Part 3: Kodak Retina
This is part 3 of an on-going series titled "My Grandfather's Cameras." I never met my paternal grandfather, Robert Diefenbach. He passed away in 1969. His small collection of cameras sat in a basement for 45 years until they were handed down to me in the spring of 2014, still loaded with film. Read more in Part 1: Argus C4 and Part 2: Argus C3
The Kodak Retina (Type 117, aka the “Original Retina”) is a gorgeous camera made from 1934 to 1935. Despite being branded a “Kodak,” this piece was actually made in Germany as evidenced by the German writing on the bottom of the camera. This was Kodak’s first camera to use their proprietary 35mm film canister, making this the oldest camera in the world (I think) that can use tradition 35mm roll film, still available today.
Although it was given to me as part of my grandfather’s small collection, I have a suspicion it may have originally been owned by his father-in-law, Claire Straith (my great-grandfather).
In 1936, my great-grandfather Straith and his wife went on an extremely expensive vacation from Detroit to Hawaii, by way of cruise ship between San Francisco and Hawaii. My father found old video footage shot by Clair Straith of this trip to Hawaii shot on a personal Kodak Cinema camera.
I think it is safe to say that if Straith had bought the movie camera for the trip, he also would have purchased a still camera. This Kodak Retina was brand new. And so, I can imagine he purchased it for that trip.
Kodak Retina is even more difficult to use the the Argus C3 or C4. Mainly due to the tiny control interface for aperture, shutter speed, and focus. The viewfinder is just a metal box, which I later found wasn’t terribly accurate.
Although I began photographing with the Retina over a year ago, I found myself rarely brining it outside. It is in excellent working condition, and I was so afraid of damaging it. Recently, the perfect opportunity presented itself: Giants Spring Training in Scottsdale Arizona.
In March, I flew out to Virginia to help my best friend, Ian, move back to California. Both of us being San Francisco natives and life-long Giants fans, a stop by Scottsdale, Arizona, was most definitely on the program.
Upon arriving at Spring Training I immediately noticed how much the Retina slows you down. It might as well be a 4×5 without the tripod. And in many ways it is. The bellows and shutter cock are just smaller versions of a large format camera. But at least with the 4×5 you get a ground glass you can use to focus and frame. I have neither in this Kodak camera.
It took me a few frames, but once I got in a grove, I began exploring the desert stadium with the 80 year old camera from my (possibly) great-grandfather.
My paternal lineage probably didn’t use this camera like I am. They probably tried to pose people or wait for better circumstances. Due to my digital nature, I just had no patience, no interest in missing an opportunity. And thus, before the game started, I had already run out of the four rolls of expired film I had brought.
Along with my last name and some genes, these cameras are my only connection to Robert Diefenbach and Claire Straith.
Having never been able to meet either of them, this is one way I can walk in their shoes, or more accurately, see through their lens.
Through out this project, I have asked myself when to stop using these old cameras and just put them on a shelf. I keep coming to the same conclusion: A broken camera on a shelf is as useful as a working camera on a shelf. So just use it.