The Telltale Tessar
By Reed George
20 Jun 2010
TRUE! I've bought another old camera. But, why will you judge me a gearhead? Please listen to how rationally I tell my tale, and how clearly my thoughts justify my actions. These are clearly not the actions of a thoughtless gearhead.
It began with my casual browsing of that internet auction site; you know the one. It was just a way to pass the time. I had no need for additional cameras, especially a medium format folder. For in my small collection, put out of normal view by my family members (I would not want to bother them), I already had three excellent folders. This is a small number, I know, in comparison to the 35mm rangefinders and single lens reflexes, which are the basics of any collection, should you choose to call my meager set a collection. No one needs to see those few cameras in the downstairs closet anyway, do they? I could hardly be called a gearhead, when all of my cameras are in boxes, out of the way of normal household business.
Anyway, while casually browsing this site, I decided, just as a matter of course, to use a custom search that I'd set up earlier - not looking for anything in particular, mind you. Sure, it is a search specifically for equipment made by the world-famous Carl Zeiss, but that's the extent of its specificity. Hardly a senseless gearhead's approach; it was just a casual browse, really.
And anyway, we all know that one must be careful on the auction sites, especially regarding camera gear. Even with my meager experience on the site over the past ten years, I've learned that terms like "minty" don't mean the same as "in mint condition," and that "I don't know much about cameras," and "I don't know if it works" usually mean that it definitely doesn't work. That's why I treat my occasional browsing expeditions there as I would recreational gambling. I set my limits, and don't go beyond them, except when something truly special comes up. And, I don't fall in love with any particular item, unless again, it's truly exceptional. I mean, I'm not a gearhead like some of those fools out there, right?
Then, quite by chance, I came upon an ad for a Zeiss medium format folding camera. I think you'll see that what happened next cannot possibly gain me the label of gearhead. Now, I don't usually take illogical chances with my funds, especially for cameras that are not shown well in the ad. I mean, this one didn't even have the old leather case open in the photograph. It could have been empty for all I knew. It also said that the seller didn't know if the camera worked. I've already alluded to what that usually means. But, after checking the seller's other ads, I was convinced that they truly didn't know much about cameras. This was the only piece of photography equipment that they were selling. Plus, and this may again tempt you to label me, this little camera seemed to beckon me with its un-revealing little postage stamp sized image in the ad, and its lack of detailed description.
Not to be lulled into an uninformed decision, I quickly looked the camera model up in several of my camera sites online with which I had become familiar through various means. It was a Zeiss Ikonta 521/16, manufactured from 1948-1953. It used 120 film, which is still available, and produced 6x6 (2 ¼" square) images. Folded inside the black and silver body, if they were still intact, I would find a folding bellows, shutter, and lens. The lens is the heart of any camera. This one could be found with one of three lenses, ranging from the pedestrian Novar with a maximum aperture of f4.5 (rather slow), the better Novar f3.5, or one of the legends of Carl Zeiss optics - the Tessar f3.5, also known as the "Eagle's Eye" in collector camera lore. Sure, the camera was old, undescribed, unshown in the photograph, and required the user to find and buy film, guess focus distance and exposure, and send off film for processing, but what if it had the Eagle's Eye?
Well, I think you'll now see that I was completely in control of my senses when I put in my bid for this little mystery, no? I bid a little more than I had originally set as my limit, but think of the possibilities that this little camera represented!
You can imagine my surprise when I won the bidding. Now this is the point that a gearhead would have fallen head over heels into excitement. Sure, I thought "What if it turns out to be a Tessar?," but only a few times per day, until it showed up at my office door. I have cameras shipped to my office, on the infrequent occasions that I buy them. This is purely a matter of consideration for my wife. I would not want to have her disturbed by the delivery of a package for me while I'm at work. In fact, I'm so vigilant about not disturbing her that I unpack them at the office, and usually carry them home inside my briefcase. That way, she's unlikely to even notice, let alone be disturbed or inconvenienced.
