The love story started spontaneously. I noticed it in the middle of a boring day – it was love at first sight. There were no special news events that day to photograph – no ultra-orthodox demonstrations or Palestinians throwing stones. I decided to visit the old flea market in Tel-Aviv, a vibrant place I always find fascinating and which I never get tired of photographing.
It was in one of those narrow side alleys that I suddenly noticed it – an old camera with a beautiful accordion neck. I stopped by the stand and carefully picked it up in my hands as if I was holding an old Chinese vase. I tried putting on an indifferent face, turned to the seller and asked the price. “150 shekels” was his answer. (That’s equivalent to about $42 as I write this.) “That’s really expensive”, I snorted, “I’m willing to give you 50 shekels for it”, I continued with the best apathetic voice I could generate. The seller, who probably sees a hundred bad traders like me every day, just nodded lightly, letting me know that I was wasting his time. I walked away, knowing I would be back to his stand soon enough, but I had to make it look as if I came back by chance. Five minutes later, I was back at the stand. “I’ll give you 100 shekels for it and that’s my final offer” I shrugged. “Sure, no problem – 150 shekels and it’s yours,” replied the seller without even looking at me. Needless to say, we closed the deal.
When I got home that day, an urgent work call came in, followed by another and another and so the camera was left, forgotten, on my desk. A few weeks later, as I was surfing the web, trying to get inspiration for my next photographic project, I suddenly noticed it again. I was seeking inspiration in the cyberspace’s endless frontiers when the inspiration was an arm’s length away in the form of beautiful old camera. I picked it up, closely scrutinizing each element of the camera for a very long time. A working plan started forming in my head: I will carefully disassemble the camera, refurbish and clean each piece of it and then put everything back together. But then, a much more innovative thought came storming into my head. Why should I try to fix it? Why not take it on a ride, just the way it is. True, there may be some tiny light breaches, the lens looked a bit scratched and murky, maybe the shutter speed is not reliable… Well, this is exactly where things will get interesting. Whatever photographs I can take with this old thing – this is the real deal.
But before I continue, allow me to describe the camera in more detail. Getting a little help from my friend Google, I found out that the camera was made by a French company named DeMaria-Lapierre & Moller, known as Dehel for short. The camera was first manufactured in France in 1933 and was discontinued in 1950. The camera is made of a simple boxy metal construct connected to a leather accordion neck and a small lens at its end, connected with X-shaped metal bars. The leather accordion neck enables the lens to be folded inside the camera metal box thus providing a surprisingly compact camera. The camera uses medium format film (120mm) which are winded around its original wooden spool. Three small levers are mounted on the lens construct. One controls the shutter speed, starting from 1 second to 1/200 of a second (there is also Bulb setting), the second small lever controls the aperture (3.5 to 32) and the third is there for releasing the shutter and actually taking the shot. The 75 mm lens can turn to allow focusing (3.5 meters to infinity). That’s it. No battery compartment, no memory card slots, no USB/HDMI sockets.
That same day I visited a photography lab in Tel-Aviv and purchased a roll of film. It was a black-and-white roll of Kodak T-Max 120mm, ISO 100. To my surprise, it’s still possible to find medium format film! I paid for the film, left the lab and headed out to the street. I was eager to try the camera out and so it took me only seconds to tear the familiar yellow film cover and pull out the roll. I opened the camera back and carefully placed the film’s tip into the small slit in the original wooden spool in the camera. I closed the lid tightly and started wandering the streets.
The first photographic opportunity presented itself quickly. Instinctively, I raised the camera towards my face, closed my left eye and looked where to place my right eye. It suddenly struck me that the camera had no view finder, though I hadn’t noticed it before. Also, due to the way the film is spooled inside, one needs to hold the camera with its narrow side pointing upwards to take landscape photos, exactly the opposite from what we are used to today with most of the modern DSLR cameras. So here I am, standing in the middle of the street, trying to shoot a subject which is long gone, understanding that from now on I can only trust my instincts to compose my shots. After this initial setback, I started taking pictures. Real pictures! After snapping the second one, I realized I forgot to advance the film. Luckily, at home I tried spooling the camera with a roll of plain paper and found out that it takes “exactly” 2 ¾ turns to advance the roll one frame. So I turned the small knob slowly, bringing the camera close to my ear, trying to hear what is going on inside the metal box. I was hoping to hear the film rolling inside. Many troubling thoughts popped in my head – what if the film strip did not stick to the spool or slid out? How can I be sure I am advancing the film enough so the pictures are not exposed one on top of another? So many unknowns. I decided it’s best to under-expect and over-achieve. I was prepared to find mostly totally black or totally white pictures.
