My uncle, Gerry Cookman, died on March 5th last year. He had lived an interesting life, studying and working in the US and South America for most of the sixties and seventies. For the last thirty-odd years, however, he lived alone in semi-retirement in Chulmleigh, North Devon, where he was able to focus on his passions for fishing, music, wine, books, films and photography.
Towards the end of the eighties Gerry became interested in classic cameras, and started to visit regular collectors fairs. At first he bought anything that looked interesting, but then decided to specialise in collecting postwar Voigtlanders. Voigtlanders were interesting because there were so many model variations - every Vito, Perkeo, Bessa or Vitessa would have different versions, and within those versions myriad shutter and lens combinations. An almost unending collecting wish list.
So, Gerry bought Voigtlanders… lots of Voigtlanders. And he still picked up other bits and pieces that interested him: nice medium format gear that he’d always fancied, the odd new bit of kit like a Leica M6 or a Contax G3. Latterly he bought binoculars, opera glasses and telescopes (mostly Voigtlander ones). I think he’d pretty much acquired all the Voigtlander cameras he wanted. As far as I know, he never sold any of it (although a Linhof Technica I remember using has yet to surface so maybe I’m wrong). His small thatched cottage in Devon was full, absolutely full, of cameras; vying for space with the books, DVDs and CDs.
Before marriage and kids, I used to go and stay with Gerry regularly – it was my summer holiday for most of the nineties – and we’d always pick out a few cameras and head out for what he called “a spot of lensmanship”. Results would vary, as the camera could often impede creativity as much as help it. I once managed to load a Hasselblad 500CM so that the backing paper, not the film, faced the lens. I’m sure all those shots would have been great if I’d only got the film in the right way round…
So, Gerry is gone now, but his cameras remain, mostly taking up space above my parents’ garage. There are hundreds of them, possibly as many as a thousand - they're in such a jumble I haven't been able to count them. Inevitably the collection, which now belongs to me, my sister and my two cousins, will have to be sold, but I thought in the meantime I’d try a spot more lensmanship with a few of the cameras. There are a lot to choose from and there’s no way I’ll manage to use them all, but it seems a shame for them to just be sold off without a further thought.
I’m at best a competent, rather than talented, photographer and results may indeed vary, but for me the kit, the history and the process are interesting in themselves. My hope is that they may be of interest to others too. If not I’m just doing this for me, which is fine – it gets me out of the house at least…
First off, a slight diversion from the project proper. Here’s a photo of Gerry, taken on the Nikon F2 he bought me.
The F2's notoriously unreliable photomic head didn’t work, so I always used it with a handheld meter. This, I think, gave me better results on the whole than cameras with a built in meter.
I love the robustness of the F2 and its image as a tough photojournalist’s workhorse. I’d always wanted one. I remember seeing Don McCullin’s camera (I think it would have been an F rather than an F2) on display as part of his retrospective at the Barbican. It had been completely caved in by a machine-gun bullet in Vietnam, but had been enough to stop the bullet getting as far as McCullin’s head. There's something appealing about using a camera that could save your life.
My F2 had to survive something less scary than the viet cong, but still quite destructive – my son Sam. When he was three he dropped it whilst sat at the table and it bounced off a metal chair leg. This bent the corner of the top-plate enough to jam the wind-on lever. However, a few well aimed thwacks with a hammer and it was fine again. Can’t do that with your modern digital can you?
So, that's a bit of background and brief bit about a camera. In the next post, I'll come on to the first camera chosen, pretty much at random, from Gerry’s collection.