My cameras 2: Zeiss Icarette

May 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

“There is music, and it plays on.”

This thought from Czech photographer Josef Sudek has kept me going through a lot of things, life events as well as photographic endeavors. It certainly sums up the spirit of his art, which is always lyrical and musical and life-giving, even though his life encompassed any number of horrors. He lost an arm in WWI, but his chosen medium was large, cumbersome view cameras that are challenging enough to use even if you have all your limbs. One of his favorite genres was landscape photography, but when the Nazis overran Czechoslovakia, photographing the landscape became a capital crime. And once the Nazis were gone, the rest of Sudek’s life was lived under Communism. But still, his “music” played on through everything.

I first learned of Sudek in the mid 1970s, when a friend showed me Sonya Bulaty’s remarkable monograph of his work. My early delight has gradually turned into a deeper appreciation of how these truthful, celebratory photographs can accompany us for a whole lifetime, offering delight, reassurance, calm, and a kind of wisdom.

Since I am always curious about photographers’ working methods, I did some research on the equipment Sudek used. There were many cameras, most requiring large sheets of film in the range of 5×7 inches to 8×10 inches plus an old Kodak panorama camera that he used to make some of his most beautiful pictures of the Czech countryside. Sudek appreciated the fine detail and smooth tonal qualities that were possible when these large pieces of film were contact printed, rather than being blown up as enlargements.

I noticed that he also used a smaller “pocket” camera (although it’s pretty large compared to our pocket cameras of today), called a Zeiss Icarette. It took 120 roll film and made negatives 2 1/4 by 3 1/4 inches. Sudek used this to make what he called photographic “notes,” tiny contact prints, usually of landscapes. Although I have sometimes used larger sheet-film cameras, my darkroom at the time was set up for roll film, and I decided to try and locate an Icarette of my own, just to see what it felt like to photograph with the same kind of camera Sudek used. This was before the days when the Internet brought the world to our doorsteps, but I was lucky enough to find one in the catalog of a major used-equipment dealer, and before long I had mine mounted on a tripod and was off to the nearby woods and fields. The resulting pictures don’t even remotely resemble Sudek’s, of course, but it was great fun to experience a little bit of what it felt like to work in his mode.  Sudek began his work at a time when light meters had not been invented, and he simply learned to judge exposure times by experience. I remember feeling a little sheepish, waving around my Gossen light meter before each shot! I hope you enjoy these little “Sudek moments.”

Photo of the Icarette taken with an Olympus E-PL1 and kit lens.

Sudek 1

Sudek 2


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