My cameras: Rolleicord

November 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

I have owned hundreds of cameras and have enjoyed all of them. But the one that has meant the most to me and the one I have kept the longest is my lovely old Rolleicord. I purchased it in New Hampshire in 1974 from a man who had bought it new when he was stationed in Germany. I asked him what he was doing there, and he said “government work.” I asked what kind, and he said, “I’m not allowed to say.” I’ve always hoped that he was photographing the Berlin Wall for the CIA or some other spy mission!

From 1974 to the early 1980s, this camera went everywhere with me. I shot Tri-x and Panatomic X and measured the exposures with an old Weston meter, but through constant practice I got so I could accurately guess the proper Tri-X exposure without metering. I photographed landscapes and still lifes and abstracts and friends and my family and much more.

I had one experience  with this camera that I will always remember. I know it sounds like science fiction, but perhaps it can be excused on the grounds that I was new to photography and intensely involved. One bright, sunny day I was photographing in the vicinity of Durham, New Hampshire, when I came across an old barn with sunlight raking across its weathered boards. I had the Rolleicord on a tripod, and after framing and focusing, I pressed the shutter release. At that moment, I was sure that I “heard” the intense light ricochet off the side of the barn and slap hard against the film inside the Rollei, thus creating the image. It was a mystical moment, certainly, and I am not accustomed to them, but it made me understand how important photography would be for the rest of my life.

The Rolleicord is a stripped-down version of the legendary Rolleiflex, the mainstay camera of press and fashion photographers in the 40s and 50s. Look carefully at the hordes of press photographers snapping pictures of the Beatles and you will still see a lot of Rolleis at work even into the 60s. The Rolleicord was intended for amateur photographers who didn’t need a camera with advanced features. Even though it wasn’t a first-line camera, the Rolleicord was built like a tank and had a very sharp lens. The only downside was a somewhat dark viewfinder. But I overcame that by having a new ground glass installed by Bill Maxwell, whose astonishing products revolutionize the way older cameras work. With the new Maxwell screen, the Rolleicord became a complete joy.

(Info re Maxwell at

I don’t use the Rollei much anymore. I no longer have a home darkroom, and the cost of having film commercially developed and proofed is a little steep. But this is one camera that I don’t plan to sell or trade in. I still admire how lean and efficient it is. To get a large, detailed 2 1/4-inch square negative out of such a relatively small and lightweight box always seems like a miracle. Even in the dazzling age of digital, the Rolleicord remains my favorite.

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