In the transition from analogue to digital, not many people mourn the disappearance of the camera’s smell. The worn wood and brass warmed by the heat of the studio lights, the whiffs of air from the accordion-like bellow on old glass plate devices, the abrasive scents of the darkroom, all combined into an odorous experience with photography.
“It’s spicy and if you could bottle it, it would make a brilliant aftershave,” David Ellwand writes in Retro Photo: An Obsession, out this month from Candlewick Press. The scent of vintage photography is just part of the England-based collector and photographer’s detailed remarks on his over 100 antique cameras, which are pictured in the book alongside the photographs he took with the retrotech.
“There can’t be many instances in history of a technological change that has left so many beautiful products redundant as the change from film photography to digital,” Ellwand writes in the introduction. “Since William Henry Fox Talbot’s announcement of his negative positive photographic process in 1839, the basic principles had stayed in place for more than 150 years.”
Ellwand is more a photography enthusiast in all its forms than a luddite, noting that being able to shoot a roll of film, expose and process it, then scan it at high-resolution is “the best of both worlds.” He also has an appreciation for the sharpness of Hasselblads along with the light leaks of a 1930s handmade camera. Some models are even kind of busted, like his 1960s Contaflex Super 8 35mm which, at some point, “was dropped and the lens mount suffered damaged.” While it won’t focus, it produces “very soft images with a dreamy quality.” A photograph of blurred poplars in a park demonstrates this imperfect beauty.
The book is not a technical volume, although Ellwand does include tips on using the old cameras. It’s more a labor of love for the many ways photography developed in analogue and the cameras’ disparate ways of capturing the world, whether the hemispherical “fisheye” lens on a rare 1955 Robin Hill Cloud Camera, or the soft muted hues portrayed by a mid-century Finetta.