Fickle

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It’s been nine-and-a-half years (mine: Dog years, 51*). Back then I took a deep breath and pledged just south of $1,000 of my credit limit for a Sony F707. My justification was that in 2002 I was going to teach in Peru, Chile, and China and I wanted something more robust than the one-megapixel cameras (with 3X optical zoom) that made up the under-$500 market at that time. Now that I’m about to turn my back on my faithful companion (it is the first of my cameras that ever kept a running count of my exposures, and it’s right around 15,000 now) I have paused to consider my relationship with photography.

The Brownie Box

Sometime around my sixth birthday, a Brownie Target 620 camera was put into my hands. Released by Kodak in mid-1946, the Target 620 was clearly the very direct descendant of the company’s first consumer cameras fifty and more years earlier. As simple as it was – no focusing, two shutter settings and separate viewing windows for portrait or landscape shots – it still demanded thought and restraint to make good photos. (Twenty years later I took a Brownie Hawkeye with me to Rio de Janeiro to help me teach investigative photography for the US Army. The idea [not the Army’s idea] was that if a person can take good photos with the simplest of devices they can then take advantage of the features of more advanced cameras. My brother reminds me that that idea was a theme our father repeated mostly on occasions when we expressed a desire for improved equipment.)

Kodak Brownie Target 620

I haven’t seen any of the photos I took with the Target 620 for years and years. I suspect they’re gone, and I don’t think that much has been lost other than documentation of the playground during recess at the Horace Mann elementary school in Hubbard Woods, Illinois. The family was a little camera-crazy. Our father had used one of the very early Leica rangefinder/viewfinder cameras that I think his father had purchased for him while his family was travelling in Europe. And that whole area of interest probably arose because of my grandfather’s involvement in the newspaper business.

The way it affected me, however, was being entrusted with this clunky box that made me learn things like how far eight feet was, since the fixed-focus lens delivered satisfactory results only at that distance and farther. Which sort of defines the fundamental frustration of the Target 620: The necessary distance from the lens to deliver decent images was also the distance at which objects became too small to see in any detail in the smallish prints delivered from the processor.

There were two aperture settings, normal and bright. If you were in the sun on a beach you pulled up on a small metal tab in the middle of the top of the camera. The tab was the topmost part of a sheet of metal with two holes on it; when you pulled it up, it moved the bigger hole up and put the smaller hole in position behind the lens. Low-light situations were handled by pulling on another metal tab on the side of the camera. This one kept the shutter from closing automatically after the (undetermined) normal exposure duration. With the tab pulled out, the shutter stayed open until you released the shutter release tab. (No buttons, just tabs.)

Hanging out in the darkroom

Before we moved to Wisconsin, I remember my father having a very small darkroom in the basement which provided my introduction to safelights and the smell of acetic acid. My brother and I learned to undertake purposeful activity in total darkness from this experience. Learning to visualize things you knew were there when you couldn’t see them. This was a lot different from the “scary” dark, populated with unknown creatures, it was somehow comforting. To this day I still prefer to navigate the darkened house at night without lights. When my wife is out-of-town the only lights on are “task” lights, one at a time – cooking, eating or reading.

The first house we lived in in Wisconsin didn’t have enough or suitable space for a darkroom, but that was okay because dad had bought a one-third interest in a newspaper and commercial printing operation and my brother and I assumed that meant that we could pretty much have the run of the darkroom there. After a couple of run-ins with the guy who actually ran the darkroom, there was a pretty strict “leave-it-exactly-as-you-found-it” policy established. Which, besides being totally reasonable, probably did us some good, because we had to replenish chemicals and therefore learned about useful lives of chemicals and how to mix them from the industrial-sized containers the newspaper used.

It had side benefits as well. At one point, to keep the presses busy, the commercial printing side of the newspaper took on the printing of a national sunbathers’ magazine which was said to have inspired Hugh Hefner’s publishing ambitions. One of the darkroom assistants kept a stash of men’s magazines (mostly the sunbathers’ magazine) in a drawer in the outer office area. This assisted in developing my appreciation of the female figure. We were treated to early exposure to the Marilyn Monroe calendar pose, an event that made me (as with so many others) an avid follower of her acting career.

