Probably the most coveted camera ever made


THE AUTHOR took this photo of himself with a Rollei set on a tripod, by self-timer

In the autumn of 1952, my craving to own a Rolleiflex was getting difficult to bear. That was the year the cold war was heating up, General Dwight Eishenhower and Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson were battling for the US presidency, and I was studying public relations at the Boston University graduate school.

Then one day it became out of the question. Our instructor in photo journalism had required us students to buy or rent a professional camera that could take photos of people, events and grandiose moments.  In other words if I really wanted to learn how to tell stories using photos, I had to have either a Canon III-A, a Leica III-f, a Nikon SP, a Hasselblad C or a Rollei Automat twin lens reflex (TLR). I chose to have the Rollei.

The price of the Rolleiflex Automat with 75mm f3.5 Carl Zeiss Planar lens was $325 at Filene’s department store. This was two times my monthly stipend as Fulbright and Smith-Mundt fellow of the US State Department. I regaled the saleslady with stories about how poor foreign students were and sweet talked her to give me a discount but all she could offer was 10 months installment at $34 a month.

I gave her my first $34 payment, quickly signed the installment agreement and walked out of the store. It wasn’t like winning the Mega Lotto but it was something close. With my prized Rolleiflex in my hands, the clouds suddenly opened up and a bright light shone down on me.

The AUTHOR with his 2 Rollei cameras

In the week that followed I felt like a little boy with a marvellous toy. I would kiss my Rollei like British Open champion Darren Clarke kissed the Claret Jug before he raised it for everyone to see. I would tinker with the self-timer, test the film winding mechanism, align the needle in the built-in light meter, and dust off the lens with an air blower or a soft camel’s hair brush.

I would stand in front of the mirror, look at myself and the Rollei on the 6cm x 6cm glass viewfinder, focus on the tip of my nose, compose a self-portrait and click the leaf shutter. Ah, but the ssshikk sound of the shutter was as quiet as a stolen kiss. Many times I would open the back of the camera, set the aperture to the widest diaphragm while pointing to a light source, and fire the shutter at all speeds from one second to 1/500 of a second to see if the mechanisms were all working.

From Brookline where I lived, I would take the trolley on weekends and roam around the Boston area taking pictures of almost everything: a rowing competition on the Charles river, a baseball game at Fenway Park, a walk at Boston Public Garden, Copley Square and Faneuil Hall Marketplace. Even in school where I was a radiobroadcasting intern, I would set up my Rollei on a tripod and take pictures of myself while doing board work over WBUR.  I had set up a fully equipped darkroom in my boarding house and would spend long nights developing my films, printing them on matte or glossy papers. The best part was in cropping and achieving the right contrast with test strips and exposure reduction techniques.

Shooting waist-level with the Rollei allowed me to covertly photograph strangers that I was shy to confront head-on. I would point my Rollei lenses 90 degrees to my left while looking straight forward. My subjects would sometimes wonder: why was I taking photos of a fence or a road? They didn’t know I was taking pictures of them. But this kind of street photography had a feline slyness that would drain my time. The famous French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson described it like this: “The  photographer must lie in wait, watching out for his prey, and have a presentiment of what is about to happen.”

NINOY Aquino covered the Korean War with a Rollei

When the first Rolleiflex was introduced in 1929, it must have shook the photographic world like a 7.8 earthquake on the Richter scale. From 1945 until 1960, there was no newspaper or magazine that did not have some Rolleiflex photos, no photographer who would not want to master the use of the Rolleiflex, and no amateur who would not greedily desire one.

Even President Aquino’s father, our beloved hero Ninoy Aquino, had the image of a swashbuckling journalist with a Rolleiflex slung over his curdoroy jacket.  Look at your P500 bill and you will see Ninoy with his Rolleiflex camera. In case you didn’t know, Ninoy was then an 18-year-old adventurous reporter who was assigned by the Manila Times to cover the Korean War in 1950-51.

You may not be an ardent follower of photography, nevertheless your mind’s eye would still be full of Rollei photographs done by Richard Avedon or Irving Penn. The provocative calendar photos of Marilyn Monroe, the head shots of  Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren, the cavorting glances of Suzy Parker who was the decade’s most famous model, the portraits of US presidents, and the pictures of thousands of fashion models in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar were the Rolleiflex images captured by these two giants of 20th century photography.

Avedon and Penn were a unique breed who had a  style of their own, a way of seeing things which belonged only to them. Their approach to photography identified their works and became their signature.  In the eyes of his peers, Avedon particularly was the most important fashion photographer of all time. He was never displaced by younger pretenders. He worked with complete concentration to bring out the distinctive quality of his photographs. Once he put a model on roller skates and sent her cruising down the streets of Paris. At another time his model was frolicking between two wild elephants. These two were “picture-makers” rather than “picture takers.” They did not  “take” pictures stealthily in the streets nor catch life on the wing as it flies past the camera lens.  They preferred to “make” photographs as carefully as an architect would design a house.

