What is a camera’s purpose? Is it to record what we see? Or is it to record what we don’t see? Is it meant to reflect reality or to abstract it?
Most people who point a camera toward a subject expect a realistic representational photo. And while we often believe the results to be representational, rarely are they a representation of what we, as humans, experienced. Our biology simply cannot resolve as much detail as today’s digital sensors. Nor can our gummy little orbs see as wide, as far, or as deep as lens choices permit. Firmware enables us to further fine-tune that rendering to peer into shadows, extract detail from highlights and, in general, enhance an image in whatever way pleases us. Today’s cameras do not record reality — they record hyperreality.
That’s not to imply yesterday’s film cameras were any more reality-focussed than today’s digital cameras — they just skewed more toward the surreal side of the reality spectrum.
I’ve never had much interest in hyperreality — it’s a concept somewhat at odds with my predilection for dream logic, metaphor, and my notion that photographs should be poetry: an implied art form, rather than an explicit one.
Every time I release the shutter, my goal is to create an abstraction of reality. And since every camera, lens, and software choice abstracts reality in a different way, I have come to think of cameras more like paint brushes than image recorders.
Every brush has its signature. Every pen; every pencil; every bit of chalk, charcoal or crayon has a similar purpose, but produces a radically different result. The way you hold it; the ergonomics of using it; its limitations and quirks — all affect your approach to image creation, and thus, the image itself.
In the past decade, half-frame cameras have become one of my preferred drawing implements. More akin to the coarseness of a lump of charcoal than the nuanced control of a sable hair brush, half-frame cameras record an impression rather than a description. They are ‘sketch cameras.’
During my 2015 visit to Tokyo, I stumbled upon a cabinet full of Ricoh Auto-Halfs in an underground consignment shop. In many ways, the Auto-Half is the quirkier, cuter cousin to my Olympus Pen EE. It features a lens that’s slightly wider (25mm vs 28mm) and slightly faster (f/2.8 vs. f/3.5), yet the camera somehow manages to be about 20% smaller. But what really captivated my imagination was a big knob on the bottom, marked “W.”
Pretty much every mechanical film camera has a rewind knob, but the Ricoh Auto-Half has two knobs — one a rewind knob (“R”) and one a wind knob (“W”). Yes, this is a wind-up camera.
In case you’re wondering why anyone would want to wind-up a camera, think “poor man’s motor drive.” Wind-up the Ricoh, take a shot, and a spring automatically advances the film to the next frame. Crank that knob enough times, and your film will auto-advance for the next twenty or more shots.
There, beneath the streets of Shinjuku, I fell in love with the Ricoh Auto-Half in that wholly unnatural, embarrassingly lustful way in which grown men sometimes develop an irrational infatuation with gadgets. I absolutely had to have one.
Ricoh, as best I can tell, made several trillion of these back in the 1960’s. And while everyone in Japan must have a half-dozen buried in a drawer, they never seemed to catch on in North America. So I knew, if I was ever going to score a good one, I’d have to do it in Japan.
Alas, after spending over an hour digging through that pile of Auto-Halfs, neither myself nor the shopkeeper could locate a single working version. Several days later, I did find a rather expensive, collectible, gold-plated model in a much classier shop. But I just couldn’t see myself walking around Vancouver with that thing blinging up and down the sidewalks, so I left Tokyo without buying a Ricoh Auto-Half.
On my return to Tokyo in 2018, one of my very first visits was to that same underground camera shop. As I’d hoped, its cabinets were bulging with a ‘fresh’ new pile of Auto-Halfs. I rolled up my sleeves, fired up Google Translate, and used it to coerce the shopkeeper into rolling up his. The dig was on.
Fifteen minutes later, we had found not one, but two mechanically functioning cameras. One was dashingly adorned with a checkered flag pattern and some little race car graphics; the other was plain ol’ silver. Possessing, as I do, a rather minimalist design sensibility, the choice was an easy one. I handed over a few yen, popped in some film, wound up the camera and hit the street with my little silver Ricoh.
One thing I couldn’t test in the shop was the selenium cell meter. Because they gradually deteriorate with age (and particularly with exposure to light), I immediately rejected any camera without an attached lens and photocell cover. While the cover’s presence doesn’t guarantee that the previous owner had actually used it, its absence guarantees they didn’t. So my first order of business was to buy one of those ubiquitous rolls of inexpensive Fuji color negative film that seem to be all over Tokyo, shoot some tests, then get prints made at one of the equally ubiquitous photo labs. To my delight, the meter worked flawlessly.
Had it not worked, I could have theoretically resorted to the camera’s manual exposure mode. But without access to a portable electron microscope, I’d never be able to resolve the tiny aperture legend on the top dial. Even after I got the camera home, and with a jewellers’ loupe stuck to my eye, I still couldn’t read the tiny text. Suffice to say, unless your vision really is as hyperreal as a digital camera, the manual exposure setting on this camera is utterly useless. So too is the fixed and rather languid 1/30s shutter speed when it’s engaged. Auto exposure uses a snappier 1/125s shutter speed.
Also barely visible, is the frame counter on the bottom of the camera. Happily, it’s bigger than the aperture text, so anyone choosing to shoot this camera in public can always introduce themselves to the nearest teenager, and politely ask them to read the counter.
Framelines in the viewfinder are suggestive at best, and barrel distortion is quite pronounced. The shutter (located on the front of the camera) is silent, but the auto-wind is not. Fortunately, the camera takes a photo when you press down on the shutter release, but doesn’t advance until you release it. I quickly learned to grab a shot, keep the shutter release held down, then walk away to advance the film.
With its fixed focus lens, The Ricoh has a minimum focus distance of 1.5m (5 feet). Anything closer will be rendered in glorious washes of fuzz. Suffice to say, this is not a camera you’ll gravitate toward for portrait work — unless you’re the sort of contrarian who likes sharp backgrounds and bokeh people. Not that backgrounds (or anything else) in this camera are particularly sharp.
What might sound like a whole lot of belly aching is actually me professing my love for the Ricoh Auto-Half. This is the most fun I’ve had shooting a camera since the Widelux first graced my shelves. The half frame format satisfies my low-fidelity leanings and dovetails seamlessly with my frugality. Routinely yielding 77 frames per roll, the Auto-Half frees me to experiment; to take an extra shot or two of a single subject; to risk a shot in spite of improbable odds; and to dabble in a bit of grainy impressionism.
Sketching with film completely alters the way I see, and it redefines what I think makes a photograph. The results are sometimes mysterious, occasionally moody, often fleeting, frequently grungy, and always every bit as hazy as memory itself.
©2019 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THE PHOTOS:
This post features the return of the vBook — that exorbitant consumer of precious time, which I continue to believe is the optimum way to share online photo collections… even if I’m the only one who thinks this. But since the Ricoh Auto-Half is a “sketch camera,” and since sketches sit most comfortably in a sketch book, the vBook seemed the only viable way to effectively convey this camera’s true purpose.
Because the Ricoh has been my constant companion for the past three months, it’s seen many rolls of film pass through it, including Tri-X pulled to ISO 200, Delta 100 pulled to ISO 50, and Delta 100 shot at box speed (all developed in Rodinal 1:50), plus some Fuji Superia 200, shot at box speed and developed in a commercial lab. All make an appearance in the “Diptych Roulette” vBook and in the two additional photos accompanying this post.
The music is the result of a frantic afternoon compose-a-thon, featuring improvised sound design and 1-take performances on numerous synthesizers, including the Novation Peak, DSI/Oberheim OB-6, an obsessively extensive eurorack modular setup, and a sprinkling of software-based instruments.
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