under a specified tree along the Bronx River Parkway at a specified time the following night. Or else. The police left the camera there, waited, and arrested the boy.

I wonder what happened to him. I can picture him, one of dozens of boys his age who walk along 32nd Street Saturday afternoons, dressed in shabby trousers and a weather-stained windbreaker. Some of the youngsters have a camera in a leather strap slung over the shoulder. I have often watched them. Occasionally one will go into Willoughby’s or The Photo Shop or The Penn Camera Co., and come out with a pound of hypo or a bottle of developer. But for the most part they simply look at the displays in the windows, compare notes with one another about lenses and flash guns or other gadgets. Secretly they must wonder whether they will ever earn enough to own that Dream Camera. The sights and the shoptalk along 32nd Street must have proved too much for our particular rogue. He was going to have his Dream Camera. Or else.

In reality there is no such thing as the Dream Camera. No camera is universal, none can do everything. It is up to each photographer to acquaint himself with the theoretical possibilities of the various instruments, and then to decide for himself what kind of photography he likes best. For most purposes one camera (with an amazing lack of gadgets!) will suffice. In fact, for most amateurs a set of accessories consisting of a lens hood, a tripod, and one filter is all that is necessary. The trouble is we amateurs insist on reading technical data, note that Something Special has been used in a picture we especially admire, and then arrive at the erroneous conclusion that the camera or the special gadget was alone responsible for the beauty, brilliance, and general success of the photograph we admired.

The editor of the Atlantic wishes me to come down to earth. He asks me to supply a few rules that will help his readers become, not Steichens or Bourke-Whites, but simply fairly good photographers with a reasonable percentage of good results from every film. Well, here goes: —

1. Concentrate on either outdoor or indoor photography. In other words, learn to use either sunlight or artificial light. Master them one at a time. My own suggestion would be sunlight.

2. Remember that the photographic film exaggerates contrasts. Your eye can see details simultaneously in both brilliant sunlight and in shadow. The film cannot. If, therefore, you take portraits out of doors, see to it that light is reflected into the shadows of the face. Do this by means of some white reflecting surface: a near-by wall, a piece of newspaper, a towel. (Don’t buy a gadget!)

3. Photography being mostly a study and rendition of lights and shadows, take your pictures before ten o’clock in the morning and after four o’clock in the afternoon.

4. Have your subject near the camera and try to eliminate or neutralize backgrounds. A patch of sky or a regular pattern is infinitely preferable to a clump of trees or the fountain in Rockefeller Plaza.

5. You will get your best results at beaches, in the snow, or in the neighborhood of white buildings. Reason: plenty of light for reflecting into the shadows.

6. Avoid trees and grass in general. Most photographic film (including Kodachrome) doesn’t do justice to greens. If you must photograph verdure, for best results get up early in the morning and use orthochromatic instead of the usual panchromatic film.

7. Stick to one kind of everything: film, developer, paper. Do this for six months, and you will be amazed at your technical improvement. Don’t let anything you read or hear tempt you to deviate from this extremely unattractive regime.

These are simple suggestions and easy to follow. There is only one trouble with them. They are dull. They are for the man who Wants Results. They are not for the nine out of ten amateurs (myself included) who are in quest of the beautiful, the adventurous, the optically and chemically impossible. Yes, we will stick to our own films, developers, and papers for a while, and look the other way when we see advertisements for flash guns. But sooner or later we’ll weaken. We shall try the impossible, we shall succeed occasionally. But most of the time we shall fail. It is then that we shall begin again our rounds of the photographic stores in search of the newest developer, the latest in lighting equipment, and the solution of all our photographic problems, the Dream Camera.

  1. Only an amateur photographer will understand the quotation marks. To those unfortunate, joyless creatures to whom a photographic supply store window is anything but a completely irresistible magnet, I must explain that phrases like “Harvey 777,” “F:6.3,” “Defender Velour Black,” “Plaubel Makina,” “Super-Omega B,” “Plus X,” are like “magic casements, opening on the foam of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.”
  2. Many photographers will bear me out that, sometimes weeks or years after we have made portraits of friends, we see an expression or mood on the actual face of our subjects that we had not known before; we recognize it as the same quirk of personality that we had captured in a photograph a long time ago. Were we artists instead of craftsmen, we probably would have seen that overtone the first time.
  3. Marcel Steraberger, whose Leica portrait of the King of Belgium appears on Belgian postage stamps, and who has photographed President Roosevelt, Anthony Eden, George Bernard Shaw, Sigmund Freud, and hosts of other celebrated people, once saw a Leica lens ring at my home, I was delighted when he asked if he might borrow it — it was called a “Nooky,” a name so embarrassing that I avoided using the gadget lest my friends ask what it was. But I soon missed it, and Steraberger must have liked it, for I had the devil’s own time getting it back from him.