11.13.2016

Just a Monday Morning portrait from book #2.

💣💡💠💐👜👓👑🌴♧🌀☂🎤🎩🎩

Wow. Blogger now has emojis.

Staying on the topic of gear catastrophes and close calls I thought I would share my Leica M3 story.


Many years ago, here in Austin, Texas, I was working the night shifts as a short order cook at a diner/restaurant called, Kerbey Lane Cafe. I worked the Thurs., Fri., and Sat. night shifts because they were the busiest and those shifts paid the most. They also left my days free to go out and show my portfolio to the handful of magazines and advertising agencies sprinkled around our (then) small town.

The time period was in the waning years of the 1970's. At the time all of my photography heroes, Garry Winogrand, Alan Pogue, Ralph Gibson and William Klein used Leica M series rangefinder cameras and I was certain that if I could just get my hands on a nice, clean Leica M3 with a 50mm, dual range Summicron that I'd be equally famous in no time at all. With the fame would come lucrative assignments and I would finally be able to quit my job in the restaurant and become a full time photographer. I'd never have to come home smelling of gingerbread pancakes and bacon again.

I finally lucked into a few small writing jobs for the healthcare industry and for a home builder (I'd shown a portfolio of photographs but they liked the writing better....) and I scraped up enough cash to buy a used, but minty, Leica M3 (single stroke) camera and an un-cloudy seven element, dual range Summicron, for the princely sum of $345. It took every cent I made from the writing I'd done over the course of several months. But, at last, I had the tool of the imaging demigods. I too would enter their rarified Pantheon and take amazing images that would cause the users of lesser cameras to gasp in astonishment. Or, at least that was my hope...

In the first few weeks I took the camera everywhere. One evening I went to a pizza place at the corner of 19th Street and Guadalupe St. and my (then) girlfriend and I had a large cheese pizza, and we split a salad. I was new to the art of carrying a camera everywhere and since I was focused on the pizza I carelessly hung the camera over the uprights of my chair. Since I was a camera-carrying neophyte in the presence of an attractive young co-ed I quickly forgot all about the camera as I looked into her big, sparkly, hazel eyes.

We finished our pizza and walked, hand in hand, to my old, beat up, blue Volkswagen Fastback automobile and headed back to my place. When I walked in the door of my apartment I immediately realized that my prize camera; the M3, was no longer attached to my shoulder. I was devastated. I thought of the money I'd spent and the time it took to accrue that money. I headed back to the pizza place more or less certain that I'd be met with blank stares and NO camera.

I went straight to the table we'd been sitting at. No camera. I looked on the floor but no happiness was found there. Finally, I walked up to the front of the house and asked for the manager. "Did you happen to find a camera in the last half hour?" I asked. I was nervous and distraught.

"Actually, we did." the manager said. "Can you describe it?"

I said, "I think it's probably the only Leica M3 camera in your lost and found."

He smiled, walked into the office and emerged with my camera in hand. I was so happy. So absolutely happy.

And you would think after this experience I would never leave a camera behind again, right? But many years later, when Ben was a young child, we all went to eat at a restaurant called, Asti. I'd upgraded cameras by then and was toting a Leica M6 .85ttl with a 50mm Summilux on the front of it. We sat at a banquet and I took numerous photos of my young son during the course of dinner. We always requested the table next to the front window because the late Summer light was so good....

We had a delightful meal and headed home. When I walked into the house I noticed the answering machine had a blinking light on it indicating a message. I pressed the button to hear it and there was the voice of Asti's owner telling me that I'd left my camera behind, on the banquet, and that it was safely awaiting me at the hostess's station. That camera didn't seem as precious as the older M3. It was less of a struggle to buy. But I was still very happy not to lose it. There was a photograph on that roll of film that has been one of my favorites now for at least 15 years. That one frame is worth (to me) the entire value of the Leica and lens I had carelessly left behind.

Absent minded, but that's how I roll.

Tales of catastrophic gear loss...


VSL reader and now contributor, Kurt Hansen, suggested that automatic file transfer from cards in cameras to alternate storage, while shooting, traveling, having coffee, etc. would safeguard valuable files from loss in the field. He used as an example the scenario where a camera is accidentally dropped overboard on a ferry crossing. A few literal minded readers immediately went to the position of, "I've never dropped a camera overboard from a ferry." I suggest they take a wider view and assume that a ferry accident is "stand-in" shorthand for any kind of camera-tastrophe. And I imagine we've all had one or two, at least.

Thought I'd share one of my most depressing. I was working with an assistant on an annual report for a company that does water and waste water treatment plants in cities and regions across the U.S. It was early days for digital so we were supplementing our digital camera gear with a few well chosen pieces of film gear that still seemed better suited to outlier shots. One day our team of client, ad agency representative, assistant and myself found ourselves at a plant with a large, primary wastewater intake tank.  A catwalk stretched about 60 feet across the tank, about 35 feet above it. For some crazy reason we decided that it would make a great image if I climbed up the ladder and walked across the catwalk to the center of the tank and then shot directly down with a super wide angle lens.

Wide angles weren't as wide on the APS-C sensors of the earlier cameras so I grabbed a Leica M6 rangefinder camera with its usual 50mm and, in a small shoulder bag, a 15mm f8.0 Hologon lens along with a circular, graduated neutral density filter on the front and a (not very accurate) bright line finder. I kept the expensive 15mm in the bag as I climbed the ladder so it wouldn't accidentally bang around.

I've never been particularly comfortable in high places but we used to push through our lesser phobias on a routine basis in order to get the shot for the client. The catwalk flooring was made of metal deck plate with the usual diamond shapes on it and it had metal railings on either side that camera up waist high. I slowly edged my way across to the center and surveyed the scene. My assistant and some of the others would be in the final shot unless I moved them. I pulled a small Motorola walkie-talkie off my belt and toggled the talk key to get my assistant's attention. We spoke and she moved the group out of the shot. I put the walkie-talkie back on my belt and started to prepare the camera.

I took the 50mm lens off the front of the camera and tucked it into the bag. Then I pulled the 15mm out and started to put it on the camera. I can't remember if it was a gust of wind or just a momentary lack of courage but I felt a bit of vertigo and, in a panic, grabbed for the railing. But in order to grab for the railing I had to ..... drop the lens. It all seemed to happen in slow motion. The lens turned over and over again as it rushed toward the churning contents of the tank. It hit with a plop! wavered for a second or two and started to sink. By this time I'd regained whatever composure I had left and pulled the walkie-talkie off my belt again. I yelled to my assistant, "Quick, jump in there and grab the lens before it sinks too far!!!" Of course, I was kidding. She grabbed her walkie-talkie and replied, "I quit."

While the lens would not have been saved by an automatic back-up I think Kurt's approach has much merit. I am reminded of a first world tragedy that struck one of my peers. He placed his new, super deluxe camera and zoom lens on the roof of his car as he took a cellphone call. He became so engrossed in the call that he got in, started up the car and drove off. The camera finally slid off as the car was negotiating a turn at around 45 MPH an it hit the pavement with lethal impact. My fellow photographer didn't realize what he had done until he pulled into the driveway of his home and went to unload his gear.

He would have been well served with an automated, remote back-up system for his files....

But I am assuming that none of my readers have ever done anything nearly as zany with their cameras, right?