Around town with a German Kodak

It was a warm Sunday afternoon. We were full of tacos and horchata. The antique store beckoned me. My friend Art and I stepped inside and a musty old shop smell met my nose. All the yellowing newspaper and pieces of old leather scattered around told me that treasures were to be found.

After rummaging through old magazines and LPs we came upon a small glass case of photo related items. I spied a small brown folding leather case that was stamped ‘Made in Germany’ on the bottom. Always a good sign.

‘Mind if I take a look in here?’ I turned and asked the woman at the counter.

‘Sure, just close it up when you’re done hun.’

‘You bet!.

I moved about sixteen boxes of slides, and what I seem to remember was a tube tester or maybe it was a spark-plug sales road case, either way it was large and awkward. Once out of the way I softly peeled open the front glass door and reached inside to extract a tiny leather case stamped Kodak.

I’ve never really cared about Kodaks. As a long time thrifter I’ve seen too many Kodak Pony’s and Brownies and utter junk over the years that I’ve rarely taken a Kodak camera with much seriousness. However, somehow I’ve gone my whole life never using one of the old German Kodaks. Recently, however, I’d been curious.

As I unsnapped the back of the leather case I let the top half drop down and glimpsed a brilliant silver Retina logo emblazoned on a lovely red velvet lining. In my hand I held an utterly lovely Retina 1a in perfect condition. I felt around a little bit and found a button, pushed it – nothing. Then felt around a bit more and found a button on the bottom, bingo the front cover popped open and the always pleasing sight of a Compur shutter met my eyes.

A brilliant little Schneider Xenar 50mm f3.5 was nestled into the Synchro Compur shutter. I squinted in the dark antique shop and looked close, feeling the knurling in on my finger tips and breathed a sigh of relief as I saw the shutter speed plate was set to B. This camera had been owned by someone who knew what they had.

I looked at it, said to myself, ‘well that’s a funny little camera!’ Gave the film advance a tug, and felt the clickity little pawls ratchet away, and saw a tiny little wheel roll over on the front of the shutter, and then pushed the shutter release and it gave a little ‘snick’ and I was hooked. The stiffness in the focus concerned me at first, but I figured I’ve re-lubed a helical here and there why not this one?

The price was right, ‘can I pay cash?’

‘Cash is king!’

Kodak Retina 1a
Kodak Retina 1a, from 1951, with a Schneider Xenar 50mm f3.5 and a Watameter Rangefinder.

I took the Retina home. I’d like to say that my life is so rich and full of other activities that I forgot about it for years, and then recently on a cold rainy afternoon I found the camera hiding in the back of a closet. The smell of the leather case reminded me instantly of that warm sultry summer day all those years back.

But that’s not what happened, I obsessively shoved a roll of HP5 into it as soon as I could. I think I had film in it before I got home. I didn’t even run a lens cloth over it.

I always love the first raw, hazy test images that come out of antique camera finds. They are simultaneously thrilling and invigorating, and often slightly disappointing. But hey, that’s life right? Change happens. My eyes have gotten hazier over the years, makes sense that this old Xenar might have a bit of haze.

None the less, the images that came out of the soup for that first roll were really solid. Punchy blacks and bright whites. Not quite that special magic you hope to get out of some of these old lenses, but a nice sharpness with the feeling of more to give.

It’s a shutter with lens elements. This camera, the Retina and so many of these folders from the first half of the 20th century, are just simple cameras. It’s often a very over-engineered (or under-engineered in some cases) shutter, with a pair of lovely lens elements. Because of how simple the setup is, I was able to easily remove both the front and rear elements and give them a good cleaning.

After removing a thin layer of gunk from the inside of the rear meniscus and a ton of dust from the inside of the front element meant that when it all went back together it practically shined. Blowing out all the dust and snapping the shutter open on bulb, holding it up to the light. It looked gorgeous.

I loaded up another roll of HP5 and quickly worked through it. Impressed would be what I would say. The lens is really nice, it doesn’t blow me away, but I do like the rendering of older slow lenses and I love the absolutely tiny size of it. The images are good, they don’t make you swoon, but they do make you happy that you spent the time to use the camera. And when I say, ‘took the time’ I do mean that.

