Camera Repair

Brief reflection demonstrates that the vast majority of human labour, from laundry and trash removal to janitorial work and food preparation, is of this type: upkeep…

WE LIVE IN A society that elevates innovation and the creation of new commodities far beyond their maintenance or any thought of their service life. This is true of big objects like mobile phones, which have a specific obsolescence built into their design, and cannot be replaced once their glued-in batteries cease to retain a charge, as it is for big objects like the blocks of apartments made by our construction industry, for which a successful project is one that sells enough dwellings in a boom to cover the borrowed money to pay the builders, and lasts intact just long enough to pass the home warranty period.

Computing and software offers and even starker illustration of what’s going on: the internet and our infrastructure is built on some very old foundations, like UNIX and its derivatives, and languages like C, but the glory (and profit) in our economy goes to the people who do new and innovatory things with them, or just find a new way of extracting profit from an existing industry, and tag on a marketing line such as ‘it’s Uber for…’

Elonian projects—my term for those that come from the drug-fuelled imagination of heroic, usually male, inventors and glorious engineers—take this to apotheosis. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has, it is true, developed some new and interesting technologies, particularly the ones to do with landing and reusing booster rockets. The innovation, though, is built on the shoulders of the kind of maintenance we don’t want to think about, even when it’s not classified. Wernher von Braun and others like him did terrible things to set a base for the innovation we laud. For Elon Musk to dream of putting a car into Mars orbit, sixty years of maturing rocketry technology had to happen, led by the kind of people who were paid to dream secret nuclear nightmares in shifts, and maintained their rockets quietly in silos and submarines, never launching them. That all of them managed not, so far, to destroy the earth, is the truly heroic event.

In few cases are we very good any more at giving credit to creating long-lasting objects, or maintaining in use those we retain. All the more reason to practice repair when we have the opportunity.

I bought a camera, second-hand, and I want to use it to take photographs. It’s a Bronica Zenza S2, a single lens reflex (SLR) that takes 6cm x 6cm photographs on 120 format roll film. They were made between 1965 and 1977, but mostly before 1972. They’re physically handsome in the way cars and kitchen appliances from the 1960s are, with chrome and leather, and a weightiness that’s hard to describe (except to say: a bit under 2kg). The shutter has a slap that sounds like a person with wet palms clapping their hands.

Alas, not many pieces of technology, even ones made by Japanese engineers of the 1960s, can last forever without maintenance. In the case of this camera, two fallible pieces of material have deteriorated. First the foam underneath the mirror, and then, one of the ribbons that attach the sliding fabric focal-plane shutter to the spools.

To the screwdrivers!

It’s understandable enough that the foam that holds the mirror to its moving plate would have deteriorated after four decades. It’s also replaced easily enough, the plate comes off and is reattached with four screws, though because two of the screws fasten to rotating elements, it’s a bit fiddly. I replaced it with sections I cut from door sealant foam. Cheap and easy.

Here was the challenge: a piece of the 3mm ribbon that carries the focal plane shutter had deteriorated and snapped, causing the whole shutter to drag and jam.

At this point I did some searching and found that not only is this shutter plane ribbon still being sold, by an enthusiast in Japan, but that the same place sells replacement leatherette covering for this camera and a vast number of other models of all ages. This is the kind of heroism I really respect; the effort and attention that goes into retaining expertise and repair knowledge to keep cameras going that ceased manufacture decades ago. It’s an admirable activity of a different order, I think, than that that goes into creating ‘new’ things (or more usually, keeping up a pretense of novelty and veneering mature technologies with new means of profiting). I ordered a bunch and got it, happily and fast, in the post.

Pull the new ribbon through the spool, and put some contact cement on to bed it.

Clamp it all in place, once satisfied with the tension, and leave it to cure for a day or so. The contact cement tube claims to cure in 10 minutes, but no glue ever suffered from too much curing time.

Inspect your handiwork, trim any excess ribbon, and put the camera back together.

It works!

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