Thursday, July 17, 2014

Ulybka, Tovarishch

Lyla Robison, 4, stands with her family and waves a small American flag as the annual Veterans Parade passes by in the background in downtown Nacogdoches. One of the first images I made with my very first FSU rangefinder, the FED-3.
Okay, so it might seem a bid odd to some to title a posting with a Russian phrase that starts with an image of a young girl holding an American flag at the Veterans Day Parade in downtown Nacogdoches.

But that's alright, since I'm talking this week about rangefinder cameras manufactured in the Former Soviet Union. And for any who are interested, loosely translated, Ulybka, Tovarishch means "Smile, Friend."

With the two cameras I have three lenses: A Helios 103 (53mm/f1.8), a Jupiter 12 (35mm/f2.8) for the Kiev and an Industar 61L (53mm/f2.8) for the FED. Both cameras were purchased off a popular internet auction site (still not going to say it) from buyers in Estonia and Ukraine and are in amazingly good condition, considering their age.

The stories behind these two cameras have been fun to research, almost as much fun as shooting with them has turned out to be over the past several months. They have some quirks, such as it's a bear focusing the Kiev with the 35mm lens on it and the all-metal rings around the viewfinder have scratched the heck out of my glasses. But, overall, I'm really enjoying them.

The FED camera line takes its name from Felix Edmundovich Dzerjinski, statesman and director of the Russian secret police and contemporary of Lenin, often considered a hero of the Russian Revolution. The cameras started out as pretty faithful copies of the Leica I camera of the 1920s. In fact, just after I shot the image that leads off this post, another photographer in town stopped me and asked me where I got the Leica.

An unidentified flea market vendor in his booth with baby clothes Nov. 10, 2013, at Millard's Crossing Flea Market.

After the Leica made its splash on the world, the Russians wanted a home-grown camera of their own, and copying the basic design of an already-successful model probably seemed like a good idea. And face it, for what it is, the FED cameras are pretty darn good. So much so that some early models were patterned so closely after the Leica I, some FED I's are being sold today (by unscrupulous sellers) as genuine Leica cameras.

The Kiev story is somewhat more convoluted. The cameras are patterned directly from designs — and even actual cameras — from the Zeiss Ikon company of Dresden, Germany, which were taken by the Soviets as part of the war reparations at the close of World War II.

After being built for a few years in Germany, production was shipped to Kiev in Ukraine, the name of the camera was changed, and a new camera line was born.

The FSU cameras really aren't known, or at least weren't until recently, outside of the Former Soviet Union. But there's a growing fascination with, and appreciation of, the numerous different types of cameras produced there. A world-wide network of photographers, both amateur and professional, have rediscovered the cameras and are using them for everything from fun snaps to art photography shoots.

I can see, having worked with these two cameras for several months, what the attraction is. Like most of the cameras from that era, there's a satisfying weight to the devices. Unlike several of the modern cameras today, the FSU cameras I've worked with just feel more substantial.

Grass grows through the ties on an abandoned length of railroad track in late June, photographed with the Kiev IV camera and Jupiter 12 35mm f2.8 lens in Nacogdoches.

And the lenses are at least as good as their more expensive counterparts. That is said with a caveat:
Nothing beats the Leica or Contax optics, even today. But the lenses manufactured in the Former Soviet Union for these cameras are good.

Part of the attraction, I think, is these cameras can be real conversation starters. But, in the day of compact digital point-and-shoot cameras and smart phone images, pulling a silver and black metal machine off you hip and spending the time to focus and estimate or meter exposure and everything else that goes along with shooting a 60-plus year old analog camera tends to draw attention.

I've had a number of conversations with people which have led to impromptu photo sessions, not just with the FSUs, but with many of the analog cameras I'm using in this project. And the looks I get sometimes are pretty amazing, particularly from younger people, most of whom have probably never seen a camera that shoots film before unless it's a disposable camera.

Marion Upshaw performs Saturday, June 14, 2014, during the blueberry pancake breakfast downtown to help kick off the annual Texas Blueberry Festival in Nacogdoches, photographed with the FED-3 camera and Industar 61, 53mm/f2.8 lens

That's part of the reason I jumped into this Analog East Texas project at the beginning of the year. I wanted to introduce people to a little bit of the history of photography. The best way I could think of to do that was to dig out some of my old cameras and start showing people what they can do.

They may not be the latest technology but, with few exceptions, they were pretty much state-of-the-art when they were designed and built. And through the images I'm sharing here and other places, hopefully, my readers will get a peek at what photography used to be like.

Imaging making really hasn't changed that much since photography and the photographic processes were invented. But it's not really about the tools. It's all about the technique.

"I'm a grinner," says vendor Dorothy Brewer as she poses for a photo with a FED-3 rangefinder camera in front of her booth at Millard's Crossing Flea Market on Nov. 10, 2013, MIllard's Crossing Flea Market.

Analog East Texas is an ongoing photographic project by Andrew D. Brosig, photo editor for The Daily Sentinel. Each month, Analog East Texas will highlight an antique film camera from Brosig’s personal collection.
The idea behind the project is to explore the technology and technique that inspired both amateur and professional photographers in the pre-digital age. Analog East Texas also gives the photographer a chance to return to his roots in nondigital, film-based photography.
In addition to these pages, you may follow the project at

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