You may or may not be aware of a recent article I wrote for Frozen Wasteland about my Leica IIIa and the significant impact that that camera had on a number of the philosophical and practical aspects of my approach to photography. This article is mainly about a purchase that happened after that article and a reflection on what I learned in the aftermath.
If you have not read the aforementioned piece you can find it here for some added context but to sum up the primary point on the impact of the Leica IIIa I will offer an extended quote from that essay:
That old Leica, in its quiet simplicity, allowed me the ability to simply walk, to think, to experience, and ultimately to engage in the photographic process in a way that was richer and unencumbered by overmuch technical concern, plunged into the depths of life rather than the lifeless arena of technics. It showed me a way to blend the rich and meaningful content of my experience with my photographic work in a way that previous cameras had, for whatever reason, not. In becoming an invisible component of the rich and meaningful context of my lived experience the Leica enabled me to partake in the photographic process not simply in a detached, technical manner, but in a new, engaged, and more meaningful way deeply in contact with the heart of what mattered to me as a photographer.
Enter: The Zorki
Understandably, writing that essay opened the floodgates on old memories of walking in the forest shooting that antiquated gem and the impact it had on me. Also understandably I began to feel nostalgic for the memories and for the experiences tied to them. It’s hard to reflect on such a powerful period in my “artistic development” and not wish to revisit it. Anyway, you can pretty much do the math to see how this turns into, “I need to find another Barnack Leica and get back to that place.”
Thankfully I at least had the wherewithal to recognize that I was acting mostly out of nostalgia and was therefore not about to throw down a few hundred dollars on an actual Barnack Leica in a fit of nostalgia driven lust. Also thankfully the Soviets made millions of Barnack Leica copies that can be had relatively inexpensively under the names FED and Zorki. I was able to pick up the beautiful Zorki 1 and Industar-22 below for a measly $50, yeah dollar-sign-5-0.
A disappointing walk on the river (In some respects)
I got the Zorki a couple days after making the purchase because it came from a local seller and upon receiving it I was amazed at how closely the user experience felt to my old Leica, at least from what I could tell fiddling with it in the kitchen. It makes sense given that the FED and Zorki cameras were literal copies of the Leica II. Nevertheless I had been a bit unsure of what to expect because of the somewhat dodgy reputation that follows the Soviet Leica copies. I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised, however. Maybe some of the knobs and dials don’t have the same tactile sense of mechanical perfection, but they could hardly be called sloppy. I would say that a good Zorki or FED gets you 95% of the way to a Barnack Leica. I’m sure it also helps that my copies of the Zorki 1 and Industar-22 seem to be in as good if not better mechanical and aesthetic shape than my Leica IIIa and I now wonder if the poor reputation has more to do with cameras that have been poorly cared for rather than any meaningful difference in initial quality. I could be wrong though. Whatever the answer is, whoever had owned my Zorki and Industar combo had clearly taken good care of it over the years.
Very pleased with my new Leica-Stand-In I decided to christen the Zorki with a cool summer morning walk in the forests along the Sauk river not far from my home (shocking, I know). Unsurprisingly in actual practice the Zorki 1 felt remarkably similar to the Leica. Winding the film advance knob, setting the shutter speed, peering into the rangefinder window to focus and composing through the tiny peephole viewfinder all felt functionally indistinguishable from shooting the Leica. In this regard I do have to say that the Zorki is a beautiful little camera and I would certainly recommend one to anyone thinking about picking one up. The results out of the Industar-22, while having a obvious vintage signature, is also very capable.
But, somewhat to my disappointment, this is where the similarities with my memories ended. I wasn't magically transported into some other mode of image making as I had hoped. I wasn't transported back to that rich and meaningful experience that I had learned so much from. I was just out on another walk, making photos, like I do all the time. The most profound difference was that I was shooting a Zorki instead of any number of the other cameras I use. The rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia had cracked and I was left with the immediate awareness of the foolishness of the whole venture I had embarked upon.
On the shortcomings of magical thinking - Against G.A.S.
At first blush the reasoning seemed passable, right? “I had a profoundly enlightening experience while shooting a Barnack Leica. Therefore I should get another Barnack Leica (or something sufficiently close) to get back to that same experience.” But the line of thinking does belie an insidious assumption about a kind of magical power of tools. To be sure I did have a profound experience when I began working with the Leica IIIa, but there was a kind of deification of the tool in my nostalgic reflections that hinged on the assumption that that experience was directly tied to the tool itself and not the incomprehensibly complex web of other factors also at work. This point was what was made abundantly clear to me in the rather underwhelming experience I had shooting the Zorki. The Zorki was just a Zorki, just another camera not a magic portal to divine inspiration or something. But of course. With the clarity of hindsight, what else was I expecting?
It’s not a secret that I and many other photographer’s I know suffer from G.A.S.. It’s real. I’m pretty sure the entire camera industry is supported by it. But having spent a decent amount of time reflecting on what drives the seemingly insatiable need for new or different equipment in myself I have come to the view that at least some percentage of it is driven by the kinds of magical qualities we attribute to tools, the same kind of magical powers I attributed to the Zorki. The perfect camera as magic bullet for our creative ills, so to speak. Of course we all know that a Leica (or insert your own dream camera of choice) won’t make us better photographers. We know we will still take shitty photos with the fanciest camera in the world if we can’t already make good photos with what we already have.
But externalizations of our shortcomings are easier than soul searching (which is where all important progress will be made), so this kind of G.A.S. drives us to continue trying to fill in the gaps with new/better/different equipment, just the way I sought to shortcut my way back into that space I remembered with the Zorki. But it didn’t work, because it never does, because any focus on gear fundamentally misses what making good work is actually about. So that’s what I learned from the Zorki, or maybe we could say that’s what I was reminded of, because we all already know the realities of the situation when we lust for some new piece of equipment.
White whales are a danger I think photographers already know about, even if we seldom act on the basis of that knowledge for reasons mentioned above. We already understand the superfluousness of chasing gear. If anything this article probably restates a truism, alongside a very brief review of the Zorki. But maybe it can be a helpful reminder not to focus on the tools, and to remember to keep our eyes trained on the deeper matters in our work.