It is a known fact that film media is much more tolerant to under- or over-exposure than digital sensor-based cameras. Still, I had to overcome the fact that the camera has no light meter. This is where current technology saved the day. I took out my smart-phone and downloaded one of those simple light-meter applications. Just like those expensive units you can find in the stores, you simply tell the app what film sensitivity (ISO) you’re using, set the aperture or shutter speed and point the phone at the subject. The application completes the missing parameters for you. It even logs its reading for future review (this came out very handy when I got the photos from the lab). That pretty much was all I needed to continue on my first photographic journey with the camera. Ten minutes later, the journey came to a sudden end when I heard a faint flick inside the camera. I had exhausted the film and it was released from its original spool, wrapping itself over the last frame, sealing it. No need to wind it back. This was the first time I ended a photographic session after only 12 photos. This never happened to me on my DSLR with my 32 GB memory card…
I headed over to the photo lab, and handed over the film for processing. It is hard to describe my anticipation for the photos developed that week. True, developing a roll of film shouldn’t take too long, but today there are very few remaining labs in Tel Aviv that do it, so they can take their sweet time (and charge whatever they want!). Exactly one week later, an email from the photo lab appeared in my inbox with the scanned negative frames. My excitement grew as I was about to witness the results of my first experiment with the Dehel camera. The exposures were far from ideal and so was the focus (especially as we’ve become so used to the terrific results provided by 60-point auto-focus array cameras!), but I was happy to discover that all the photos came through and that they definitely had that romantic vintage look we are familiar with in very old photos. I finally understood why people are constantly applying those filters to their Instagram pictures – only this was the real thing.
The following week, armed with a number of film rolls, I went shooting again. I slowly improved my skills working with the camera. I managed to focus the lens better and I did a better job with the aperture/shutter-speed combinations. But what surprised me most is that I managed to compose my frames well without the benefit of a viewfinder. It is amazing what the eye-brain combination can do if you do not spoil it with pentaprisms or digital LCD screens. Every time I got a film developed, I spent a long time looking at the frames that came out, analyzing what I did right and what required improvement. When photographing, I also enjoyed doing double and even triple-exposures on one frame. I asked the lab to digitally scan for me those frames I liked best and I then I applied some modest processing to them using Photoshop (mainly cropping and contrast). I admit that I was so excited about the results that I even had thoughts of sealing a room in my house, buying chemicals and equipment, and making my own dark room.
For a long time, the old Dehel camera was a welcome guest in my photography bag, alongside my modern Canon 5D Mark II and its high-end lenses. I even started carrying it with me during my trips abroad. On one of those trips, I came into this old medieval tower with a very narrow, steep staircase leading up. I was asked politely by the guard to deposit my camera bag in a locker as visitors are not allowed to climb up with bags or cameras. Obviously, it seemed unacceptable to me not to be able to photograph the view of the rooftops from the tower peak, so I waited for a moment that the guard was distracted and slipped the Dehel camera into my pants pocket. The irony of fate: the big modern DSLR camera stayed behind while its old ancestor won the precious photo opportunity. The photos came out beautiful.
To summarize, I can honestly say that my Dehel camera took me on a unique, must-do photographic journey which I recommend to every modern photographer. There are a few important takeaways: One learns to respect the work done by early photographers by truly understanding the limitations of the modest cameras they worked with. An even more important lesson is the fact that the photographer has to think ahead before capturing a frame. He needs to envision the photo and use his eyes to compose it in advance, he needs to understand the light conditions and how it will affect his photo and eventually calibrate everything manually to create the desired photo. Knowing there are real costs associated with buying and developing the films, and that there are only few frames per roll, brings the photographer to really care about each frame he shoots. It is the complete opposite of today’s modern cameras which some set by default to burst mode, shooting many frames a second, assuming something decent will come out. And how can I not mention the period of anticipation waiting to get the developed negatives? In my opinion, this wait greatly increases the satisfaction and appreciation for your own work, and for the beautiful world of photography itself.
About The Author:
Dror Garti is a photo-journalist based in Israel. He is involved in documenting diverse communities in Israel such as the settlers in Bat-Ayin, the ultra-orthodox Jews in the Hassidic courts, the Samaritans and foreign Chinese workers. Dror works for the Flash90 photo agency.