Speed Graphic image by Captain Kodak

There were several Speed Graphic 4×5 cameras in the big equipment bins and although I didn’t become adept at using one, we could set them up and manhandle them with some familiarity. Using the flash guns the size of a three-cell flashlight, we got to flash the flash bulbs that were past their expiration date (with the rationalization that they were unreliable and hence unsuited for newspaper work). Flash bulbs were pretty neat the way that the plastic coating would bubble up. One of the usual exercises was to try to break the glass inside the plastic without rupturing the plastic, ending up with something like a little rattle. We even tried out the tilts-and-swings that the view cameras made possible. Apparently it was pretty easy to turn our backs on those features, because I haven’t messed with a view camera since then.

My brother reminds me that one of our early duties in the blacked-out darkroom was loading cut-film holders: Box of film on the left, stack of empty holders to the center, filled holders on the right. Turn the holder so the slide handles were toward you. Pull the slide half-way out. Take a piece of film, holding it so the notches were to the upper right side so they were emulsion-up, slide into the grooves until it seated. Pull the slide all the way out and turn it over so the silver side of the handle, denoting unexposed film, would show, and slide it back in. Turn the little bent pin so the slide would not be pulled out.

My brother built a big darkroom in the basement of our second house in Beloit, and he spent quite a bit of time outfitting it. This was another good learning experience in terms of actually equipping a darkroom, setting up the enlarger so it could project across the room, beginning to understand about focal lengths of enlargers and what impact the lens quality could have on image distortion at high magnifications and so forth. But in terms of utilization, it seemed to me that he got it completed not long before he left for college and it never really got a good workout. In the following years, our father’s uncompleted projects and various bric-a-brac began to stack up on the benches and it became unsuited to its original purpose. Finally, the framework of the light-trap that my brother set up so he could walk in and out without a door was dismantled and it returned to being a junk room. That happened a lot in our basement.

 

The TLR period

My recollection of the early progression through cameras is hazy. My brother had started out with a Brownie Reflex which I envied – it was about one-third the size of the Target 620, among other things. Eventually, I worked with an Argus reflex camera before becoming the beneficiary of my mother’s increasing use of twin-lens reflexes. (She was the only member of the family who stuck with TLR’s. My brother lost a favorite Rollei in his first year at college and then used a Kodak Chevron 2-1/4-square format camera for several years, and I ended up with a large-format camera much later, but we never really were enamoured of the TLR.) In my case, I got to take over my mother’s IKOFLEX, a Zeiss Ikon rip-off of the Rolleiflex; mother, I think, graduated to a Rolleicord and later to a YashicaMat.

IKOFLEX

The IKOFLEX was a clunk; much better images, of course, than the Target 620 and Argus, but relatively difficult to operate and much less “immediate” in its response to photo opportunities than a rangefinder/viewfinder camera. Both my brother and I were experimenting with strobe lights, the self-contained rechargeable replacements for flash guns, and I attached one to the IKOFLEX with a bracket that allowed me to swing the camera around while clutching the tube of the strobe. Made me feel very techie in an era when that word wasn’t known. The 1958 Beloiter (high school yearbook) features a lot of gray and grainy photos produced with this equipment.

At this point, I lusted after an Argus C3. My brother and I began to see the tremendous advantages of the rangefinder/viewfinder approach in terms of following action or simply rapid reaction to photo opportunities. (At the time, my brother was struggling with a Pacemaker Graflex, a smaller brother to the Speed Graphic that was a pain to operate.)  And this led me to an understanding of  the power of buying second-hand. Yagla’s camera store was run by two brothers, and Carl was the one who ran the photographic side of the house. They also sold radios, phonographs(!) and television sets; Yagla’s displayed their new television sets in the display window on East Grand Avenue that we eagerly pressed our noses against.  Despite his love of gadgets, my father didn’t buy a television set until after I left for college so we really did study the assortment on display at Yagla’s.

