June 29th, 2010

In Memoriam: My Olympus OM-1

Though I’m always after my wife for saving too much stuff, in fact I have the same problem. One thing that’s been particularly hard for me to get rid of is my first good camera, a compact SLR called an Olympus OM-1. My attachment to the Olympus, a device which has long since outlived its usefulness, has to do not just with the many events it has helped me capture over the years, but to its own adventures while not under my control.

I can date the camera by the first photos I took with it–I was living in East Dallas at the time, working for VISTA on a year off from college. I’d been home to Colorado for the holidays and returned to Dallas, camera in hand, on the day after a big ice storm.

The back yard of 5818½ Reiger St., with my landlady's car.

I was living in an old apartment owned by an old woman with an old car. The address was 5818½ Reiger. The faucet in my bathroom sink leaked, often creating a cool bubble.

My bathroom sink.

Here are some of my VISTA pals around my car at an anti-nuke rally near Austin.

Anti-nuke rally, Comanche Peak, Texas, Spring 1979.

In the spring, I took a couple of weeks off and traveled to Mexico. A friend from high school, Lara, joined me in El Paso. We took the train from Chihuahua down through the Copper Canyon to Topolobampo on the Gulf of California. It was a beautiful spot, but it became more beautiful in my mind when I got back the pictures I took there: deep blue sea, whitewashed brick, sunset skies–all a bit faded over the years:

Aboard the ferry from Topolobampo to La Paz, Baja California Sur

Back at college, I documented backpacking trips with my longtime girlfriend, Teresa,

Teresa in the Gore Range, 1979.

and, playing around with black-and-white film, with my best friend, Jay.

Jay in Colorado.

But my camera’s real adventures it experienced all on its own.

I wrote parts of Whiteout in a small house I owned in Denver. The house was divided in two: I lived upstairs, my tenant lived on the ground floor, and we shared the laundry in the basement. There was a storeroom next to the laundry, and when I moved to New York I locked the OM-1 in there.

It was promptly stolen. I found out when the pawn shop owner who had received it noticed an identification number engraved in the bottom and called the police: I had registered the camera with the department years before. The police found me and asked if I recognized the name of the man who had tried to sell it–he was my tenant, the art student! He was soon looking for another home.

The camera clearly wasn’t safe in Denver, so I brought it with me to New York. Before a trip to Africa, I took it by an electronics store on Madison Avenue to buy a new battery and some film. Three days later, right before I was supposed to leave, I realized I didn’t have the camera! Had I left it in the shop? I went back and had begun explaining to a salesman what might have happened when my eye wandered to a shelf behind him: there was my OM-1, with a price tag on it! I stopped in mid-sentence and just pointed: I think that’s it, I said, preparing to make a federal case for its return. The man didn’t even blink–he just took it off the shelf and handed it to me. (The shop had been trying to sell it for $349.99.)

Photography, meanwhile, had been going digital, and the OM-1 headed into my new basement, in New York, and a quiet retirement. Then, this spring, I left town for ten days on my book tour. While I was away, a huge storm dropped several inches of rain on our house, after which winds blew down our neighbor’s tree: it fell on a power line. My wife and kids were without electricity for four days. On the second day they discovered that the basement had flooded–without power, the sump pump that normally keeps it dry was useless. More than two feet of water welled up, thoroughly soaking many valuables … among them the OM-1.

Photo courtesy Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

Or was it a valuable? A more hard-nosed person would probably have just thrown the 25-year-old camera in the trash. But that camera had helped me remember a lot of great stuff. Once it dried out, I took it down to the used camera counter of B&H Photo in midtown to see if it still had value and was worth getting repaired. The Hasidic guy behind the counter opened the back, he took off the lens, he peered through the viewfinder as I had done so many, many times. “There is rust,” he observed. He placed it back on the counter and looked the other way. “It’s worth nothing to me,” he said gruffly.

I was not surprised. But I realized I was not quite finished, either; I was seeking an answer to a slightly different question, one I had harbored for some time.

“So I should just throw it away?” I asked. He shrugged. That was not for him to say.

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    4 Comments

  1. TK says:

    My husband and I have an Olympus we received as a wedding gift from a favorite friend of my parents, Carl Ellwanger who documented holidays for my parents throughout their raising six children. This was especially appreciated as my father could not readily photograph us as a consequence of contracting polio in the 1940’s at the tender age of 15. I used the camera heavily to photograph my husband in the years before children and beyond all reason in the baby years of my children’s lives. Sooo this past week in preparation for moving from Corpus Christi Tx to Boerne Tx we paid to have an 8x8x20′ dumpster left in our driveway. My palms are sweating just thinking of all I threw out. In the process yes I picked up the old Olympus which was declared unrepairable due to sand throughout. Yep I am a beach bum at heart. I squeezed it inside the beat up old carrying case. Something inside me kind of felt squeezed. I shook my head and hung it back up on the full size free standing coat and hat rack and moved on. The dumpster left my driveway yesterday more than half full but the Olympus stayed.

  2. Zoomtokyo says:

    Maybe yOu can put in a plexiglass box and mount as a display in your home. I saw that done on TV program, which gave tips on interior design. The object was a pair of favorite sneakers owned by an athlete.

    I’m considering doing the same with my 1980s vintage Canon AE-1, my work companion in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia, England, Vietnam, France and several other countries for over a decade.

    I will never, however, throw it away.

  3. tim morton says:

    My wife had an OM1 for many years. We had it on our biking honeymoon in Europe and many years before digital came about.
    Lost it several years ago.
    If you are interested in getting ride of yours we would love to have it. Not working is no problem, it would be as a momento sitting on our shelf.
    Thanks

  4. Michael Phillips says:

    Loved the article. I still have mine and recently had it refurbished. It still works really well and although I went digital a few years back I still use it now and again.

    I love the simplicity of it – no multiple menus, focus selection , white balance problems. It now has a soft leather case and original strap.

    It is all ready for another 40years – I just wish I was!
    Best wishes
    Mike

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