House of Fleas
It was only March and Florida was already starting to turn up the heat and humidity. It was 10:30 in the morning and I was starting to sweat as we moseyed around the dirty flea market. This is one of my husband’s favorite places to hunt for treasure. Sometimes I could get into it too, you know, feel the thrill of the hunt, but today I wasn’t feeling it. It was too hot…and smelly. Today no matter where I looked, I couldn’t see any potential, only trash. My thoughts wandered to the future. Less than a month and we’d be in New York touristing it up – in sweater weather if I was lucky.
When I returned to the present, thanks to an almost cute, crooked little black and white chihuahua dog who was strolling across his owner’s table (and merchandise), I realized my husband had disappeared. I kept on walking, he would show up eventually. One muggy eternity later, I caught sight of his face heading towards me through the crowd, smiling. “Great,” I thought, “he’s spent all our cash.” As he came closer into view, I saw he was holding an old camera, a Konica C35 AF, to be exact.
I couldn’t deny that it was a pretty little camera. Truth be told, its vintage charm won me over in about 30 seconds flat, making me forget (at least for the moment) the heat, the smell of everyone sweating and the spent cash. “I got it for you. You can try it out in New York if you want! It was only five dollars,” he grinned. “Did you know? This was the world’s very first autofocus camera!” He eagerly showed me the blog posts and forums he had found – and I read on as we walked back to the car. My mood was lifting, his enthusiasm was contagious.
Turns out, the Konica C35 was launched in 1977 and was the very first production autofocus camera in the world. Specs are as follows:
Dimensions: 132 x 76 x 54 mm
Weight: 375 grams
Batteries: 2 AA
Lens: Hexanon 38mm f/2.8, 4 elements in 3 groups
Shutter: Programmed Leaf shutter with 3 speeds: 1/60s, 1/125s & 1/250s
Exposure: Fully automatic, 25-400ASA
Sensitivity: EV 9 – EV 17 with 100 asa film
Flash: GN14 (Exposure determined by range measured by AF system)
Film Winding: Manual lever wind with rewind crank
The Konica C35 AF was equipped with the Visitronic autofocus system, which was developed by Honeywell. According to Petapixel, Leica invented the system but thought their users knew how to focus manually and preferred to. Besides, at the time the idea of autofocus was, in many photographers’ minds, a horrendous degeneration of photography so Leica sold the rights to Minolta. However, in an interesting turn of events, the early 90s saw a patent dispute and Minolta’s system was found to infringe on Honeywell’s. So I drew the only logical conclusion. This little Konica C35 AF was essentially equipped with Leica technology. Ok, maybe that was a stretch, but it did mean she wasn’t just a pretty face. She had some substance and history to her too. I was starting to think this was the perfect camera for our trip. “But does it work?” I asked tentatively. “I’m not sure, but it definitely seems like it,” he replied.
We took her home, cleaned her up, and it appeared that everything was working, except the flash. No big deal, I was already too excited about this “70s Konica takes on New York City” project to turn back now. So next item on the checklist – film. I hadn’t shot film since I was a kid, and the last time I did was on a cheap, wind-up, disposable camera. See exhibit A for an attempt at a street shot taken on a disposable camera, circa 2003:
So film, I had some investigating to do. I read a bunch of articles about different kinds of film, compared B&W and color. Black & white Ilford HP5+ 400 film was gorgeous but ultimately, I decided to go with color film. Kodak Portra, Lomography Color, oh the choices! There was only one small problem. For some reason still unknown to me, nobody is fast shipping color film on Amazon Prime and sadly, without even a full week to spare, there was no time to purchase those beautiful rolls of potential. I was forced to see what selection my local CVS carried. I ended up purchasing a roll of Kodak UltraMax 400 (35mm) with 32 exposures. Because, you know, it’s ultra…and max. Slightly disappointed, I thought, “Oh well, this is an experimental camera, anyway. If it turns out to be a keeper, then I can shoot a roll of Portra later.” Camera loaded, my husband and I took turns shooting a few images around the house, to see if everything was in working order. It seemed to be. That left me with 28 frames for the trip. I felt a new sense of purpose. We planned on spending most of our time walking around and taking photographs, but now I had a mission – and a limited number of opportunities.
The 70s Konica and I Take on NYC
Our first day out in NYC, I noticed something right away. I felt much more present shooting film. Street photography in general makes me more mindful, but there is something unique about shooting with film vs digital or even mobile. There was no instant review of what I shot, no second shots to improve on the first. I felt like I chose each scene much more carefully. I spent more time thinking out the lighting, composition and subjects before I shot.
I remembered the people and places I shot as the week went on. I thought, “I can’t wait to see how that shot on the Brooklyn Bridge turned out with the Asian couple taking a selfie. It was the sweetest selfie I’d seen and the light was beautiful. I hope I captured the dramatic arches contrasting with the muted tones at the MET. I hope it looks like it made me feel. I hope that shot of the flatiron building looks so timeless you can’t tell if it’s 2017 or 1950.” Each frame became a memory. I cemented each image in my mind by choosing it purposefully and imagining how it would ultimately turn out.
We wandered the city for three days straight, walking and walking (in coat weather, to our happy surprise). My husband shot multiple images at each scene, getting to know his new Nikon D850, and me, well, I spent more time observing than shooting and only shot when a scene really meant something to me. In between, I took shots here and there with my iPhone, just in case something went awry with the Konica. Plus, I was interested to see if my camera choice affected the style of images I shot.
