My Second Camera

My second camera was a 35mm Honeywell Pentax Spotmatic. Honeywell, largely a defense contractor now, marketed Pentax cameras in 1960s and 70s. The Pentax was made in Japan by Asahi Optical, but the cameras exported to the U.S. bore the Honeywell name.
In 1969, I lusted for a Nikon or Canon like those advertised and written about in the photography magazines. But they cost more than the Pentax, and I found a Pentax advertised for an unusually low price.  So I went to New York with cash to buy one. I expected a store at the company address, but it was an old office building in the West 30s. The company was on an upper floor and the company's door on a dreary hallway was locked.

At that point, I should have turned around and gone home or to a legitimate camera store. Instead, I knocked on the door. A middle-aged, bald guy answered. He too my money and gruffly ordered me to wait there in the hall. I waited for what seemed like a long, long time. Then, he came back with the Pentax in new packaging. He commented on what a great deal I was getting and closed the door. 

He was right. It was a good deal and a fine camera, compact and rugged. I had lucked out.

I was an enthusiastic truck driver at the time and wanted to photograph trucks. I shot along Rt. 17 in New Jersey and on the Cross-Bronx Expressway (I-95) where it crosses the Harlem River into Manhattan. I shot in Upstate New York and Lancaster County Pennsylvania, piling up file folders of contact sheets and envelopes of negatives. I sent some prints to Fleet Owner Magazine, then a McGraw-Hill business publication based in New York. The editor liked them so much that he put me on the magazine's masthead as Fleet Owner's official photographer. I would eventually join the magazineís staff as an editor, but that would take another 10 years.

Iím not sure why I was so stingy about buying a camera in 1969. Peg and I had been married for two years, and we were both working. I made good money as a Teamster driver for A-P-A Transport, a commercial freight company, and we had money in the bank.

That was about to change.
In 1971, Peg became pregnant and we needed to buy a house. After our daughter, Berne, was born that October, Peg stayed home to care for her and we were down to one paycheck even as the expenses of a newborn and a ramshackle old house were rising. Things got worse two years later. Through a series of missteps, I found myself out of work in the recession that followed the Yom Kippur War, the Arab Oil Embargo, and the gasoline shortage at the end of 1973. In fact, I was unemployed for the entire calendar year of 1974, a year of deep recession.

I never collected an unemployment check. Instead, I hustled work by the day, getting paid under the table - no taxes or benefits deducted. And Peg stepped up. As a sewing expert and writer, she began freelancing. In May, we discovered we were pregnant again. That added stress, yet between us we kept it together. The mortgage was always paid and so were all the rest of the bills. There may have been a late fee here and there, but that was because I took care of the money, not Peg, and I was hardly as competent as she would be when I finally asked her to take over. With few exceptions, there was no money for retail film or processing, so I bought black and white, Kodak Tri-X film in bulk and rolled it into canisters to use in the Pentax. I did my own developing and printing in the basement. But I didnít do it well. The developed film strips were not well cleaned, and the images on the negatives began to crack. The negatives themselves began to curl.

I wanted to save them until retirement or some future time when I could make prints again. In the meanwhile, of course, analog photography gave way to digital. I would be scanning negatives, not making prints from them. Still, the negatives are densely laced with jagged lines like cobwebs. The curling made them difficult to scan, and once scanned many of the images are impossible to clean up, even with the best tools Photoshop has to offer. I did the best I could with the examples on this page and the 1974 page, but still fell short.

During that stressful year, I worked most days, but not all, and on the days I did not work, I took my Pentax to some of the fascinating, abandoned places I had seen as a truck driver.

Here I am at age 32 on an empty Hudson River pier in Edgewater, N.J., showing off for my tripod-mounted Pentax with its 20-second self-timer. Twenty seconds is not a lot of time to climb off the platform onto the former rail bed and strike an insouciant pose. Without autofocus, getting a sharp picture was not easy. I had to do it three times, which was pretty extravagant considering each shot cost about a quarter even in black and white. That's the equivalent of a $1.50 today.

This pier and this picture marked the start of an extraordinary autumn. I gave whatever time I could to photographing places like this. They were ephemeral and compelling. Photographing them felt somehow like an important thing to do. I had the mojo. It was as though the Pentax was working by itself, aiming and composing each shot. All I had to do was hold it and push the button. 

The compulsive pursuit lasted for three months, until I was offered a job in early January of 1975. The old buildings were still there, the camera still worked, and weekends offered free time. With a regular paycheck, photography was affordable. But it was over. To this day Iím not sure why, but that January I stopped aiming my revered Pentax at anything other than my young family. I still had the great camera long after the kids grew up. It was still working well when it was sold in the house sale 50 years after I bought it.

The Pentax had been a bargain indeed.

The story has a coda. During those three months in 1974, as I cataloged the brick and steel carcasses left by retreating industries, it occurred to me there might be a market for the pictures. The Bergen Record newspaper bought two of my prints for a regular photo feature. Maybe an art director somewhere was looking for just what I was doing. So I began looking up nearby publishers. At the bottom of the list was the New Jersey Bell Telephone Company in Newark. They published a magazine among other things.

I took my photographs to N.J Bell in a three ring binder. The art director came to the lobby with two or three younger people from her department. They passed the binder around and looked at it over each otherís shoulders.

Interesting, she said. But she had no immediate need for what I had presented. It was late December, and NJ Bell was the last such call I would make. In the first week of January, after a year without steady work, I became an outside salesman for a trucking company. I wore a suit, rode around in a company car and talked to people about trucking. It was a good job.

One day during my first week, the boss passed on a message to call Peg. Peg in turn said I had gotten a call from New Jersey Bell Telephone. She gave a me number to call. It was the art director.

She wanted me to photograph the cities of New Jersey. The assignment was open ended. I could select the cities - Newark, Paterson, Trenton, etc. - and shoot whatever subjects in them I chose. They wanted my impressions of urban New Jersey based on the photos I had shown them, the black and whites of abandoned structures, the architecture of a dying economy. She said they would pay my day rate for a five-day week. It was a dream assignment.

But after a year of official unemployment, things were finally looking up for us. I could not ask my new boss for a week off in my first week on the job. There wasnít really much to think about.

I declined the assignment.

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