The Argus C3

True love: The barefoot Vitessa

From somewhere, Carl Yagla had acquired a used Voightlander Vitessa camera. It was a brand completely unknown to me despite faithful readings of Photography magazine, but it was beautifully machined and had an impressive “feel” to its operation. With the camera in its closed state, you pressed the shutter release button half-way down and the bellows mechanism for the lens popped open and extended, and the film-advance plunger popped up and you were ready to shoot. Better still, the film-advance plunger allowed you to advance the film with a single downward stroke (maybe a stroke and a half) of your left index finger – this in an era when film advance was normally accomplished by painfully twirling small knurled knobs. Finally, it had an incredibly fast f 1.8 lens, almost two stops faster than I was used to.

VitessaN

I don’t remember how much Carl was asking for it, but it was competitive with the price of a new C3, and was so much sweeter. It had a lot of the same sort of aura that the iPod or iPhone have today, that is, a feeling that someone who cared designed it and executed it. This is certainly visible if you compare the body of the Vitessa to the body of the C3. One is butt ugly with stuff hanging all over it and the other is smooth with minimized protrusions.

My uncle, Bud Whiteford, had convinced my parents to let me drop out of high school (well, okay, I did take my remaining required course by correspondence from the University of Wisconsin extension school) and accompany him with an anthropological expedition to Queretaro, Mexico. The boondoggle part of this was that I was – supposedly – going to function as “expedition photographer.” And the good part about that was that it made it easy to justify acquiring this wonderful piece of equipment.

There’s always a villain to the piece. (That’s an archaic reference to theatrical melodramas, a genre that requires a villain – I tend to speak in obsolete clichés.) In this case the serpent in the garden (see?) was the film-advance plunger. While sound in concept, the mechanism wasn’t engineered sturdily enough to withstand extended, exuberant plunging. The mechanism was designed to advance the film forward one frame and then lock. This resulted in a very small part receiving the stress of continued pressure on the plunger at the moment the film locked. I suppose some sort of shock absorber might have been designed into the mechanism but it wasn’t. So after a month or two on the job in Mexico, the film advance became unreliable.

The Mexican Interlude – I digress

By this time I had worked my way into the very constrained photographic community in Queretaro. There were two principal photographic retail locations, one in a gallery across the Avenida Corregidora from the zocalo and the other about a block away from the zocalo on Avenida Zaragoza. The first was actually a photographic studio that handled developing and printing as a sideline and was run by a fellow named Ramon, the other a more traditional camera/film/services shop. In both of these places the people were friendly and – each shop in its own way – tried to help in my acclimatization to Mexico and the language.

Ramon, meticulously dressed, employed a young lady who knew nothing about photography as a receptionist. Venturing out with my new-found vocabulary one day, I remarked to Ramon that I thought she was “guapa.” For which I received a lengthy and somewhat stern lecture that held that she was too “European” to be called guapa. He agreed that she was bonita, perhaps even linda but she lacked the necessary indigenous look that he required in order to call a woman guapa. He sorted though portraits to illustrate his point, tossing aside examples of all degrees of feminine beauty.

Another day he noticed that I lowered my eyes while talking with his receptionist. He hauled me out to the end of the arcade and proceeded to demonstrate to me how one should boldly meet the glances of women of all stripes and standing. He advised me that this was not staring, but rather the outward manifestation of a process by which Mexican males examined females to find their positive attributes. That it was quite appropriate to say (or be ready to say), “Ah, grandmother, what beautiful eyes you have,” to an elderly crone. Not objectifying or criticizing but rather appreciating. We had several practice sessions before he felt I was ready to go it alone.

Ramon also tried to teach me the finer points of haggling for merchandise, making me aware that in any of the shops in Queretaro at the time, not just in the mercado, it was expected that prices stated or listed were simply suggestions or starting points and that it was expected that this starting point would be countered with some price lower than the buyer was actually willing to pay. Again, he had me practice in several different retail settings mostly buying loose opals which were carried in shops and in the market because they were mined from the hills around Queretaro. He tried to get me to refuse “final offers” by walking away and then picking up the negotiation again on the following day, but I always found this extremely difficult.

