The Rolleiflex 3.5F TLR with 75 mm f/3.5 Planar. Doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, does it? However, that linguistically challenging description conceals a wealth of iconic 20th-century photography. Think Bailey, Diane Arbus, Avedon, Jane Bown, Vivian Maier, to name but a few – they all used Rolleiflex.
Blinded by technology, these days people seem to hanker after the next shiny thing so much that they don’t really stop to consider what they already have. Products are created with a deliberately short shelf-life, encouraging us to become anxious consumerists, our brains beleaguered by a frantic desire to possess the newest, sleekest gadget. There is an assumption that whatever we own will be redundant after a year, that we’ll be wanting something else.
I’m not a luddite, but I am a contrarian because while many today clamour for everything LED and microchip, I’m into old stuff. I want things that were made to last.
I want things that were made to last
When I found out that my five-year-old analogue SLR had died up an Andalucian mountain, I was livid.
It was no fault of my own, I take good care of my gear. The internal slats had locked badly, and only when some 250 prints came back of the inside of my camera, looking as if I’d repeatedly shot a venetian blind, did I realise there was a serious problem. It would have cost me so much to repair against the camera’s depreciated value that it simply wasn’t viable; I was already miffed that I’d had to pay to have all that film developed, and with nothing from my Spanish trip to show for it.
I held the money back for investment into new digital kit; it took a while, but it was worth the wait. (I also defected from Nikon to Canon, although some togs are still trying to persuade me to come back in from the cold!)
When researching my piece on Vivian Maier I looked through her images and was really struck by the visual drama that the Rolleiflex creates. And having seen recent pictures from cameras as old as a 1934 Rolleicord, I was not only impressed by the result but surprised by my reaction.
As you’ve probably guessed, I’m not bowled over by technology in and of itself. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a means to an end. And while I’m conscious of the fact that gadgets can be both functional and very beautiful, usually you will not find me worshipping at their altar.
However, I have a confession to make. I love the Rolleiflex, and I want one.
I love the Rolleiflex
It is a collector’s item, and costs a lot. I would like to get one, if only to be able to have a go at producing the wonderful images from this camera.
I may have to compromise and get a lower spec Rolleicord, but even as a confirmed colour photographer, I’m beguiled by the idea of black and white medium format.
That, at least, is what I tell myself. The other reason is that, put simply, I’d enjoy it. I loved working analogue.
Digital offers a great deal, but I miss film. Film encourages you to be selective, to make pictures mindfully. With digital you can take so many images that it’s all about the edit; the excitement of knowing at the time that you’ve got the capture has, for me at least, dissipated. Bailey didn’t take many shots and often wrapped his shoots quickly, sometimes not even having finished a roll of film. He knew he’d got what he wanted.
That is what well-crafted analogue photography should aim for.
So, the next time I am sighing, nosed pressed up against a camera shop window or surfing eBay, dreaming of Bailey and Avedon and Maier, I’ll keep the faith. I will never be as good as them, but at least I can hold the same camera and see what they saw.
It’s not such a bad thing to want to walk in the footsteps of the masters – you learn so much along the way. At least I can try.