Having obtained all the cameras needed for the Vintage Minolta Love Project, I thought my gear-buying days were ending. Certainly, there is nothing left I need to buy. However, my interest in photography has grown beyond the VMLP, which has led to more reading and a few more purchases. In particular, medium format photography has drawn me in—there is nothing like the “WOW” one gets on looking at that first medium format negative on a lightbox. I love my 35mm gear and lenses, but the clarity and richness of medium-format images are irresistibly enticing. Between my TLRs and the Pentax 645 system, I have everything needed for whatever studio project comes to mind. But TLRs and the Pentax gear are cumbersome for causal use when walking about. Lugging around the Pentax 645 this past summer made me long for a medium format camera I could easily slide into a pocket. I wanted to shoot medium format as easily as 35mm. Enter folding cameras from the 1950s.
The idea of getting a 1950s folder grew out of the final stages of VMLP research when, in the course of researching Minolta’s history, I read about rangefinders and folding cameras from the 1940s and 50s. I remember seeing a few of these cameras in old movies, but the idea of actually using one seemed ridiculous—especially after using a Maxxum 7. Even so, I was intrigued, but intrigue alone wasn’t enough for me to take the plunge. As the idea of using a 50s folder grew more acceptable, I investigated available folding cameras and asked for recommendations. Unhappily, every viable camera was in Japan. Dicey shipping, high prices, and questionable examples of “mint” put my quest on hold.
Buying a 60-year-old camera that works requires persistence and a very healthy dose of skepticism. “Near mint!” seems to mean something different than I assumed. I looked at so many near-mint cameras with peeling covers, rust, and dents that I think eBay has a serious problem translating Japanese. After becoming disenchanted with Japanese sellers, I gave up on the idea of buying from Japan. Once I decided to buy only from US sellers, the pickings became very slim. Eventually, a couple of cameras appeared, but they were no better than their Japanese counterparts. Twice I found Minolta Semi P cameras stated to be “fully” working that were anything but. The shutter of the first did not work at all. The second camera’s shutter only worked in “B” mode—at least the refunds were quick.
My fortunes changed six months ago when a US-based collector decided it was time to say goodbye to his stash of cameras. Among his collection was a Konica Pearl II, a mid-50s folder (6×4.5) with a coupled rangefinder. I had read a few reviews of the Pearl II and, being impressed, wrote to the seller about his copy’s history. He told me the camera was purchased (new) in 1960 while in Japan and had never been used. He said he would check it periodically to ensure it still worked properly, then return it to the display case. Since he had a 30-day return policy, I jumped! When it arrived, I was delighted—the camera looked new!
The second addition is a Minolta Semi P from about 1952. Having dealt previously with two dud Semi Ps, I had concluded that working models in decent condition did not exist here or in Japan. As it turns out, I was wrong. After reading the usual “in working order” in the item description, I contacted the seller. This time I asked every possible question I could think of. After receiving multiple assurances that the camera really did work, I bought it. The asking price was much lower than I had seen for models I knew did NOT work and were much worse cosmetically, so I was prepared to be disappointed. You know what? It works, and it even looks good!!! Slow shutter speeds are good, the glass is clean, and the focus is accurate—even the bellows looks great!
I checked the mechanics of each camera and ran a roll of Arista EDU through the Semi P. The Pearl is loaded with Lomo 100CN and waiting for a sunny day. The last piece of good news is that I found a technician specializing in folding cameras who has agreed to do CLAs. After a little more playtime, I’ll send them off for check-ups.
Pocketable medium format—Sweet!