Rolleiflex Redux

Digital technology has revolutionised the way that people approach photography in the last decade or so. Millions of people who would probably have never bothered with the faff of physical film now click away with careless abandon, increasingly using applications such as Instagram to give their photographs a more retro feel. In the last couple of months, we have enjoyed rediscovering a more traditional approach to photography with an antique camera that my husband was given by his grandfather.

The camera is a Rolleiflex twin lens reflex (TLR), made between 1939 and 1941 in Germany, so carries the letters DRP (“Deutches Reichs Patent”) on the front. It is satisfyingly mechanical – more clicks and gears than beeps and microchips – and beautifully designed in its own right.

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My husband’s grandfather bought the camera in around 1946, and from family photos it would seem to have been well used in the fifties and sixties. My husband was given the camera when he was young, but although he enjoyed the unusual perspective that one saw looking through the viewfinder and the satisfying sound that the shutter made, it wasn’t used for taking photographs and mostly languished unused in a cupboard.

More than a decade later, we find Vietnam awash with vintage camera enthusiasts, so we brought the camera back to Hanoi to see if we were able to have it fixed. Our friends Hiep and Tuan took us to a camera expert called Mr Phuong. Mr Phuong’s workshop is a trove of vintage cameras and spare parts, and he took just two days to get the camera working again, even though he told us that in more than fifty years of fixing cameras, he had only seen two of this model – the last had been brought to him by a foreign photographer in 1962.

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So with the newly restored camera, we started taking photographs, with the benefit of advice from Mr Phuong and Tuan. It is easy to find the medium format film here in Vietnam, and there is a café called Zone 5 near Bay Mau Lake where we can have the photos developed and put onto a USB – an odd combination of the mechanical and digital, but a very practical solution.

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The manual settings take some getting used to as does having to wait for a few days to see how a photo turns out. With just twelve exposures on each film, one tends not to snap away as readily as with digital. But the results so far have mostly been satisfying. The texture seems much richer, and the depth of field gives dramatic results. We’ve used both colour and black and white and it’s been interesting to see how much different types of film differ. The photos below are a selection from France, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia over the last ten weeks or so.

In an era when life moves so quickly, it’s nice to slow down a bit. The camera is at least seventy one years old and still going strong – not a bad record compared to several digital cameras which have died on me after just a couple of years.

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