Anger, Regret....and Repeat
Just about every photographer whom I've spoken to that has practiced photography seriously for 20 years or more have the same regrets. They wish they began taking it seriously sooner and they wish they took more photos when they began. I'm right there with them but since 2017 there are two things that always depress and anger me leaving a huge amount of regret that's ulcer causing. The larger problem of the two was my brief usage of the medium film format Yashica Mat 124 camera in the first half of 2018.
I loved every aspect of the analog process of using this camera and I grew up with film learning the process from my father who was an avid photographer. The slow methodical mechanical operation, the square photo format, the limit of only 12 photos per roll of film, the way the image appeared reversed in the viewfinder, and the way that people weren't intimidated by this old camera. Maybe they weren't threatened by the fact that their photo wasn't going to appear on social media in a matter of seconds but not a single person that I asked to photograph said "no". That has never happened before or since.
Every time someone asks for a print or wants to look thru the small portfolio of photos my anger and regret returns. I have around 50 good photos but by this point I should have a couple hundred even with the slow process. When I left the house with only the roll of film in the camera I asked myself each time I approached a subject "is this worth a frame of film". The 12 exposure roll could take me a week to finish.
After a couple of weeks the camera began to lock up and not advance the film or not advance it enough to clear the last frame so I sent it out to be CLA'd - Clean, Lubed, Adjusted. After getting the camera back the problem quickly returned so I sent it back and once again the camera wasn't right so I sold it and bought another one. After about a month I was in the Reading Terminal Market when an old vender didn't like what I was doing and hit my camera sending the lens out of alignment. If the vender wasn't in his late 60s I would have knocked him on his ass. the incident was caught on camera and the market reimbursed me for what I paid for the camera and with the addition of a GoFundMe campaign me I was able to buy what was supposed to be a perfect condition and working Yashica Mat 124. But it wasn't and Ebay is loaded with scammers and people who have no clue.
This had effectively ended this body of work. I swore that I wouldn't return to it unless I could afford the much better built German Rolleiflex camera and my own scanner. Shortly after the photo lab Philadelphia Photographics who processed and scanned the film for me closed. Between that and needing to find a new place to live I believed that I would never return to this great method of photography.
Would things have different if I wasn't a broke artist. I'm saying broke because that's more accurate than saying poor because I believe that I've never been a poor artist. More print sales might have solved this but an absolute fix would be a grant such as Philadelphia's PEW who awards 12 Philadelphia area artists $75,000 each year. But with no affiliation, collusion, friends in high places, etc I will have a better chance at becoming Mayor of Philadelphia. Several years ago I came oh so close to a Guggenheim Fellow but since I no longer have gallery representation or references in the art world my chances would be slim to none. What angers me about grants is that many of the artist never create anything with the money received. Some are never heard from again in the art world.
If I were given a chance a restarting this it would mean that I would need to travel back into the center city area. Originally I took photos between my loft and the Rittenhouse Square Park which is where I took most of the photos and it's the park where I would want to return to.
Even writing this blog post I'm becoming agitated at this unfinished body of work. My whole adult life I've needed to finish what I started and to do it correctly while to the best of my ability. If a camera dropped on my lap tomorrow I would be back taking photos with in 24 hours. Sometimes I think maybe the weight of my age and health have me pressing hard to continue this body work but after looking at the photos that's no longer the case. Unrealistic or not I want to.
I've spoken to a few other photographers about this and a couple have suggested photographing square using a digital camera like I have for my Ben Franklin Bridge portfolio. I've pretty much dismissed that idea because it's just not the same. The photos wouldn't look the same and I wouldn't be forced to limit the amount of photos taken to 12. Christ with todays digital cameras and hi capacity SD cards you can fit thousands of photos on it in a single day. It would also remove the curiosity and not threatening manner of the people I'm photographing. In the end I want the tangibility of a mechanical camera, negatives, proof sheets and prints.
In the end who knows if I'll ever get back to this project but what I do know is that after almost five years the desire to do it is as strong as ever. But there's a chance that things in the park or on the streets around it have changed too much. Maybe my time has passed there like it already has in my Old City neighborhood, South Street and other parts of the city. All I know is that I'll never know unless I try.
* Yes I have thought about continuing this outside of the city but for me I don't believe it would work to the point I can say I'm certain it won't. Or maybe it would but I just can’t see the way.
Part Two - The Olympus Pen Half Frame Camera
At least a year before I picked up the Yashica Mat camera I began using an Olympus Pen S camera which is known as a half frame film camera. That means instead of getting 36 exposures on a roll of 35mm film you got 72 exposures in a vertical format. The all mechanical camera with no meter is tiny for a camera that uses 35mm film and is perfect for street photography while going unnoticed.
I didn't dwell on it anywhere near as much as I have later with the Yashica Mat but it still bothered me because I love film and I loved what could be done with this camera. There are over a dozen different Olympus Pen half frame models that could still be found today but if I were to do it again I would go with the larger Olympus Pen FT with changeable lenses, a light meter and is easier to fix. But of course that comes with a higher price tag when compared to the tiny "S" model.
I don't know if I would ever pursue this project again because realistically I no longer consider myself a street photographer and this camera wouldn't be right for my more portrait oriented photography of the Yashica medium format. I believe my days of chasing people around the streets, subways and alleys is over especially in todays gentrified homogenized city. I would like to use the word never but theres always a chance no matter how slim that I'll change my mind.
In the end I don't know if I'll ever make peace not being able to continuing these two portfolios I know that problems with old cameras can happen at anytime but I learned the lessons of never buying one on Ebay and yes with more money a lot of those camera problems can go away. Even by some miracle I can resume using film the problems of those past cameras will always be on my mind. As one aging photographer told me "always buy two of any old camera that you like". The logic being that you can use one while the other is being fixed. With writing all this out I thought some of the anger and regret would dissipate but in reality it's only complicated the issue by me spending more time thinking of ways to make the return to film possible.