Wednesday, January 24, 2018


THE THING YOU HAVE TO REMEMBER ABOUT FILM PHOTOGRAPHY IN ITS FINAL DECADE OR TWO was that it hadn't seen any really major technological change since the '50s or early '60s. Film emulsions had gotten faster and autofocus lenses would become standard on 35mm SLRs, but a working photographer could - and did - continue using cameras bought at the beginning of their careers or built before they were born without losing any competitive edge.

I don't know precisely when I bought my first Rolleiflex, but it was somewhere around the turn of the '90s, when I got tired of the limitations in the primitive parallax correction system in my Mamiya C330, the first medium format camera I owned. The Rollei was a more elegant, compact piece of equipment, and it was much used by everyone I admired, from Cecil Beaton and Irving Penn to Richard Avedon and David Bailey.

I was also a committed Luddite in that first real decade of digital technology, home computers and the early internet, holding back the tide of transformation as long as I could in my studio full of gramophones and old records, vintage tailored suits, antiques, rotary dial phones and cast iron typewriters. It was a lifestyle I could manage as long as Macintosh computer systems for digital imaging cost as much as a new car and the first really usable digital cameras were somewhere on the other side of 9/11.

Helena Bonham Carter, Toronto, Jan. 1996
Robert Altman, Toronto, Sept. 1990

I had three Rolleis briefly, but my mainstay portrait cameras for most of the '90s were a pair of 75mm/3.5 models - a Schneider-Kreuznach Xenotar and a Zeiss Planar. They made their home in a very sturdy Pelican case with their lens hoods and a collection of bayonet filters, a Sekonic light meter and a cable release. Along with a lightweight Manfrotto tripod, they went with me into nearly every hotel room portrait session during that decade.

Most of my best portraits were taken with the Rolleis, either locked off on the tripod with a cable release or held close to my subject in a patch of nice window light. Working with the waist-level finder, with its dark, vignetted focusing screen and left-to-right reversed image, became second nature. The Rolleis were my babies, my comfort zone, my weapon of choice.

Their one major flaw was a minimum focusing distance of around three and a half feet, but that could be overcome with a close-up set - a pair of bayonet mount lenses, one for the taking lens and one with parallax correction for the viewing lens. If Irving Penn didn't have a problem with the slight distortion they created (very visible in my portrait of Robert Altman, above) then I wasn't going to complain, and I made them part of my shooting style.

If my Bronica SQ studio camera was a precision instrument, the Rolleis were like paintbrushes, and I always felt much more creative with them. They inspired me to do outlandish things, like the year or two I spent shooting a favorite local band with them, eschewing the fast shutter speeds and telephoto lenses most concert photographers favour for wild blurs and multiple exposures on the big, square negative of the Rollei.

Pure, Toronto, Oct. 1990

Most of all, I adored the square format of the Rollei, and found composing in it intuitive and satisfying. I didn't really feel at home with digital cameras until very recently, when I switched to the Fuji X series, which allows me to frame and shoot in the 1:1 ratio of the Rollei. I'll even use the tilting rear LCD screen on my Fujis like a waist-level viewfinder, swinging them around like the Rollei when I'm doing candids and street photography.

When editorial portraiture hit the rocks at the end of the '90s, I turned to my Rolleis for comfort, taking them out into the parks and streets and in my luggage when I traveled. Without a studio or steady clients, I went back to groping for that elusive image of the world I'd had in my mind's eye ever since my mom bought me a Kodak Instamatic for Christmas, long before I ever imagined anyone made a living taking photos.

High Park, Toronto, 1999
Hotel Place Bonaventure, Montreal, 2000

It goes without saying that I could never part with my pair of Rolleis after all we've been through together, and they still reside in their Pelican case, as if waiting for me to take them along the next hotel room portrait session.

I did dust off my "A" Rollei - the Xenotar - last year and took it along to my portrait shoot with the legendary conga player Candido Camero. It seemed appropriate - this was the sort of camera you'd have used to take his portrait back when he played with Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey and Stan Kenton.

To my dismay, I found it awkward to use - dim and difficult to focus and even counterintuitive. I had, in the decade-plus since I last ran a roll of film through it, lost the knack of the camera. The shoot was a success, but I still felt depressed when I got home and unloaded the Rollei. I felt like I had somehow let an old friend down.

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