THE CAMERAS WE USED
When Jim Houghton and I began our photo studio in New York back in 1965, we had to do it on not much more than a shoestring. So we made use of whatever cameras we owned between us — not necessarily the best ones for whatever assignments we could get. Jim contributed his Leica M2 and a Mamiyaflex TLR. I threw in my well-used Canon 35mm SLR, a Mamiya 6x9 press camera, an ancient 4x5 Linhof and an utterly useless Nikonos underwater job. Right away, we traded the Mamiya 6x9 press for another Mamiyaflex TLR as these were good for both general commercial, fashion, beauty, and portrait work. The Canon soon acquired an identical twin, and the Linhof proved marginally useful for product shots.
None of these were really ideal.
What we really needed most was an 8x10 view camera. At that moment I was offered a brand-new 300mm f/5.6 Schneider Symmar lens in a Compound shutter at a fantastically good price. What was wrong with it? Not much, only that it had the wrong name engraved on its barrel and was thus not saleable through normal channels. I snapped this up, and bought an el-cheapo Calumet 8x10 body. This was no Deardorff or Sinar, but it served the purpose and lasted through our entire career. In truth, it was a clumsy beast, but practically indestructible. I swear it was made of cast iron. The Symmar lens fit it perfectly, and soon thereafter we added a Schneider Angulon lens for wide-angle shots.
Salvaging a 150mm Schneider Symmar lens from the old Linhof 4x5 camera, we purchased a Calumet 4x5 monorail view that seemed to be an exact copy of the old Kodak monorail of the 1940s. This was good for product shots, and for catalog work where the client wanted a larger image but was unwilling to pay for 8x10.
The real workhorses were the Mamiyaflexes. These TLRs had interchangeable lenses, were easy to load, and used 120 roll film. Unfortunately, they were also extremely fragile and broke down frequently. Most often, the film advance lever broke off when shooting too fast. At one point, on location on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, all three of our Mamiyaflexes ceased working. With a small screwdriver I was able to get enough undamaged parts to put together ONE working Mamiyaflex.
After that, we decided on a Hasselblad. The 500 EL model, with electric drive, a pentaprism viewfinder, a bellows-type lenshade, and a fast-focus lever to be exact. Wow! What a camera that was! Fast, comfortable to use, and extremely rugged. It was so good that we soon acquired another identical one. And a few more Zeiss lenses. Photo on left shows this model, without the fancy viewfinder or lenshade. One particular feature of Hasselblads was the snap-on film magazine. With a few of these loaded, it only took about one second to reload, so there were no interruptions for changing film.
The Canons soon gave way to Nikon Fs, each equipped with a motor drive. We used these Nikkor lenses: 28mm, 28-50 zoom, 50mm, 105mm, and 200mm. While on a trip to Tokyo we bought two more bodies, motor drives, and lenses at bargain prices. All of the model Fs (photo, left) were later replaced with model F2s. One nice thing about Nikons was the rugged bayonet mount, which enabled lenses from any Nikon SLR model to fit any Nikon F-series SLR body, regardless of model. This way, we could keep our old lenses (which never wear out) and just replace bodies. The newer F2 bodies were also much easier to load, with their swing-open backs.
Another very useful camera was the Polaroid folding pack-film camera, which had regular shutter speeds and lens openings, plus a combo viewfinder-rangefinder. This enabled us to check lighting effects and verify exposures before shooting with a regular film camera. It was deadly accurate — if the Polaroid test photo looked good so would the photos taken with the above cameras. This was especially true with complex strobe lighting setups. It was also handy for checking out possible locations before the actual shooting began.
In addition to that Polaroid, we also had a 4"x5" Polaroid sheet film holder/processor, which was used with our 4x5 Calumet camera. And best of all, the custom back for Nikon SLRs, which produced big, enlarged Polaroids shot through the Nikon body and lens.
For personal non-commercial use, I had an Olympus OM-1 35mm camera with zoom lens, chosen because it was so compact, a Polaroid SX-70 (again, very compact), and a Nikon Super 8 movie camera. Jim had his beloved Leica, which he used heavily.
The photo below shows Jim and assistant Bob Manilla at work in the studio, circa 1979, photo courtesy of Hardy Baeumler.
Later, I'll discuss the various films we used, plus the developers, papers, and other darkroom supplies.
OF COURSE, if we were doing this today it would be all digital cameras. Instead of a darkroom there would be an Apple computer loaded with Adobe Photoshop, and a good printer.
Interested in photography? Check out my "Assisting Avedon" blog.
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