In a weird way, the cumbersome process of using the Retina 1a is what I love most about it. First, you have to open up the clamshell case, extract the lens, then I usually look at my hands for a few moments and think about how much I love holding well crafted objects. Then, I usually remember I have no idea how to use the Sunny 16 rule when I’m in the shade, and I pull out the meter on my iPhone. After taking a general reading of the approximate area I want to make an image of, I set the shutter and lens. Then, this is probably the best part, then you get to wind the film and charge the shutter.

With other cameras, like Nikons or Minoltas you’d instantly wind the film on and set the shutter. But, with a camera that won’t let you change to the fastest shutter speed after cocking the shutter you are better off waiting until you know what your image is going to be! The Retina 1a is one of those cameras – it goes all the way to 1/500th, which is nothing to sneeze at for 1951 – but you can only set it prior to charging the shutter.

Now is the moment you get to feel the little just-sharp-enough knurling on the film rapid winder, listening to the frame counter ratchet down, and feeling the film transport click away. It’s not the smoothest film transport, nor the most satisfying shutter to set – but there is something unique about the hand made practical nature of this affordable accessible old Kodak. It reminds me of the Contax IIa a little in this regard – simply a lovely object to handle and use.

Once your film is wound on, well now you just have to snap the shutter and you’re done! Oh, wait – unless you want to focus? How do you do that with a “view-finder” camera any way? Well, you could estimate – which I do quite a bit. Or, you could use an external rangefinder.

I pair my Retina 1a with a shockingly matchy-matchy Watameter rangefinder that I’ve owned for about 5 years, and it’s great. The Watameter has a nicely magnified viewer, and reads out in feet just like the Retina focus scale. I wish I could tell you that the camera view finder is a lovely thing to look through, but it’s not. It’s pretty small, tight, and cramped. This too reminds me of the Contax IIa.

So, what’s all the fuss? It’s a nice thing to hold in your hands. It’s a well thought out and well designed piece of machinery. It’s pretty. It makes nice images. It fits in your pocket. It reminds you that simple things can be the most fun.

The images in the gallery below are all from the Retina 1a, they are from the last couple weeks around home, and a visit to Skamania Lodge in Washington. The film is mostly HP5 developed in HC-110b and Fomapan 200 developed in, gasp, DF96. There is generous use of under exposure in some of the images. Weirdly, I kind of like it. I like how dark they can be and still have texture. Maybe that’s part of getting older.

Scarcity & Abundance on view at Around Oregon Biennial

I’m pleased to share that Scarcity & Abundance will be on view from August 3 – September 9, 2023 at the Arts Center in Corvallis, Oregon.

I am one of two film pieces that are in the show and I couldn’t be more pleased about it.

Visit for more details

The contemporary arts ecosystem of Oregon was once known for its underground sensibilities – DIY aesthetics, experimental practices, craft, noise, and a unique lens for landscape. As many parts of the state struggle to remain economically viable sites for arts production and artist support, Around Oregon 2023 seeks to honor the artists holding fast to the previously described legacy. The selected artists’ works venture from traditional conceptions of their medium, and showcase Oregon for all that is strange, wild, and fighting to regrow.
-Ashley Stull Meyers, 2023 AOB Juror

A pretty little camera, Fujica 35-ml

Fujica 35-ml rangefinder camera, a 35mm delight to use and a treat to look at.

The older I get, the more I love estate sales.  I used to go to thrift shops almost every day.  Recently, at least here in Portland, I've noticed what used to be thrift store finds are now housed in glass at vintage shops marked up 500%.  Because of that, estate sales are my new love.  This particular camera came from an estate sale.

The camera was in decent condition when I found it, but the shutter was stuck and I had to open it up to give it a slosh cleaning in order to shoot some test rolls.  The rangefinder was a bit out of whack too, which might have been why it sat unused for so long.  Thanks to smart Japanese engineering rangefinder adjustment screws are easily accessed from under the cold shoe.

Fuji made a ton of rangefinders over the years, with a bunch of different medium format versions from 6x4.5 up to 6x9.  However, the Fujica rangefinder line was not immensely popular in the United States, so they fly under the radar a bit.  From what I understand the 35mm rangefinders, especially weren't sold in great numbers in the U.S. so they are kind of a treat to find in good condition.

The perfect walk around camera for our morning in Astoria. Seen here with the super convenient Voigtlander VC Meter II on top.

Oddities of the line: they all have the wind lever on the bottom, focus wheel on the back, and rewind on the side.  All these things, are exactly what I love about it.  This, surprisingly, isn't the only rangefinder camera I own with a focus wheel on the back.  The Mamiya Six folder I have also operates the same way (although it moved the film plane instead of the lens).  I really love being able to focus with just the move of my thumb, it feels much more natural on a rangefinder for some reason.