In what was less than a week’s time, we saw as much of the city as possible on foot and by subway train. In no particular order:
We walked the length of the Brooklyn Bridge, wading through a sea of tourists, reading the notes written on the guardrails, purchasing gaudy NYC souvenirs and pointing our cameras at people Gilden-style (minus the flash – mine didn’t work remember?) since people pointing cameras were literally everywhere.
We spent hours in the MET, admiring the wealth of history, the architectural design of the building itself and some pretty wonderful street photography exhibits. We shared some $10 chicken tenders and I mused on how little I really know at lunchtime. I took a shot with the Konica of people admiring Greek statues where the sunlight poured in and created patterns on their faces and another of people warily examining a thoroughly creepy rooftop exhibit called, “We Come in Peace” by Huma Bhabha.
We sat in a park in Chinatown and listened to some locals play traditional Chinese music right before we waited in line to grab a cheap yet delicious dinner at the ever popular Wo Hop and then explored the plazas before dusk when the longest shadows were cast around the city.
We ran into Louis Mendes and a couple of his students and chatted about his jumbo Speed Graphic camera, making money doing portraiture on the streets, his mentoring program and how he started shooting the streets. He said with a wily grin on that last point, “To meet women!” Although, I’d be willing to bet he simply enjoyed what he does, making photographs and interacting with people in general, and the women were just a fortunate perk of his profession. We had to decline his $30 portrait since we were running on broke that last day of our trip, but he let us take his portrait right there, just down the street from the Brooklyn Bridge Park.
It was one of my favorite trips to New York, in part thanks to the effect the Konica had on my way of observing. Alas, after a few days it was time to return home and catch back up on “normal life activities.” And in the hustle and bustle that followed, I forgot about my roll of film.
The Ghost Cat
A few months later, Bob asked me, “When are you ever going to get that film developed?” He recommended a developing company called mpix. He was right, what was I still waiting for? So I ordered up some shipping envelopes and sent off my film. My excitement grew each day as I anticipated the final reveal of the images I had taken. The instructions said in only 1-3 days, I would be able to browse my developed images online and order prints, digital or physical. One day passed, three days passed, four days passed and I started to worry. What if the film got lost in the mail? Our mail lady always delivers other people’s mail to our home, maybe she accidentally tossed it in someone’s mailbox on the other side of town? Patience, I told myself, patience. In a few more days, if I don’t hear anything, I’ll contact the company.
On day five, I woke up, grabbed my phone and saw an email from mpix. Finally! I opened it up and it read like this:
Good morning. We received your film mailer. However, the film we received was blank. We have filed this film here at the lab. Would you like for us to dispose of the film for you?
I sat in silence for a moment. I didn’t even have a chance to mourn my loss and Kevin here already wants to “dispose of the film” for me. I would reply later. I couldn’t bring myself to authorize disposal just yet.
As the day moved on, I thought about my all time favorite movie, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. (Spoiler alert! I’m about to reveal some important scenes in this movie – though, can you really spoil a movie that came out five years ago? Just sayin’.) Walter is trekking through the Himalayan mountains in ungoverned Afghanistan, in an attempt to locate his favorite photographer and role model, Sean O’Connell so he can find a lost negative, which contains the cover image for the last physical image of LIFE magazine. When he finally finds him, he’s all bundled up sitting behind a tripod. Walter sits down next to him, breathless, and Sean tells him there’s a snow leopard on the ridge across from them. They’re called “ghost cats” because they never let themselves be seen, Sean explains.
Walter, distracted, says, “Sean, there was a negative that got separated from your roll. I’m taking a lot of heat over it at work. It never came with the roll that you sent.”
Sean: “Number 25? Yeah, it’s in the wallet I sent you, I put it in the picture slot – that was the gift. The wallet was just something to put it in. You’ve got a real nice surprise coming.”
Walter: “No, I don’t have it anymore. I chucked it.” Walter had thrown out the wallet in a moment of frustration after coming to another dead end in his search for Sean.
Sean: “So you have no idea what it was? The photograph? It’s a shame. It was a beauty.”
Enter the ghost cat. The snow leopard walks right into Sean’s frame. But he doesn’t take the shot.
Walter, whispering: “When are you gonna take it?”
Sean: “Sometimes I don’t. If I like a moment, I mean me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it. Right there. Right here…Now it’s gone.”
They both sit in silence for a moment pondering that thought.
Walter: “What was number 25? What was the picture Sean?”
Sean: “Let’s just call it a ghost cat, Walter Mitty.”
At the end of the day, I sighed, sat down on my bed and wrote back to mpix:
“Aw man! I was trying out an old flea market camera…Ok sure, go ahead and dispose of it.”
Those words didn’t reflect my sentiments at all. Kevin had no idea what the trip and the Konica were about. Soon, he would dispose of a whole roll of ghost cats. Every one of those captured moments in fact, weren’t captured at all. In true ghost cat fashion, they’ll never let themselves be seen. But I witnessed them and I’ll carry each of those moments with me from now on.
In the end, the Konica gave me something. It wasn’t anything tangible, but it was valuable nonetheless. No, I don’t have any physical images from the trip, but the Konica taught me to see differently. It taught me to be even more present. And it gave me 28 memories that are mine and mine alone.
Note: All images in this article were taken on my iPhone 7, except for the portrait of Louis Mendes and this portrait of me sitting where Walter Mitty once sat examining Sean O’Connell’s images, which were taken by my husband on his Nikon D850.