Shooting a vintage Japanese film camera is not about misplaced nostalgia for the good old days. While I love the possibilities and precision of modern digital technology, cameras like my half-frame Olympus Pen-F come with the constraints of manual settings and a limited number of shots on a film roll. This camera has helped me to be a more deliberate and discerning photographer and this camera encourages me to slow down, stop, and think before I shoot.
This diminutive 127 film camera is quirky in all the right ways and can capture surprisingly sharp images.
I love 127 format film and cameras. At four centimeters wide this roll film is a sweet spot between smaller, more common 35mm cassettes and big brother 120 film, yet still offers the nostalgic pleasure of loading a paper-backed spool into the camera. And there are a huge variety of interesting and unique 127 cameras, ranging from primitive paperboard boxes like the Kodak Baby Hawkeye to the bakelite toy cameras popular in the 1940s, to the stylish cast aluminum Bencini Comet S from Italy. These cameras are often small, even tiny, yet can deliver a medium format negative with lots of detail.
One of my favorite 127 film cameras is the Beacon II, manufactured from about 1947 to 1955 by Whitehouse Products Inc. in Brooklyn, N.Y. The Beacon has a collapsible lens that pulls out, and records 16 portrait format exposures on a roll of film. Like many of the American-made 127 format designs of its era, some of which were novelty toy cameras, the Beacon II is small, lightweight, and has a plastic body.
The design of the Beacon is a curious mixture of incongruities. A plastic body with fake leather texture, housed in a real leather case stamped with the Beacon logo and a metal-hinged cover design that is more durable than many cases included with high-end cameras of its time. The Beacon body design, available in several colors including black, red and beige, has a sweeping, streamlined shape reminiscent of the 1930’s art deco era, and a curious Teutonic script logo that seems like it would be more at home engraved on a Viking sword. A plastic winding knob plated with fake chrome contrasts with a lens surrounded by an elegant stamped metal frame. The Beacon has a simple viewfinder, but a coated and color corrected glass lens. Inside the camera are a well thought out film loading system and pressure plate for the film and a rugged metal slide locks the back cover. The pressure plate, standard in SLRs and higher quality cameras, is uncommon in small 127 cameras. The plate serves to keep the roll of film flat for a more consistent focal plane and sharper focus.
This odd mixture of quality components and plastic flimsiness initially made me skeptical about the durability of the camera and the quality of images it could produce. To field test the camera, I shot imported Japanese Rerapan black and white film. In comparison to 120 film, Rerapan is expensive, and I proceeded with caution as I walked through neighborhoods in San Jose, California on a sunny day, selectively clicking off images of vintage cars and interesting architecture. The results were astounding.
With an extremely wide depth of field and contrasty lens almost everything in the photos was crisp and in focus. I suspect design details like the film plate and coated lens improve the quality of the images the Beacon II can capture. And the exposure of the 100 ASA Rerapan was almost perfect, a nice surprise given that the Beacon II has a single shutter speed of about 1/50th of a second.
And yet with the Beacon there was also that unpredictable quality—the “happy accidents” that keep us all allured to the mystery of shooting film on vintage cameras. Light leaks? Yes. Very subtly along the center of the frame. Inconsistent focus? Certainly. Sometimes the center of the image was hazy. Lens flare? Occasionally. When the camera was pointed towards the sun there was this nice stripe of light along the top of my negative. The Beacon can surprise the user with unpredictable results, but they are subtle and seem to happen in all the right places on your film negatives.
Given the cost of purchasing 127 film—a roll or two might be more than you pay for a vintage Beacon II— this camera may not be a good choice for everyone. But if you want to try out a vintage camera that can offer great image quality and large negatives in a small, uniquely designed package, the Beacon is a great choice for you.
This photo was taken at Oakland's First Friday art walk. A donked vintage Cadillac, with the original filigree interior seat upholstery, glinting in the setting sun. What's missing from this picture? A person, perhaps.
I have recently discovered the First Friday event and as a photographer who is just gaining the courage to attempt street photography, this raucous evening mardi-gras has offered a learning experience. Getting an authentic shot, one that tells a story, one with a person as the subject, is often about cultivating relationships. Returning on another friday evening and being recognized as "that guy with a camera" who someone has seen before. And earning a person's trust so that they will proudly sit in the front seat of their car and let me take a portrait.
I plan to keep going back to downtown Oakland with my camera, and I hope that some day I will encounter the owner of this Cadillac again and perhaps he will allow me, with the sun setting behind him, to get the shot just right.
My fascination with railroad typography began a few years ago when my car overheated on a desolate stretch of highway in California's San Joaquin Valley. While I waited for the car to cool down, I wandered to a nearby railway siding that paralleled the road.