The little camera has a 45mm f2.8 lens that is nice and sharp, a characteristic of pretty much every Fuji lens it seems.  It is essentially a small view camera lens, threaded into a leaf shutter.  You set the shutter speed and aperture on the lens rings, just like you would on your large format rig.  This is, more or less, the basic set up of all the Fuji / Fujica rangefinders - slap a traditional leaf shutter lens on the front of a body and make it focus.

Some of the shots that I got from the camera are really lovely.

arista 400 fujica 35mm
Before I realized the RF was off. Also, shot on some old Arista 400 which is grainy as all get out. I like it, in spite of the unexpected results.


Performance documentation, stage 2 execution - What is a photo call?

Sometimes I'm shocked when I talk to performance artists and I suggest that we have a photo call to capture their documentation images and they look at my like my head just exploded.  I'm relatively new to the theater community, but I've known about this as a process for documentation since my first theater shoot a few years ago.

Photo Call - the basics:

  • Designers, directors, and others collaborate on a list of scenes they want photographed
  • Production manager (typically) writes up a schedule to run through specified scenes in whatever order makes the most sense and shares this with the production team
  • Actors, production team, and entire crew are called for a specific time and the scenes specified in the schedule are run through, allowing the photographer to capture them.
  • Typically the photographer has the ability to ask the actors and crew to re-run scenes, or pose specific tableaus as needed to capture specific images.
  • Photographer communicates what is and isn't working, and can adjust on the fly.

Why a photo call instead of straight production photos?

  • Photo call allows the photographer to communicate with the crew and actors
  • Allows the actors to just run through the scenes needed for images
  • Photographer can get on stage, or much closer to the action than they would shooting a full run through
  • Pausing action or at least slowing it down, especially in dark settings, leads to much cleaner photographs
  • Photographer can move around without fear of disturbing your patrons
  • More dynamic images can be produced

Why not just run the whole show for photographs?

  • Time is money and the less time you need to have a photographer on site, or processing images the better you'll be on budget
  • Simply shooting through a whole show without guidance from designers, directors, and others can generate a ton of images, but they will be a waste of space without some specificity as to what the team needs
  • The temptation to run the whole show for photos easily slips into simply shooting when their is an audience, which goes back to problems that are noted above

Shout out to Brian Hashimoto who was instrumental in the creation of this text and for teaching me what a good photo call looks like.

Performance documentation, stage 1 planning

Work backwards from the end goal

I'm a big fan of identifying what you want to do and working backwards to accomplish it.  Want to be sitting at the beach with a cocktail?  Figure out how you're going to make it happen.  Will you be on vacation?  Will you be working?  If you're on the beach, does it matter?  So what does figuring out how to drink cocktails on the beach have to do with documentation?  It's all about figuring out what you want, and how to get there.

Categorization of assets

Documentation end-use typically falls into a couple of different categories:

  1. Marketing
  2. Archival & Historical
  3. Reference

To get academic about it, I'd further categorize these with internal and external designations.  Are materials being used internally by you, the artist, to come back to?  Or are you using them primarily for external audiences for things like advertising.  Thinking along those lines we can look back at our list as:

  1. Marketing (external)
  2. Archival & Historical (mixed internal/external)
  3. Reference (internal)

It's worthwhile to have these categories in mind when making your documentation plan.  Some useful questions to ask yourself in the planning stages include:

  • Is documentation required by your funding organization?
  • Will you need to create promotional materials?
  • Is this a final piece going into production, or in workshop and you will pick it up again later?
  • Are you presenting your piece at a location, or at an event that is particularly noteworthy?

There are numerous things to think about in designing your documentation plan, but at it's heart simply asking yourself if you're needing internal or external assets will be a good start.

Internal vs External assets

As we noted above, the major differentiation between internal and external documentation assets will be whether you're using them for your own references, or whether you're generating promotional materials with them.  While you might be able to use assets generated without this in mind, the acquisition tactics might be different based on your end goal.

Internal use assets such as a reference images from a workshop or rehearsal might be adequately captured on a GoPro mounted in front of your rehearsal space.  Since you're the primary user of that footage, it all depends on what you want to do with it.  If you just need reference material for a dance rehearsal, basic capture on your own might be just what you need.