Anyway, after a few long days, it arrived. The box was musty smelling when I opened it during my workday. Of course I wanted to get it opened and put away before it interrupted my own work. Best to get it out of the way as soon as possible, I'm sure you will agree. This was certainly not the rampant thought of a gearhead. As I removed the camera from the box, I began to have some misgivings. What if inside that same case shown in the ad there lie a fungus-ridden old Novar, or worse, moth-eaten bellows, a scratched or broken lens, and a frozen shutter?
But what did I find inside that case? That lovely, clear, glass Eagle's Eye of a Tessar! And very clean at that! The shutter was a little sluggish, but nothing that a quick drop of lighter fluid didn't immediately free up, good as new, and with only minor extension of my work interruption. But, the surprises were not yet over. What's this? Film inside!
I had to assume that the film would be ruined, correct? What were the chances that the camera hadn't been opened in the years since that old roll was loaded? Pretty slim, I must say. So, I calmly wound it on, removed it from the camera, and put it in my pocket for later testing.
It wasn't really that much later that I got the opportunity to see what was on the film, if anything. In fact, it wasn't as inconvenient as it sounds, going out after the landmark snow storm of 2010 to shoot my own roll of film in the camera. I just happened to have several rolls of unexposed 120 film lying around in my office. Not because I'm a gearhead, mind you. I just had them around for shooting with my other cameras. So, on the day after I received the camera, I was in the darkroom developing both films, mine and the one found already in the camera. I know, you may be thinking that only gearheads have access to a darkroom in today's digital world; it was really just a small dark bag, a stainless steel developing tank, and the necessary chemicals. Quite minimal facilities, really. Anyone could happen into them.
Much to my surprise, the found film contained excellent images. As I unrolled them from the developing spool, I was mesmerized by images that had been latent on that film for many years. This was obvious by the dress of the people captured in them (see the first three B&W images - these are the FOUND FILM, not mine). And, I thought I recognized some buildings. And what was this? Images of military helicopters?
Well, I wasted no time in scanning the negatives. Who would? I quickly posted some to my photographic colleagues, all rank enthusiasts, no gearheads among us, to see what they may be able to add to the story. Quickly, the helicopters were identified as Sikorsky S-61s, first manufactured in 1959. The seal visible on one made it clear that it was a United States presidential craft. The city was determined to be Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, based on Independence Hall in the background. With all of these pieces in place, the group's best guess was that these images were taken on July 4, 1962, when President John Fitzgerald Kennedy gave a speech in Philadelphia. Now you can certainly see that my fortune was the result of casual luck and care in processing. Again, clearly not the irrational actions of a simple gearhead!
It also turns out that my own images, taken while knee-deep in the snow from this year's epic storm (it wasn't that inconvenient, really, anyone would have gone out in it), showed the excellent qualities of this old camera, which had not been used, or even opened in almost 48 years! I was impressed at the shallow depth of field that could be achieved, even at the modest wide aperture of f3.5. This is one of the differences between standard 35mm and medium formats. The medium format cameras use longer focal length lenses, resulting in shallower depth of field at comparable apertures. I just happened to know this from the few cameras I'd used in the past. It's not like I have an encyclopedia of photographic information in my head; I'm not a gearhead, after all. Yet, I may understand your initial thoughts to the contrary.
So, in the end, this turns out to be the nicest medium format folding camera that I've ever seen, let alone owned. Some would say that it's all I could ever need in a folding camera. Of course, there's no reason to sell my others that I had before this; they don't bother anyone in the back of that closet. But this camera, the Zeiss Ikonta 521/16 with that wonderful Eagle's Eye Tessar, which only passes light in tiny increments of tens or hundredths of seconds, yet sees all, is truly a crown jewel in my collection. If you choose to call my humble belongings a collection, that is. As I have said, I am not a gearhead, and far less may I be considered a collector.
Of course by now you see that I am not caught up in this game of buying old cameras, as you may have suspected at the outset. I am not looking for anything in particular, just casually browsing... Well, of course I continue to use my custom searches, right? They have worked so well in the past. And who knows what else is out there to discover? And, as I have now told you, that Tessar sits shining in my closet. Condemn me if you must! But surely I am not a gearhead. The pure logic and clearness of my thoughts captured in this story all but prove it...