Of course the quality of a picture does not depend on the camera but on the imagination of the photographer. The camera is only his tool, like the brushes of the painter, the chisels of the sculptor, and the clubs of the golfer. With a rusty six iron pulled out from the attic, Roy McIIroy’s game will beat the hell out of my game any time.   Still, you have to feel comfortable with your camera. The lack of interchangeable lenses and automation of the Rollei allowed me to concentrate on composition and lighting. Most of the time I would set the aperture at  f/8-f/ll and the speed at 1/100 using fine grain ASA 50 film. There are no batteries to go dead, no electronics to fry, no dark slides to lose. The large 6cm x 6cm film size gave me cropping flexibility and always delighted me with sharp and smooth enlargements even up to 24 by 24.

Today everything seems to have gone digital. Cameras now capture images electronically and not  on film. We don’t take pictures and develop them in the darkroom anymore. Instead we rapid-shoot photos and edit them by Aperture or Photoshop. Rather than the Rolleiflex I now use Canon 5D Mark II for professional still shots and to produce Indie films. For photos of friends and officemates, I prefer to use the Canon Powershot G12. It can zoom, focus, set the exposure, and advance the frame automatically which even the Leica MP could not do.  But that’s another story.

(The author is president & CEO of Agatep Associates, a public relations firm,  and group chair of Euro RSCG Philippines, a marketing services and advertising agency affiliated with Euro RSCG Worldwide. He was a professor of PR and Communication Arts at the UST Faculty of Philosophy & Letters, Assumption College and St. Paul University.)

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  • Pedrino Gonzales

    Yes, the Rolleiflex twinlense was a superb camera. The only one which shows the motive even during taking the picture and with excellent lenses.But Rollei, like other German brands, vanished after WW2 when all German patents have been taken away and soon copies at lower prices (and lower quality) filled the markets. Japan first copied cameras up to the smallest detail with big government help. This allowed their industry to expand, improve and at the end to become high quality. esp. since the free patents spared huge costs and knowledge to first invent the goods. Leica, the former non plus ultra in 24/36 mm cameras, was taken over by several firms, one after one. The photo giant AGFA  vanished, only a small compaany making AGFA foto paper remained. being lauded as the best paper for professional use. Now, electronic is at the helm, even the most expensive and advanced camera has no chance to compete with an 14 ASA b/w film and much more not with an 14 ASA color dia positive film like Kodachrome. No electronic picture can be projected up to 15 sqm in a comparable quality to the film.

    • Anonymous

      @Pedrino Gonzales
      You need to get your facts straight. Rollei was an independent company until 1995 when Samsung bought it. In 1999 Samsung sold it back to its internal management. It split into two companies and Rolleis are still being produced today.

      Leica (Leitz changed its name in 1986) split into 3 companies and even today continues producing magical cameras including the M9 and the new S series. It has never been taken over by other companies, although it once produced cameras in Canada and even in cooperation with Minolta. Leica lenses are found on many models of Panasonic digital cameras.

      • Pedrino Gonzales

        Pls. take the facts: What now is sold as Rollei or has nothing to do with the original products. Leitz Wetzlar is not there anymore (but Leica Electrosyatems) and of course not the same people that invented and produced until 1945.  Long before 1986, Leitz was there as Wild-Leitz in Switzerland. For a while I worked in a company which made some parts for Wild. Wild used Leitz lenses for their optical engineering instruments. The companies merged already into one in Heerbrugg, Switzerland. The recent Leicas are good and expensive but not that much ahead of others than the original was. Probably lacking of advanced new inventions sincs films are rarely used now and electronic does not really need an own production, just give specifications and order. . Just think that they still use the now historic old (even still good) lens constructions of the original Leitz lenses. One reason may be that the original company did not just calculate, design and produce the lenses, but also their own optical glass. Only a big company can afford it for a relatively small production. A lens with the same design but not the same glass composition anymore has probably not the same quality. Continuing to produce with an old name does not automatically mean it is really the same. Ernst Leitz was also a very social boss and therefore had very well working and loyal employees.
        There is still a Voigtländer Bessa, a good camera, but has nothing to do with the original Voigtländer, one of the oldest companies in photography. I still have a camera out of the time around WW1.. Exactly because all the patents were open after 1945 it made it possible to produce similar goods with an old name. And when an old firm vanishes, its name can be sold and another company can take over the rights, even it has a complete different product line. And where is the old Zeiss Ikon now?
        There is also still an AGFA production of cameras, but includes clones of other products of other firms.

      • Anonymous

        agxo3, i have been saving money to buy a Panasonic digital cameras only because of its Leica lens. i’m always a Nikon camera user and never owned a Leica.  Is the camera/lens really that good as advertised ???

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