I meet Juan Jose Ruiz Perrusquia – a teacher with unusual methods

The other shop, the one on Avenida Zaragoza, was the domain of Juan Jose Ruiz Perrusquia. Googling his last name brings up a number of links to Perrusquias in the state of Queretaro, the earliest a sculptor from the early nineteenth century. However grand or humble his origins, Juan Jose was the embodiment of the Mexican rogue. Dark hair oiled and combed but never quite tamed, cheeks with three or four days of whiskers to accompany his thick black mustache, dressed in wrinkled shirts and slacks. Always relaxed, Juan Jose leaned with his back against the side of the doorway to his shop and participated in all the comings and goings along the street. His assistant, who did most of the lab work, was Manuel, a rodent-faced man, beardless and dressed in slacks and a t-shirt.

It was in Juan Jose’s shop that I learned Spanish through ridicule. It didn’t take anyone any time at all  to figure out that I barely knew Spanish, but Juan Jose and Manuel found some of my more bizarre pronunciations hilarious and they quickly began finding things for me to read and howled with laughter at my efforts. The good part of this was that once they had enjoyed themselves with a particular word, they proceded to drill me on the correct pronunciation and usage. The sting of ridicule was a pretty strong motivator to learn and was probably responsible for the removal of most of my gringo accent. “Erre con erre cigarro, erre con erre barril, que rapido corren los carros del ferrocarril” cost me several weeks before they declared themselves satisfied.

My name also provided them with many moments of mirth. For openers, “Strong” is not easily pronounced in Spanish because it lacks sufficient vowels. (Eight years later, in Honduras, my students converted my last name to “Astro,” about the best semi-homophone [okay, it’s actually a semi-heterograph] Spanish word that one can find.) It translates well to “Fuerte,” but no one is named Strong in Spanish; it’s an adjective. So it comes out as “Strong Edward.” Having had their laugh about this, they inquired about other names. My middle name, “Carpenter,” became “carpintero,” another laugher, since it isn’t a name in Spanish, it’s the name of an occupation. Now it was “Edward, Strong Carpenter.” When they asked for my mother’s maiden name to add the matronym common in Spanish names, their joy could not have been greater to discover it was “Salmon,” another non-name in Spanish. When the dust settled, they agreed that they would call me “carpintero” which seemed to provide the right amount of irony.

It was at least three months into my stay before I worked up enough courage to ask why I never heard the word “Hoy” spoken even though it was on almost every poster in town. I was of course pronouncing it as a good gringo with the aspirate “h” at the beginning. Told that the “h” made no sound, I quickly recognized the word for “today” that I had been using for quite some time, “oy.” Juan Jose and Manuel collapsed on the floor laughing.  Thanks to this methodology and their efforts, I arrived at college for my freshman year the following September illiterate in Spanish which my instructors found at first strange and then amusing.

Juan Jose also provided me with opportunities to value the finer points of anthropology. One of the benefits of being on the expedition was that I got to sit in on classes taught by my uncle and by the other professor on the expedition, Bill Godfrey, an archaeologist. In preparing us for field work in town, Uncle Bud admonished us to always accept things offered to us graciously, to attempt to swallow with pleasure whatever unknown delicacies we were offered. He offered examples of anthropologists in the field who had been too diffident to accept gifts or eat what was offered and who had then been shut out of the groups they were trying to enter. Since I was the expedition photographer, I was pretty sure I didn’t have to worry about this sort of thing.

“Mi pueblo” – Santa Rosa Jáuregui

Of course, within a few days of that lecture Juan Jose invited me to accompany him to visit “his town” where he had grown up and where his mother had been born, Santa Rosa, about 12 miles to the north.  I never have been adventuresome: Watching my brother take any and all dares and lead his friends in what I thought were daredevil exercises pretty well scared that out of me. Where he delighted in terrifying my mother with his antics, I listened to her admonishments and overly-protective instructions. So I was a momma’s boy, never venturing very far from the beaten path. So Juan Jose presented me with an offer that aroused a whole list of potential catastrophes. Outside of his small store – where his tactics for teaching Spanish were not particularly progressive – I really knew nothing about him. I did know that he drove a battered yellow Opel sedan that seemed to be burning oil and would probably be our mode of transport. If he drove the way he taught Spanish, it seemed likely that he would drive on the edge of a precipice just to watch my discomfort.