As I moved among the rows of massive steel boxcars parked on the train tracks, I discovered a larger-than-life specimen book of curious and corroded letterforms. Stenciled onto the sides of the train cars were words and symbols, numbers and safety warnings. They were rusted, repainted, and retouched to create unexpected compositions of type and color. Time and the elements had further worn these letters, and sometimes their messages were cryptic or indecipherable. One boxcar, scrawled with mathematical calculations, had been used as a giant blackboard, perhaps for the tracked reckonings of a brakeman. Mergers within the railroad industry had left many train cars repainted with the logos of their new owners, or bearing the markings of a company that was long defunct.
Interest in the letterforms on trains is not without historical precedent. More than a hundred years ago, Warner Bailey, a clerk working for the Boston and Maine Railroad, noticed a plethora of lettering styles painted on boxcars. As he traveled throughout the Northeast on business trips, he sketched the various ampersands he saw during his free time. He counted more than 140 type styles, which he meticulously copied into his notebook like an industrial-age scribe.
Today, the eccentric British hobby of transporting—the railroad buff's equivalent of birdwatching—continues to gain popularity in the U.S. Equipped with binoculars and notebooks, trainspotters obsessively records the serial numbers of locomotives to catalog the freight trains that travel a particular route. Like that of the trainspotters, my interest in the markings on trains is equally esoteric. But rather than follow the migration patterns of the railroads, I search for visual inspiration and chance encounters with found typography. Armed with a camera, I continue my trek along the railroad tracks.
Note: This article originally appeared in Print Magazine, ©Philip Krayna.
Two things I love to photograph: chairs and old cars. I recently discovered the work of Scott Yeskel, a painter based in San Francisco, and apparently we share an affinity for the same subject matter. As a former east coaster (from Jersey) transplanted to the west coast, Scott seems to enjoy the proliferation of classic autos parked in streets and driveways throughout sunny California.
Yeskel describes his work as speaking "to those who identify with the California lifestyle – often romantic but sometimes plagued with frustration."
More of his bold, colorful abstractions can be seen at www.scottyeskel.com.
If you walk a train yard, graffiti is everywhere. It is unavoidable.
I see graffiti as an ally, adding an extra level of depth and colorful spontaneity to the rigid typographic structure of train cars. The hand print sprayed on this train car in southern Oregon bears an uncanny — and perhaps intentional — resemblance to the marks of cave painters in Lascaux’s “Cave of Hands” located in southern France. Like the ancient artists whose hands are memorialized in the cave, the modern graffiti artist searches for a heroic and lasting venue for expression.
Occasionally, the artist will carefully paint around the lettering and serial numbers on the train car, as if some unwritten agreement was formed between the functional markings on the train and the work of the artist. More often, the tagged car is cleaned with solvents or overpainted, and another layer of type is stenciled on top. The battle between the graffiti artist and the train maintenance men wages on and on, making the layers and texture all the more intricate and exciting.
Hoboken. Manhattan. A Leica. Kodachrome. Typography. Grit. Seemingly abandoned urban backdrops. A recipe for some great street photography. Check out these nocturnal images from the mid-1970's by photographer Langdon Clay. You can view the whole story at Atlas Obscura.
A friend emailed me an image of an old, wrecked car. "I thought you would like this." It was a great photograph, well composed, well lit. And then on closer inspection I realized with incredulity that it was a meticulously rendered painting. This was my introduction to the work of British born photo-realist painter John Salt. The son of an auto wrecker, Salt relocated to Baltimore on a scholarship in 1967 and then to New York City. His father's vocation seems to have imparted a fascination with the broken, rusted cars that frequent the American roadside and these autos have been the primary subject matter throughout his more than 50 year career. Salt paints from slides and other photo based images, sometimes spending an entire year on one painting.
As a teenager growing up in Buffalo, New York, exploring abandoned buildings was how my friends and I spent our free time. Fueled by the excitement of exploration, danger, and trespass, empty buildings were places where no adults dared to join us. They were our private places, and a vast studio in which I learned about photography. When I brought along my camera, it was to document things lost—the grandeur, energy, and dreams that once played out behind storefront doors, drawn dusty curtains, and crumbling factory walls.
Today, as the city of Buffalo experiences an economic rennaisance, I feel a sense of urgency to chronicle what will be lost again as redevelopment promises to wash clean many of these neglected buildings and their weary facades. My latest series of photos, Wildroot, takes its name from the empty factory that made hair tonic for many decades by the same moniker. These photos were shot in the cold, grey winter of early 2016.
Check out the work of artist Tim Conlon. He is known for large-scale murals and graffiti art but recently painted a series of G-scale (The G name comes from the German word groß meaning "big") model trains. These tagged toy trains were featured in an exhibit in the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s, "Art in the Streets" survey of graffiti and street art. You can see a complete portfolio of his work here.