Mixed use assets would require a slightly different approach than purely internal reference material.  Your static GoPro camera that captures everything easily, and allows you to review footage at the end of the day might not be sharp enough for archive quality, and it might be so wide that it distorts the scene too much.  Having a photographer attend a rehearsal session might be more reliable way to ensure you are getting images that can both be referential and used externally.

External use assets are typically designed in a more polished way.  Unless you are specifically creating process images for social media use (which many artists are doing now) you'll likely want to capture images with full tech, costume, and in a complete set.  Typically this means that you'll be bringing in a video person and / or a photographer to capture images during tech rehearsals.  Many theater companies have a specific photo-call where actors are in full costume, and the production manager quickly runs through a specific set of scenes that the artists want to capture.  Beyond photo-calls I've also worked with artists to stage photography outside of the theatrical space in order to develop purely marketing related images.

The planning process

I would definitely suggest you look at your documentation plan before you get too deeply into the creation process.  There is nothing worse than waiting until closing night to try and get documentation for a project.  Your crew, actors, and designers don't want to delay strike, or stay late on closing night for photos.  Plus, if you wait until the end of your run to get professional images captured, you can use them for any promotional purposes.

If you need to develop marketing materials, you'll want to either design and stage images or video that can be used before you ever get to the tech rehearsal point.  That mean's you'll need to work with a photographer or video person to come up with a concept, and shoot those pieces while you're in rehearsal.

If you can wait until tech rehearsal starts to generate final images, or promotional pieces I would suggest you book a photographer or video person early for your tech run.  That way you they can watch the piece first, find out where the image needs are, and be sure they can capture them best based on the space and your requirements.  Let them come watch a full-length run through so they know what to expect.

If your primary goal is to capture reference material for yourself then you can be a bit more relaxed in your planning process.  However, I will say, it's good to have a plan and stick to it.  If you are bringing a simple video camera into rehearsal every day do it every day.  Make it part of your process, that way you won't have to think about it when you run out the door every day.  Alternatively if you are bringing in a photographer for a workshop, either let them have free reign to capture images ad hoc, or provide them a set of guidelines of what you want to achieve with the images personally.

The purpose of creating a documentation plan is that it lets you create a budget for those materials.  When I say budget, we aren't just talking money.  Everything you commit yourself to takes time, and the more things you decide to do on your own, the thinner your time will be stretched.  If you're directing a piece and plan on also taking photos, and creating a promotional video for it, keep in mind that the more time you work on those pieces the less time you'll be able to dedicate to the final theatrical performance.

In addition to that, many funding organizations require documentation.  To make it easy on yourself you'll want to add documentation into your budget at the outset, and have a clear idea of what you want to deliver to the funding organization.


Write down some goals

If you've gotten this far, you're probably already thinking about what you want to do with your documentation and that's great.  Grab a pad of paper and write down some goals, even if they aren't things you think you'll ever achieve it's good to know where your head is at.

Next time: Performance documentation, stage 2 execution and what is a photo call.


Shout out to Brian Hashimoto who was instrumental in the creation of these ideas.

Theater process documentation, some thoughts

Performance documentation comes in many forms, for me – no surprise it’s images I love – ever since reading classic  photo essays in my Time Life books, I’ve always been fascinated by photo essays.  There is a magic that still images bring to documenting a long-term project.  As the photographer you imbue them with a certain meaning for yourself, but anyone else looking at the images will bring their own feelings and thoughts to to them as well.

I had the chance to document the musical Dead Awaken from rehearsal and inception all the way through to production.  The images that came out illustrate the movement through space, and transformation from actor to character.  The full photo essay can be found online at, but I wanted to share a few images and excerpts here too.

To me, there is something really powerful and useful about looking at process documentation.  Having images that tell the story of your project from start to finish not only lets others enter into the experience of making new work, but it gives you as the artist visual markers and reminders of what you did, and how you did it.  These kinds of images are useful, not just for immediate purposes on big productions, but even images captured at small workshops can be useful years down the line when you are coming back to a work in progress.

See the whole story over at

Excerpt from the essay:

“The cast and crew moved into the space a few weeks before opening. I think that as soon as a production moves into it’s final space the stakes get higher. All of a sudden the world of the designer and the world of the actor smash together. Hopefully the set works, hopefully the lights are programmed correctly, hopefully the sound mixer has run all the right cables. There is a mixed excitement in seeing characters come to life, even if everyone isn’t off book yet.”