Servicing Vintage Cameras

Last night I packed up one of my old cameras, a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex camera of 1950’s vintage, to send to a technician for servicing. The camera had been serviced, but not very expertly, about eight years ago, and could use a re-do. It needs a good CLA, or Clean, Lube, and Adjust; and the film-winding crank is stiff and squeaky, which should never be the case in a mechanical jewel like a Rolleiflex.

Cameras of this age are generally all-mechanical works of functional art, made by craftsmen. They are mostly metal, with a few plastic components. Those get brittle with age; lubricants – of which there can be ten different types in a single camera – dry out and gum things up, unless they are periodically removed with solvent and replaced judiciously. Mechanical, spring-actuated shutters get out of adjustment and result in over-or underexposure. Other parts just stop working with age. The Rolleiflex, for instance, has a selenium-cell light meter. Selenium cells by their nature cease function after a certain number of years, and haven’t been manufactured for some time. As far as I know, there is no modern replacement for that old tech that can be installed into the camera and calibrated to work. Luckily, the light meter is non-critical; the camera works fine without it, and I can use a handheld meter, or simply guess at the exposure. I’ve gotten reasonably good at that over the years.

I have probably half a dozen older cameras, none of which is in current production. In most cases, like the Rolleiflex, the companies that made them no longer exist. As you can imagine, this can make sourcing parts a dicey proposition. The better technicians keep a stock of parts salvaged from unrepairable cameras, or bought from the manufacturers while they were still available, and hoarded against future need. In some cases, simple parts can be fabricated new; this could be a great place to put a 3D printer to use.

But the larger problem is that nearly every technician I’ve interacted with is at least middle-aged, like me, if not older. They and I will likely be retiring at around the same age, and there can’t be many people clamoring to learn their craft and carry on the tradition. If vintage cameras are slowly – or rapidly – disappearing, who’d want to bother learning how to repair them?

For instance, a few years back I sent a Crown Graphic camera to a gentleman based in Nevada, who had been a service technician for the Graflex company. He’d bought out Graflex’s stock of parts when that company ceased to exist. He went into business for himself servicing the Speed Graphic and Crown Graphic cameras that company made. These are the old-fashioned, boxy “press” cameras of film-noir fame; you’d know one if you saw one. They were ubiquitous until the 60’s, when smaller, more convenient cameras displaced them. The fellow was advanced in years, and had been in poor health, when I sent my camera to him a decade ago. He died in 2014, and I know of no one else living with his fund of knowledge and skill in repairing Graflex cameras.

I think I’ll be able to source film for as long as I want to shoot it; film has made a comeback over the last few years, and the big film companies have figured out how to make it profitably at much lower production volumes than during their heyday. Heck, Kodak alone has recently resurrected two films, one a beloved high-speed B&W emulsion, the other a color-transparency film. Processing is a concern for color film. But as long as someone is shooting it, I should be able to get it developed, albeit at an ever-increasing price. Black-and-white processing doesn’t worry me at all; it’s brain-dead simple, and the chemicals required are abundant and easy to acquire. You can develop B&W film in coffee, believe it or not.

I think what will finally drive me to all-digital photography will be when I can no longer get a broken camera repaired because there’s no one trained to do the work. I suspect this will happen even before I make it to that Darkroom In The Sky, and my camera closet will then become a museum. Carpe diem et imagonem photographicam, I might say.

Michael Sebastian @mikeseb