I Miss My First (and Only) Medium Format Camera

I Miss My First (and Only) Medium Format Camera

One of the most sickening sounds I have ever heard was the crunch when my just-purchased Mamiya 7 fell out of my passenger seat and onto the pavement outside the post office in Arroyo Seco, New Mexico. The blocky camera managed to neatly pirouette like Simone Biles off the seat, but unlike the GOAT of gymnastics, it was fully in the grips of gravity.

Landing with the lens square onto the pavement, the sound of splintered glass was sickening, the crunch of all the money I had saved up from a summer bartending to buy it. I pulled the lens cap off to a cascade of glass and the realisation that the $US20 ($27) UV filter I bought for the camera was the best investment I had made. It had fractured and a few shards had broken off the filter, but the lens was fine, and, as I found out a few weeks later when my first rolls of film came back, the focus stayed true.

So began my adventure with the first and only serious medium format analogue film camera I ever bought. (I had a Holga, but that’s more a piece of plastic with a lens than a legit camera.) I got the Mamiya 7 after agonizing for months about what the right choice was to shoot my senior thesis. Cheaper twin lens reflex options like a Yashica or Rolliflex, the Mamiya 645, and, for a hot second when I thought every night bartending would be a good one, a Hasselblad all crossed my mind. I ended up with the Mamiya 7 because it was shot a format I found appealing, was a rangefinder with a nice lens, and it was relatively light.

But the irony of the agony and my eventual purchase was that within just a few years, all these cameras would essentially be relics or, at the very least, relegated to aficionados discussing them on hushed tones on messages boards with web design that hasn’t been updated since the mid-2000s. The Mamiya 7 itself — along with all of Mamiya’s analogue medium format cameras — has been discontinued. On the company’s website, it has the ignominious distinction of living on a page entitled “discontinued legacy products” while company’s high-end digital offers get splashy pages. The last time my hands held my Mamiya 7 was on Boxing Day 2010, when I handed it over to a nice retiree who bought it from me on Craigslist. I sold it because I was broke, in debt from grad school, and I hadn’t shot a roll of film in years.

But for the years I was shooting film, nothing could beat that Mamiya 7. A quick primer before we venture back into the analogue photography woods. The most common point and shoot and SLR analogue cameras shoot 35 millimetre film, the rolls of which will look familiar to anyone who has ever taken one to a drug store to get developed. Medium format, though, deals with larger negatives that are 2.4 inches (6 centimeters) tall and varying lengths. My Mamiya 7 shot a format known as 6×7, with the “7” denoting the length in centimeters of the negative.

These larger negatives allow you to capture more detail from the scene in front of you and print images at much bigger sizes. My thesis work was a mix of landscape photography and tourist tchotchkes being hocked in the Southwest, and I knew I wanted to make some big prints so medium format was the answer. I’d taken out various medium format cameras for a spin from my college photo department, but borrowing one for a semester away was a nonstarter. Thus, the Mamiya 7 became mine.

I loved shooting with it for so many reasons. Focusing with a rangefinder, where you basically have to line up two images, was a novel challenge. The camera’s shutter was dead silent, making it easy to snap unobtrusive photos.

And the images. Oh, the images. I spent months taking photos of the endless rows and window displays of tourist junk made in China but being passed off as representing local Indigenous groups and sold by white shop owners. Kokopelli light switch covers stood alongside miniature totem poles and dream catchers (the latter two are from Indigenous groups far from the Southwest), and I wanted to capture the artifice of it all. Rolls of film pilled up of them alongside sunsets blanketing the Southwest skies in fire and fresh snow on the desert sagebrush. Every few weeks, I’d send a batch of film out for processing. Getting my first set of negatives back and peering at them in the light of my window of the place I was renting in Arroyo Seco was a sign I had picked the right camera.

Contact sheets from my Mamiya 7. (Photo: Brian Kahn/Gizmodo)
Contact sheets from my Mamiya 7. (Photo: Brian Kahn/Gizmodo)

Printing the first contact sheets, even without colour balancing, dodging, burning, or any of the darkroom tricks used for final prints, when I returned to school in January was eye-opening. But blowing them up on 24 by 36 inch (61 by 91 centimeter) on Kodak Endura lustre paper was a revelation.

I was, frankly, not a gifted technical photographer. But the camera ended up being forgiving enough for my questionable technical skills, with beautiful images, light grain, and crisp focus. The large prints I made for my gallery show still live in the leftover Endura box tucked in my closet, 17 years after graduating. I can picture them clearly in my mind’s eye even without opening the box for years at a time. The same cannot be said for the written portion of my thesis, which I would have blocked from my mind to avoid a case of permacringe at reading the “deep” thoughts of 23-year-old me.

Another thing I will not forget is that I spent hours in the darkroom huffing chemicals (for art, not fun) while a classmate of mine was in the well-lit computer lab scanning his negatives and using Photoshop 7 to digitally retouch his images. It was a precursor for what was to come. Digital cameras were just coming to the market, albeit at resolutions below the iPhone’s front-facing camera today and prices that were much higher. I had learned how to use Photoshop, but still couldn’t resist the analogue allure of the darkroom. Dodging and burning with a mouse was, at the time, much less appealing to me than waving pieces of cardboard between the enlarger and the photo paper.

But after graduating, I spent years as a ski bum and park ranger. Darkrooms are in short supply in mountain towns and national parks. I wasn’t exactly doing lucrative work either, so excess cash to buy and process film and then pay for prints was in short supply. Besides, what was I going to do? Hang landscape photos in Ford Escort with a leaky rear window?

I still lugged the Mamiya 7 with me dutifully from Gallup, New Mexico, to Crater Lake, Oregon, Jackson, Wyoming, to Ogden, Utah. I even shot a few rolls of film, though I never developed them because the prospect of paying $US10 ($13) for negatives I couldn’t turn into prints readily felt silly. (Of course, buying $US6 ($8) rolls of film and shooting them to not develop is also ridiculous, but do not try to understand the mind of a 25-year-old man.)

So it was that I found myself sleeping on a friend’s couch in the Bay Area, working a temp job for $US12 ($16) an hour after going to grad school right as the global economy collapsed, when it hit me that the Mamiya 7 had to go. It was an artefact of the analogue era, of a different me. More importantly at the time, it was $US1,300 ($1,741)-worth of camera that could pay off credit card debt for me and make someone else happy. So I met Dave, the retiree, in a parking lot near the San Francisco Airport in 2010. He handed me $US1,200 ($1,608) (yeah, I gave him a small discount), I handed him the Mamiya.

I haven’t really picked up a film camera in the intervening years, though I’ve owned a few digital cameras that have brought me joy. My current Fuji X-T1 has a similarly quiet shutter click like the Mamiya 7, and it’s a great camera. But now, I miss the things I took for granted with the Mamiya, gently threading a roll of film into the camera, the satisfying craaaaank of advancing it, not having a digital screen brightly lighting up in my face the moment my eye pulls back from the viewfinder, the ability to only get ten shots per roll, forcing me to slow down and really consider my subject.

Weirdly, I also keep the film I shot but never developed in the back of my closet, too. It’s a decade-plus old, has been through hot and cold weather, and gone from sea level to who knows how high. But maybe it’s finally time to get it developed to see what’s on there, slow down to remember my life before it races away.