Compact Photographers

35mm Compact Camera Photographer #30 – Wen Zeng

My name is Wen. I’m a 23 year-old design strategist from Los Angeles, California. I’m an avid traveler, reader, and someone who possesses an unbound curiosity for the world.

Me with my trusty Leica M2 and 7Artisans 35mm f/2 lens

When I was 14, I spent a summer looking through albums of family photos—ones that contained snapshots of my parents youth and others that contained glimpses of my childhood. My father passed away when I was five, and these albums revealed what my memory could not. I obsessed over each shot, reveling in the tangible nostalgia and grainy textures. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that’s when I fell in love with film photography.

A photo of me circa 1997

An image from one of the first rolls of film I shot on my family’s Pentax ME Super.

I wanted to start taking pictures to document my daily life in the way my father did, but I yearned for the aesthetics that I saw in my family albums. My aunt dug up my father’s old camera – a Pentax ME with a 35mm lens, and gave it to me. I bought rolls of cheap film at the supermarket, and began a journey that would redefine the way I perceived the world forever.

Like many photographers, I became interested in different cameras and lenses, and eventually honed in on the rangefinder format, abandoning the Pentax ME for an Olympus XA, a Minolta Hi-Matic E, and an Olympus Trip 35. I loved rangefinders for their light weight, small size, and quiet shutter sounds. I began picking up various cameras at thrift shops and garage sales. I eventually dabbled with Polaroid Land cameras and some TLRs as well, but the rangefinder would remain my main tool.

Due to my limited budget, many of the cameras I picked up weren’t functional, and I spent a lot of time taking them apart and trying to fix broken or jammed components. This mechanical inclination eventually led me to develop an interest in engineering, and I ended up attending MIT to study mechanical engineering. There, I spent my weekends in the darkroom developing film and tinkering with an old Jobo rotary processor. I learned how to process E-6 and C-41, and used photography as method of stress relief. Through the years, I’ve shot with a Leica CL, Contax G1, and a Leica M2.

Throughout my journey, I tried various styles of photography, even picking up a full-frame DSLR to try my hand at event, wedding, and studio product photography. While those gigs provided income to help support myself in university, I was magnetically drawn to 35mm personal documentary photography. I had an Olympus XA4 in my pocket at all times to search for all the little moments of beauty in my otherwise mundane daily student life. My love for traveling led me to embrace landscape and street photography, but in a way that was seamlessly integrated into my own experience. I never travel for the sake of taking pictures, but taking pictures is always an integral part of my travel experience and the way I interact with new places and new people.

My love for photography is inherently tied to my experience of losing my father as a kid. My first memories were of a healthy adult disintegrating right before my eyes, and I’ve grown up with an unshakable sense of the fragility of human life. It’s made me constantly grateful for every tiny memorable moment. I feel nostalgic for moments that have not yet passed. Cameras provided me a tool to turn these moments into something lasting and allowed me to share my wonderment of the world with people around me. The graininess of film embodies the permanent sense of nostalgia that I feel. I’ve latched onto this format because of the way it blends seamlessly into my lifeI cannot be distracted by looking through the photos I’ve taken, and I have to be selective about what I shoot. I observe the moment, capture, and move on. Whether or not the image is satisfactory isn’t something I can worry about. It’s fleeting and elusive. It’s life.


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  • Reply
    Martin Hugh Henley
    January 3, 2019 at 12:38 pm

    Lovely sentiments, Wen, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I, too, find analogue photography intrinsically linked to my family, and also a slight feeling of loss combined with fragility. Right now I have a box of family photos and slides which I’m in the process of archiving provided me with a source of plenty of memories, and the odd tear or two. Best wishes.

    • Reply
      Wen Zeng
      January 3, 2019 at 10:24 pm

      There’s something so magically exquisite about it all. :’)

  • Reply
    January 3, 2019 at 1:26 pm

    Wow. One of the most touching posts I’ve read anywhere. Thanks for sharing.

    • Reply
      Wen Zeng
      January 3, 2019 at 10:22 pm

      That means a lot, Don. Thank you.

  • Reply
    Peter Grey
    January 3, 2019 at 2:24 pm

    Great story and I love the pictures!

    • Reply
      Wen Zeng
      January 3, 2019 at 10:21 pm

      Thank you, Peter. 🙂

  • Reply
    Flavio Colker
    January 3, 2019 at 2:25 pm

    Great composition eye.
    Love the red trousers and the pier.

    • Reply
      Wen Zeng
      January 3, 2019 at 10:20 pm

      Thanks so much, Flavio!

  • Reply
    January 3, 2019 at 3:57 pm

    ” I feel nostalgic for moments that have not yet passed. ”

    Wenzeng, your writing and pictures have made me cry.

    • Reply
      Wen Zeng
      January 3, 2019 at 10:20 pm

      Thank you for reading, David!

  • Reply
    James Cleaveland
    January 3, 2019 at 5:42 pm

    I really appreciate the sentiment here. Thanks for taking the time to share this with us.

  • Reply
    Rollin Banderob
    January 3, 2019 at 10:06 pm

    Thank you for sharing.

  • Reply
    Adam Laws
    January 4, 2019 at 10:31 am

    I found your words very moving. Thank you for sharing your story and beautiful images.

  • Reply
    January 4, 2019 at 6:06 pm

    Wen, thank you for sharing what is an absolutely touching and very personal story. I was choking up reading it.

    • Reply
      Wen Zeng
      January 15, 2019 at 6:28 am

      Thank you for reading, Lori.

  • Daniel Castelli
    Daniel Castelli
    January 4, 2019 at 7:17 pm

    I started to read your post, thinking it was another nice narrative on compact cameras. I soon realized your post was more than that. You managed to turn a technical account into poetry. I am sorry for your loss. Your Dad seems like someone I would have liked to know. You honor him with your life & work.
    My personal favorite c/camera is my Leitz-Minolta CL w/the 40mm M-Rokkor. As a matter of fact, it’s my only compact camera 🙂

    • Reply
      Wen Zeng
      January 15, 2019 at 6:28 am

      Thank you for your words, Daniel. It means a lot. 🙂 It’s an awesome camera!

  • Reply
    January 6, 2019 at 10:56 am

    I love the picture with the pier! So quiet and relaxed on the one hand and wild and loud on the other. You can feel the (salty) water when looking at the picture. Thank you for sharing Wen.

    • Reply
      Wen Zeng
      January 15, 2019 at 6:22 am

      Thanks for reading, Matthias 🙂

  • Reply
    francois karm
    January 12, 2019 at 8:05 am

    superb , and very peacefull. thanks Wen.

  • Reply
    Alan Chin
    January 14, 2019 at 7:32 pm

    At a certain point, to maintain the connection, you might want to use the Pentax ME again, but with a “pancake” lens, the 40mm f/2.8. it’s modest but small and cheap and the camera will be quite compact.

    • Reply
      Wen Zeng
      January 15, 2019 at 6:23 am

      I’ll keep that in mind!

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