Wednesday, June 11, 2014

In the Zone - Voigtlander Vito B

Members of the Douglass Indians baseball team relax in the dugout at Driller Park in Kilgore on May 31, 2014, before their regional finals game. Photographed made with a Voigtlander Vito B 35mm camera.
It never ceases to amaze me, some of the stuff I find at thrift stores, garage sales and even, occasionally, antique marts for not a lot of money.

That was the way it went with this month's camera, a tough little viewfinder/scale focus camera, the Voigtlander Vito B. Manufactured by the Voigtlander Co. of West Germany sometime between the mid-1950s and 1960, my version of the camera was found about three years ago, languishing in a glass case next to an old hand-held light meter. (Wishing now I'd bought it, cause it was cool, too. And I think it worked.)

Researching the Vito B for this month's Analog East Texas Project story, I learned some interesting things I hadn't known before. For example, Voigtlander is probably one of the oldest optical companies in the world, founded in 1756 in Austria. It's also the oldest camera company, having started building metal cameras to match their optics shortly after the announcement of the discovery of photography, in 1840.

I acquired the Vito B, shown here in my studio with its slip-on lens hood, for the princely sum of $35. I recall distinctly when I bought it. I'd actually found the camera the weekend before, but didn't have any cash. I was just back in Deep East Texas and had spent all my extra money on boring stuff, like moving, buying food, getting water turned on. No money left for the truly essential things in life - buying a new/old camera.

So, after my first paycheck arrived, I made a quick dash to the antique mall and, wonder of wonders, it was still there. I had just enough to get the camera, sadly not so much for the light meter. I'd already discovered, when examining it before, the camera seemed to be working and it looked immaculate.

The Vito B is a tiny little thing, hardly much larger than my hand. (OK, yes. I've got really big hands, what can I say? I'd look silly with little doll hands. But the camera is still pretty small.)

Sorry, got sidetracked. Where was I?

Oh, yes. My version of the camera, according to my research is from the later years of the production run. How does he know that, you ask? The viewfinder. Early models of the camera had a smaller front viewfinder element. Only in the later models did Voigtlander add that big-honkin' extremely bright front element.

The Vito B, as should also be evident from the image above, doesn't have a rangefinder. I'd taken to calling it a scale-focus camera, based on what some people were saying on the world-wide inter-webs. I've also seen it, and others like it lacking the rangefinder, as a viewfinder camera.

All that aside, though, the camera has a couple of hyper-focus marks which do a pretty good job, depending on the aperture, for subjects 8 to 15 feet and 15-feet to infinity. That, and getting better at guess-timating distance, makes the Vito B a pretty easy camera to shoot.

RIGHT: Ashley Williams is reflected in the Ag Pond on the Stephen F. Austin State campus as she walks along the path June 6 in Nacogdoches.

And, somehow, all these older analog cameras I've been working with seem to be great ice-breakers with subjects. It's kind of hard to be too terribly threatening (even though I look like the person your mother warned you about) with a cute, shiny camera in your big hams hands. 

I'm not sure, really, how many times I've been out shooting and people will come up to me, asking about the camera. And an amazing number of them are pretty girls. And they're all fascinated by my cameras.  And people who would, under other circumstance, be nervous around the big DSLR I use for work (seen it happen) are a lot more relaxed around the smaller analog cameras.

LEFT: Douglass Indian players relax in the dugout on Thursday, May 29, at Driller Park in Kilgore, waiting out a rain-delay before their regional finals baseball game against Carlisle. Estimating focus with the Voigtlander Vito B is a learned skill, one which becomes easier with practice.

On the reverse, shooting with the smaller analog cameras, like the Vito B, there isn't as much for me to hide behind. It gets me out a bit more, interacting with people, and (gasp) talking to them.

All kidding aside, I do end up talking with most of my subjects quite a bit. First, I enjoy it and, second, it helps me figure out just why the heck I'm making their photo in the first place. Which is actually necessary more than one might think.

Actually, if I didn't enjoy meeting people, talking to them and getting to share a little bit of their story, I'd really be in the wrong line of work. 

 As I've said before, working with these analog cameras is helping me refocus myself on why I took up photography, first as a hobby and, later, as my chosen profession. I joke around with a friend of mine, Rich, another photojournalist. We often ask ourselves, after a particularly strange day or difficult subject, "Why did we go into this line of work?"

The truth of it is, I love what I do. I'm happiest when I have a camera in my hand, be it the latest, state-of-the-art digital camera or an antique film camera without any of the bells and whistles to be found on a modern machine. And there are definite advantages to both types of photography.

The modern digital camera can give instant gratification. When that image appears on the tiny display on the back of the camera, I immediately know if I've gotten my shot. I also know if I haven't and can usually figure out what I need to do to correct the problem.

RIGHT: Prospective students and parents make their way around the Stephen F. Austin State University campus during a Showcase Saturday event in 2013. Photographed from the top floor of the student center parking garage with a Voigtlander Vito B 35mm viewfinder or scale focus camera.

Not so with film. When shooting analog, there's that sense of anticipation, of not knowing, of wondering, "Was that the one?"

There's also something deeply satisfying, after all that waiting and wondering, in pulling that wet piece of film out of the water bath and holding it up to the light for the first time. So much can go wrong between the time you load the camera and your film is finally processed and permanent. 

It's almost like finding something for the first time, seeing those dripping reversed frames, searching for that one you had locked in your mind and realizing that, yes, that was the one.

A pile of broken concrete demolition debris is stacked in a storage yard under a cloudy sky in October in Nacogdoches in this image from the Voigtlander Vito B scale-focus cameras. Small and easy to use, the Vito B is a fun and sturdy piece of equipment, made in West Germany in the 1950s.

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