When John West picks up a camera, his eyes light up with a charming childlike innocence and wonderment. Installation was invited inside West’s Los Angeles home to explore his extensive collection of stunning cameras including six Leicas, vintage flash bulbs, original user manuals sealed in Ziplock bags and unexposed film preserved in its original packaging. As we looked through stacks of personal photo albums, there are notations in the margins where West has documented each camera used. The collection is very much alive and actively participating in the way West documents his life. Fascinated by the mechanics intrinsic to each model camera in his collection, West has an incredible understanding and appreciation for analogue technology.
Installation Magazine: When did your fascination with photography begin?
John West: In the course of developing my collection I discovered that I was accumulating at least one of every single camera that I lusted after as a child. My father’s English wasn’t very good, so he and I related through mechanical things. He always had a good camera and he would let me use it and on Saturdays we would visit a friend of his who is the owner of Bel Air Camera. While they chatted he would let me play with the cameras.
Is there a particular camera that inspired your collection?
This is the one that started it all. This is a 1951 Leica. My father-in-law mentioned that he had given his old Leica to his brother in Israel. And when he was traveling to Israel I asked him to bring it back. My father-in-law is the kind of person who gets things done. He’s very generous was undoubtedly extorted into giving up something of far greater value, but this was the camera that he got in 1951. The reason it has this mark here on the top is because if you imported new equipment into England, where he lived at the time, the taxes were horrible. So he had the thing scrapped up so that he could say ‘oh, this is used,’ so that’s why it has the deliberate marring on the top here. And he brought this thing back for me and I honestly developed an unnatural relationship with it.
As each camera is taken off the shelf they are lined up on the living room couch. There’s a 1976 Leicaflex, a Lecia M4, a Zeiss Contarex, and a 1950’s Nikon.
What is the oldest camera in your collection?
A 1938 Leica which came to me when somebody died. They called me to come look at the cameras they had in the attic. They said “whatever you offer use we will take, but make it fair.” They understood that they could have sold it for three times the price I paid but I promised that the camera would never be sold and it would be used. They wanted to make sure that the camera went to a good home.
Considering its age, does it present any challenges?
This one is an art because you have to cut the size of the litter down and then you make sure that you make sure it gets over gears you can’t see. This kind of gives you a hint at how great, great photographers. Henri-Cartier Bresson shot all those great pictures using this exact camera with all of its difficulties. When the two images come together that’s proper focus. Use the interior ring to focus. It’s fun when it comes together! You’re really doing what people did in the 1930’s and I’m really into that.
What would you consider your “go-to” camera?
It’s always a Leica. This was my 40th birthday present. This is Leica M6. It still has the same focusing system- rangefinder focusing. They’re derived from battleships used for aiming guns. On battleships they’re 40 feet wide and it’s miniaturized into two windows but it’s the exact triangulated principle. That’s where the rangefinder on cameras comes from.
With Kodachrome now obsolete, film is becoming increasingly more rare. You can’t help but hear Paul Simon’s song Kodachrome in your head. What type of film do you use?
35mm or 120mm.
I also see that you have created a collection of film in its original packaging.
Because film is dying I’m now collecting vintage film. This is unexposed movie film that is still wrapped, with expiration December 1942. And look at this one, it has an expiration date of 1959. I’m also collecting flashbulbs. The boxes that the cameras, flash bulbs and film came in are slices of Americana. Everything that is dying I have an investment in. A constant investment in the technology of yesterday. Unexposed movie film, flash bulbs all of this stuff is beautiful and fascinating to me.
Where do you find film that old? eBay?
No! It’s the adventure that excites me. I am truly interested in technology that is aging or is not readily available. These cameras are more difficult than modern technology but what matters is not everyone can do it. Computers are the great equalizer and anybody can pick up a camera and take great pictures and that’s probably the way it should be, it’s a really democratic thing. But on the other hand it’s wonderful to acquire a skill and to be able to apply that skill and you can’t use these cameras without a certain minimum of skill and I’m not suggesting that it’s difficult or complicated or only smart people can do it, because everyone used to do it but it’s a process that I really like.
As he surveys the living room, surrounded by the cameras that he has collected over the years West picks up an Exacto Reflex camera and admires it.
Just look at the beautiful stamping and styling. It was made to appeal to the eye and the touch. They were made my craftsman by hand so they have a wonderful appeal to them. They’re all in their own way living things.