Monday, January 8, 2018

Half a Ghost Story

Way back when I was was just a pain in the ass kid with a camera, my next door neighbor noticed that photography was something that I seemed to be obsessed with and was thoughtful enough to gift me all of her late husband's camera gear. This was in the seventies. Her husband had passed away sometime in the late 50s/early 60s so the equipment she gave me was just bordering on vintage, in mint condition and with the last roll of film half exposed and still in camera.

Everything was mechanical, gun metal grey and bakelite. There were lots of widgets who's function I could only guess at, a deadly serious looking Wesson exposure meter and maybe most interesting of all, an Olympus 35mm half frame camera. "Half frame" means that each exposure is exactly 50% smaller that a regular image. Instead of a horizontal 36x24 mm negative, you get two vertical images squeezed into the same space. This magically doubles the number of photos on a roll of film from 36 to 72 but of course, has the drawback that with the smaller size, each photo is limited to half the resolution of a regular image.
A bit worse for the wear, my Olympus half frame.
And the whole thing was entirely mechanical, not a battery, power switch or circuit to be found. The 22.5mm lens gave it a wide angle field of view with a correspondingly vast depth of field. You could set the focus to 5 feet and expect that everything from that distance to infinity would be razor sharp. I didn't appreciate it at the time but the lack of a dslr mirror meant it was as quiet as a Leica. Combine that with it's small size, ridiculously sharp range of focus and whisper quiet operation, and you had something close to a perfect street or travel camera.

The half frame format doubled the number of exposures per roll of film to 72. Handy when shooting a bunch of fidgety twins and grandparents.

Notably absent was any kind of flash equipment. Flashbulbs were still state of the art at the time and electronic flash reserved for pros with the budgets to afford them. More about this later.

I was just getting familiar with the camera, when the back unexpectedly popped off and exposed what was left of the film. I had made a mental note to have the film processed and as a token of gratitude, give the prints to my neighbor. It upset me to realize that all the images that had been patiently waiting there for all those years were now gone forever. This was I thought, bad karma.

Later that weekend we headed upstate to a friends country house. At one point, there were a few people sitting around a table, busily making short work of some donuts and apple cider. I was a few feet away, my eye glued to the viewfinder as I tried to frame them in and get familiar with the camera controls.

It was as I was looking through the viewfinder, that I saw a brilliant flash of light reflecting off all the walls in the room.

No noise... just pure, white light. I've fired off hundreds of thousands of flashes in my life and each one is accompanied by an audible pop as the capacitor discharges. This was conspicuous by its quiet. Just brilliant, room filling light and then, nothing.

My first thought was that someone had fired a flash from behind me but as I swiveled my head around I was surprised to not find anyone there. Maybe a car headlight was my next thought but again, there were no windows or doors where that angle would have made sense.

My girlfriend, sitting at the table with everyone else looked at me quizzically... "I thought you said there wasn't a flash on that camera?"

Of course, no. There wasn't. Still, everyone sitting around the table had the same description of a ball of light coming from the camera at the same moment I saw the corresponding reflections bouncing off the walls.

These frames were taken a few seconds apart. Sometime in between, everyone witnessed the ball of light. The expressions are basically, "you're kidding, right?".

Now this might be a good time to interject that I'm a devout agnostic, not the least bit superstitious and have zero tolerance for psychic mumbo jumbo. Still, something really odd and inexplicable happened that night and witnessed by a group of people who years later, still recall all the details as if it happened yesterday.

So the ghost part of the story ends there. I know... maybe not a full blown ghost story but this is after all, a photography blog. And no, that ball of light thing? It never, ever happened again.

We did spend the rest of the weekend trying to come up with plausible interpretations of what happened... blown out light bulbs, power surges, drug related hallucinations (it was the 70s after all) but nothing ever came close to a satisfactory explanation. If there are any mystics or physicists out there, I'd welcome your interest.

But I Really Liked the Camera

Paranormal phenomenon aside, it did turn out to be a really great little camera. In retrospect, it's limitations forced me to learn more about photography than I would have with any conventional camera. Not having an built in meter made me pretty savvy at estimating exposures. The small size made it easy to keep stashed away in my jacket pocket. Having 72 frames to to play with meant I could afford to shoot and experiment as much as I wanted without going broke. The small negative size forced me to actually pay attention to what was in the viewfinder and intentionally crop tight... I didn't have the luxury of a lot of pixels to waste. Decades before smartphones gave people the possibility of always having a camera with them, this gave me the tools to do the same.

Driving around New York late one night I even put it through its landscape paces. The cross shaped highlights on the lights are from the minimal number of blades on the diaphragm. I've printed them out at 11x14 and still found the grain and sharpness to be not only acceptable but to have a kind of filmy character not easily reproduced in digital.

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