He added to the invitation that we would have lunch in Santa Rosa. Which added dysentery to the list of almost certain disasters.  With Uncle Bud’s lecture on field work echoing in the back of my head, I accepted – with considerable dread – the invitation for the following day.

The Opel was in marginal mechanical condition; the shock absorbers had long ago given up their attempt to smooth the ride and the car would bottom out easily and the windows rattled in their channels. The brakes appeared to be in good condition although I couldn’t tell how much pressure it took to activate them. (One of the most pleasing-sounding Spanish words I ever learned – amortiguador [shock absorber] – came from this trip.) Santa Rosa at that time was mostly the town square with an imposing, unfinished church on the west side, situated on its own small plaza. My uncle’s family and I had passed Santa Rosa on the PanAmerican Highway several times, and it was this huge church with its stone unplastered and its spires unfinished that dominated the view of the altiplano. Juan Jose, although Catholic, resented the economic drain that the construction of the church caused the little town.

In 1966 on a trip by road from Panama to the US I discovered the comic series “Los Supermachos,” by the Mexican artist/cartoonist Rius. While the whole history of the Supermachos is entertaining and worth pursuing, the point here is that the action takes place in a town called San Garabato and whenever I read the series, San Garabato and Santa Rosa seem interchangeable. Both were populated by campesinos in their white pajama-like clothing, their wives wrapped in blue-and-black rebozos, by “beatas” (blessed ones) in severe black clothing clutching rosaries, the occasional indian in cast-off clothing and a few overbearing people in European dress (Juan Jose was nominated for this role). “Modern” life hadn’t reached Santa Rosa just as it hadn’t reached San Garabato.

I survived the day (although later I was struck with amoebic dysentery, perhaps related to this luncheon). We ate at one of the charcoal braziers set up at the edge of the sidewalk across from the town square, buying tortillas from one woman, roasted goat meat from another. The braziers were constructed from strips of metal recovered from 5-gallon tins of olive oil. The thin metal strips were folded over, bent into shape and then riveted. The tins were also put to use for carrying and storing water. It was with water from one of these tins that the bartender in an adjacent cantina rinsed the two mismatched glasses in which we were served pulque to accompany our meal. I watched with misgivings as the glasses were brought from the bar to the small sidewalk table where we were seated. The glasses bore the clear imprint of the bartender’s fingers on their oily surfaces. I replayed all the circa-1958 warnings in my mind – drink no water from taps, eat nothing washed with anything other than bottled water, no vegetables. When you stop to think about it, I was in pretty good shape: No vegetables were included and the water came from an open water trough at the end of the square, no taps involved. I tried – I think I tried hard – to accept my host’s hospitality with grace and – almost – enthusiasm, as Bud would have wanted me to. I suspect that inside, Juan Jose was struggling to keep a straight face as he put the young gringo to the test.

Instructions for a serenade

Juan Jose and Manuel found out that I had met and gone to a party with a girl from the city, a Queretana. I remember little about this relationship, probably because I had begun to spend a lot of time with a girl from the expedition, a junior majoring in anthropology, and this occupied most of my free time. I do remember that I slipped up at the party and addressed the Queretana with the personal “tu.” I spent a long time – blushing beet red – excusing myself for my impoliteness. (There had been a lecture about observing the formalities of the culture, and that Queretaro at the time was very reserved and proper. One did not respond to someone who called for your attention with a Como or a Que cosa. The correct form in Queretaro was Mande usted.) But the very real reason for my being so put out at my mistake was that I had no command of the personal form of verbs, so if I was invited to use that form of address I would be tongue-tied.

Juan Jose’s ultimate lesson was to teach me the proper form of the Mexican serenata. He and Manuel thought that it was a good idea, a very good idea, a splendid idea, that I should offer my Queretana a serenade. The classic serenade, moonlight over the balcony, music playing in the background, the young man’s plaintive voice ringing clearly. The two of them would introduce me to the subtleties of the serenade themselves at no cost – beyond the reasonable direct expenses – because, they said, it would give them great pleasure to do so.

