The Glorious People’s Camera

My shopping should be supervised

In 2006, some friends wanted me to photograph their wedding. I had a 35mm film camera and a fixed-lens digital, but I knew I’d need something bigger for portraits and enlargements.

So I looked on eBay.

A little scene-setting: I lived in Austin, alone, and I’d had dental surgery. It was late on Sunday night. Nothing was on television. And I’d taken one of my pain pills.

I found a listing for a great camera. It was inexpensive, it was a medium-format TLR, and shipping was included in the price! I snagged it in the last few minutes of the auction for about a dollar more than the highest bid, which at that point was $24.

The next morning, I received two emails. The first was my receipt from eBay saying I’d won the auction. The second was from the seller, telling me in a semi-intelligible patois that PayPal did not process payments sent to his country. If I wanted my item, I’d need to send my money to an importer—and he had one he recommended—that lived in California. Pretty easy, right?

Recap: Just so many pain pills.

Worst case scenario, I’d spend $25 and get a decently funny story out of it. Off went my money, to the West Coast and parts unknown. (Not wholly unknown. Allegedly Ukraine.)

A month later I got a brown paper package with nineteen customs stamps splattered all over it. Tear into it, and it’s my camera! Hooray. All the lettering was Cyrillic, but thanks to Arabic numerals and context clues I pieced together shutter timing and aperture.

I’d already bought some reels of 120 film to test it with, but I had neglected to buy empty reels to spool the exposed film onto. Another Internet jaunt to buy a Ziplock bag of empty plastic reels, and I’m beginning to understand the sunk cost fallacy.

A couple days later, I shot some film. Sent it off to my processor and waited with fingers crossed. When they called me back, I asked if the exposures had worked; the actual response was “There’s something on there, all right.”

Instead of taking that for the obvious warning about evil spirits that it was, I cut out of work early and looked at my negatives.

So the Glorious People’s Camera was now mine.

And then I took it to the wedding, and the picture above is one of the best images I’ve ever made.

All it took was $25, about five weeks, crossing 9% of the UN, a lot of Cyrillic, and more than one refill of Vicodin.


You can check out the rest of my images on Same Ghost.