In 1938, the year that someone first picked up this Voigtlander Bessa camera and looked through the viewfinder, pressing the shutter to preserve a moment in their present, our history, things were getting very unpleasant in Europe: Sigmund Freud was one of the lucky ones to flee the continent for a safer home; the rumblings of the preparations for war were spoiling the mood of the golden years of the Thirties; and the very use of photography would soon become a propaganda tool rather than one for leisure.
Meanwhile, in America, people were still dancing to a freer tune: Benny Goodman was firing up in the Carnegie Hall; Ella Fitzgerald was at the No.1 spot with A Tisket A Tasket; and people were taking to the skies for brighter reasons than they would do for some time hence. The Yankee Clipper completed the 1st passenger flight over the Atlantic and Howard Hughes flew around the world in 91 hours.
But this German-born camera might well go on to see darker images through its shutter. Would it capture war-weary faces, shattered homes, tank-track torn fields?
And as it aged, passed from hand to hand, shoved into a box for the attic, ending up in second hand shops on dusty shelves, maybe being used in a movie as a prop… what would it pass by, blind to images not thought of as worthy of its ageing technology?
So to take it up the windswept, sunlit hill of Caer Caradoc seemed like setting this camera free again: Bessa opened her eye and squinted at the strong light, peering through a lens smeared by hair and dust, struggling to focus.
Bessa and I were looking out over the landscape from Caer Caradoc over lesser-known hills like the Ragleth and the Lawley, as well as the famous Long Mynd, a slumbering dragon of a hill. If you want to find Caer Caradoc, you’ll have to get to Shrewsbury and head due south for 13 miles. Hence the name of this range: the South Shropshire Hills. Not the most iconic or romantic of names, but this is an official Area of Outstanding National Beauty.
For Bessa, this day out represented a renaissance of hope: now her view could fly and soar over freed skies and calm lands. But that’s just the imagination talking. Let’s get back to the reality of the machine…
It is a folding camera, that has pleating (like an accordion or a set of bellows) to allow it to fold down into its case. It takes the medium format film: the negatives are 6x9cm, with an optional internal plate for 6×4.5cm shots (16 shots per roll for the smaller size, 8 for the larger).
You have to set the focus ring to the distance. It’s not like SLR where you see through the actual taking lens until the moment you fire the shutter: you are framing through the tiny square on the top (or side, depending how you’re taking the shot). Not until the advent of rangefinder cameras could you set the focus, and that was a separate lens to the taking lens.
You have to cock the shutter separately from winding the film: the shutter is so quiet, sometimes I wonder whether I’ve remembered to. Bessa is a quiet camera: even the unfolding of the accordion-pleated bellows gives not a whisper or a sigh.
And it has a satisfyingly mechanical routine to its use: you have to unfold the lens and the door opens on thin metal hinges and struts. You essentially rebuild the apparatus each time: there is no quick-click short-cut here. With this camera, you must be the photographer: you don’t just take photographs, you take part.
You have to follow a sequence to take a photo, like a magical spell or incantation… Unlock the door, fold it out until the hinges click into place… Set the aperture, the shutter speed dials, cock the shutter, lift the device to your eye and gently depress the shutter lever… You hear a whisper of a click, of clockwork. Then carefully wind on the film until the next number shows in the red window on the back: It’s very easy to wind too far.
Shooting film is different to digital: you are capturing a moment in time, but almost gently, like a butterfly, knowing that this instant must be caught but not knowing until later whether the net is empty or not. It’s not trying to capture hundreds of butterflies, then deciding later which to keep. There is a sweet agony to the wait…
This camera feels as delicate as a steel contraption could possibly be. It’s fairly sturdy in truth, but I’m always careful : this is a grande dame of a camera. My Voigtlander Bessa has seen a lot. It will continue to be idiosyncratic as it approaches its 70th birthday.
You can see the photographs from the walk by clicking on the link here. Please do comment on them or this blog.
And let us know if you, too, are the proud owner of a Voigtlander Bessa .