And so it was, on a soft spring night of 1958, that a 17-year-old gringo capable of totally mangling Spanish (but without an accent!) arrived with his two Mexican buddies outside a cantina named La Amatralladora, The Machinegun. (My uncle, hearing the name, made a point of driving by the bar because he loved the name.) We entered, and  Juan Jose told me that it was of extreme importance that one should “feel good with the music” before commencing on a serenade. This was to be achieved in two ways. First, there was the question of which of two available Mariachi bands we (I) should contract to provide the background music for the event and, second, there was the issue of tequila. There was a quantity of tequila, Juan Jose said, that allowed one to feel good with his music but that quantity might vary with the person or the evening or several other factors. One never knew, he said, what the quantity was until one embarked upon the evening. But one would know when the moment arrived. The important thing was to begin.

And so we began.   We hit a snag right away. The midwestern teenager had no idea what tequila tasted like and no conception that there might be a proper way to drink it. Juan Jose and Manuel removed these barriers to the night’s progress efficiently. A bottle of tequila, three shot glasses, a plate of limes and a shaker of salt arrived and the lesson began. Once explained, the three-step process of tequila-lime-salt is easy to master, although Juan Jose felt I could execute the salt part with a little more style. It seemed to be about forming a slight hollow between the thumb and the first finger by stretching the thumb away from the hand, filling the hollow with salt before the drink was taken and then tossing the salt into the mouth after biting the lime. After the first trials, the tensions of the evening seemed to ease. What was I worried about?

Not the Amatralladora, but comparable: El Magueycito, the little maguey (cactus) on Avenida Corregidora close to the train station. The flag ("Pulque fino") indicates fresh pulque.

We sat and drank and talked. Girls from the cantina joined us, sat at our table for a bit, and wandered off. One of them combed the hair on my forearm with her fingernails; it hadn’t ocurred to me that straight hair on forearms was exotic, but she apparently found it so. Which I found very disturbing after a while. Music played on the juke box in the corner. We sat and drank and talked. I was feeling pretty far beyond my depth when Juan Jose asked, “Now, are you good with the music?” Sensing that the only way to get my forearm back was to say yes, I did so.

Our next task was to audition the mariachis, which involved finding them. The mariachis of this barrio wandered the gathering places and played requests, so all we had to do was stand outside and listen for music and make our way to their location. Stepping outside, we heard music coming from two or three doors down the street. We went and listened. Again, I had no idea of how one calibrated mariachi bands, but this one sounded pretty adequate to me. Juan Jose conferred with someone leaning against the doorway and announced that the other group had decided to go across town to see if things were livelier elsewhere, so the group we had just listened to would be more than adequate. He did the explaining and the negotiating and I handed over the fee. The mariachis – a violin, two guitars, a guitarron and a trumpet – followed the three of us as we walked towards the Queretana’s house. The trumpet player had agreed to sing but not play in the residential area.

Calle 21 de Marzo just east of the intersection with Dr. Lucio, looking towards Av. Zaragoza. Dome of St. Augustin in the background. 1958

There is a part of the arrangement of this serenade that I don’t recall. Her house (on the east side of the street close to the intersection of Calle Dr. Lucio and Calle 21 de Mayo) was laid out with the principal room at the front next to the main portal, large double doors with a smaller door in one of them; the family automobile was kept inside the double doors. The sleeping quarters faced onto an inner courtyard quite isolated from the street. How a serenade is announced in this situation is a bit difficult. The classic serenade should begin spontaneously, with the melodious voice of the singer awakening the sleeping woman. But in this specific instance, the singing would have had to be loud enough to wake the entire neighborhood in order to reach the inner courtyard of her house.  In this case, I believe someone had been alerted to the impending musical onslaught. Perhaps a grandmother. When we arrived, a light tap on the shutter of the sala got a whispered reply and a couple of minutes later we were signalled that the principals were in place.

What follows is not doubt about what happened, but a blank spot in memory. I am convinced I sang – at least one song – but I have no idea what I sang. An additional song was played – I suppose – but certainly no more than two. I did not walk away that evening full of swagger and pride at having done well – I don’t think – but I think my performance was adequate in the circumstances. It was over, and I found my way – somehow – back to my uncle and aunt’s rented house, the Quinta Maria Antonia, where Juan Molina, a Colombian member of the expedition, and I shared the family room/bar as our bedroom. The rest is silence.

The SLR era begins for me

Expedition photographer or not, my involvement with photography made the stay in Mexico memorable and provided many benefits including an unexpected facility with the Spanish language that would never have been awakened in the classroom. Juan Jose had one more part to play. The Voightlander seized up on me and the chances of getting it repaired at all anywhere in Mexico were slim, much less getting it done quickly. Bud had cameras I could borrow temporarily, but I needed to find a way to replace the broken camera.

In the glass display case in his shop, Juan Jose displayed cameras that he offered for sale. The majority of these were inexpensive Kodak cameras of the Hawkeye variety that sold for about double what their price was in the US after the peso conversion was taken into account. Of all the cameras that he had, there was only one off in the corner that seemed to be a serious contender as my replacement for the Voightlander. Like the Voightlander, it was a camera that I wasn’t familiar with as I considered it, and I was a little dubious. Here I was in Mexico trying to seriously consider (at the height of the Cold War) a camera designed and made in East Germany. Less graceful than the Vitessa, it was a single-lens reflex, a camera type I had experience with only through my brother’s experience with the Kodak Chevron, which was a larger format (620) camera and therefore physically a lot larger than this 35 mm camera.

 

 

Juan Jose was asking 12,500 pesos for the camera and I had no idea whether this was a good deal or not. I did know I couldn’t afford it at that price and I had misgivings about its durability and even how it had found its way into Juan Jose’s showcase. In a conversation by phone with my father (I think I placed one call to my parents from Mexico, and the only call they made to Mexico was to tell me that I had been accepted at my first-choice university) I asked for his opinion and he reminded me that quality cameras had been coming out of Germany since he had visited there more than 25 years before.
Remembering the lessons in bargaining that Ramon had given me, I began what seemed an interminable negotiation on price with Juan Jose. My first counter-offer was for 4,000 pesos; this was laughed off, and he countered with 9,000. Over the next two days I visited the shop morning and afternoon and each time Juan Jose took the camera out of the showcase and I took it out of its case, opened it, unscrewed the lens (a novelty for me – all my cameras had had non-interchangeable lenses), observed the action of the focal-plane shutter (another novelty). And on each visit I made another offer and Juan Jose would make a counter offer. We would then close up the camera, put it back in its case and return it to the showcase. We would shake hands and I would wander off down the street. It was totally strange behavior for me with my North American buying background and the delayed gratification caused real agony.
On the third morning, the ritual was repeated again. This time, feeling a sort of despair since I had established a $50 (6,250 peso) limit that Juan Jose had turned down, I offered 7,000 pesos. With a sinking heart I helped Juan Jose replace the camera in the showcase as he repeated his offer of the previous afternoon, 7,500 pesos. Some things are not meant to be. I squared my shoulders and walked out of the store.
I was about 20 yards down the street when I heard Juan Jose call out “Ey, carpintero!” I turned and saw him standing on the sidewalk, grinning and swinging the camera from its strap. “Es tuyo,” he said.

It was mine. And it would remain my camera for the next five years.

The Practika FX five years later: At home between Fort Holabird, Md., and Fort Gulick, Canal Zone, May 1963

 

 

Which makes this a good place to interrupt
this narrative –
the next installment, the Army years,
should appear soon.

* I originally converted 9-1/2 years as 85 dog years, but the result didn’t look right. According to onlineconversion.com’s dog years converter, one counts 10-1/2 dog years for the first two years of dog life, and then four years per year of dog life thereafter. Hence the current value of 51 dog years.

 

 

One comment on “Fickle

  1. jonballphoto
    January 30, 2010 at 11:42 pm #

    Loved the post. Great writing and fun to follow. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Jon Ball

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