Six months ago I left Florida and moved to Vietnam as something of an economic refugee. I’m a science teacher and staying in Florida increasingly meant subsistence living and the real possibility of having to move back in with my parents if the rise in cost of living continued to outpace the rise of my salary. Forget being able to afford a house or raising a family. Florida is in 48th place out of 50 states for teacher pay. Bye, bye Ms. American Pie.
Life has been good teaching in a private school in Saigon. I have an adult salary, am able to pay all my bills easily and am saving plenty. I even have time and money to peruse Facebook Marketplace for interesting cameras! You find some unusual ones here. I came across this lovely, late 50’s Yashica 35 rangefinder, reminiscent of Nikons and Contaxes of the same era.
Only made for two years, this was the faster, 1.9 version. Had to have it. $40 and a few days later, it appeared at my door, fresh from the Mekong. Had it CLA’d at a great local shop, loaded it up with some Fomapan 400, and went out into the world.
Almost anything I might say about this model, Mike Eckman has already said – and better. I will only comment on two items that affected my shooting experience. Firstly, the film advance lever feels different than any camera I remember using. At the end of its travel it doesn’t just “hit a brick wall”. There’s nice little springy action, which I grew to quite like. Secondly, my copy has a stepless aperture ring, which I do not like. Some owners claim their copies have detents. I don’t know if mine was simply designed differently or if it was worked on at some point and reassembled incorrectly. For the whole roll, I had a sort of low-level background anxiety about accidentally budging the ring off the desired aperture.
These aren’t just five frames from the same roll – they’re five frames from a first roll. Admittedly, these required more editing than I like. I have read that Fomapan 400 is overrated – literally – as in, you will get better results if you shoot it at 200 ISO. My results seemed to support this. The unedited images have something of a fog or haze across them.
On the way home from errands recently, I decided to take a detour and ended up crossing the bridge seen in the background. I took a series of random twists and hairpin turns down some very narrow alleys and crumbling concrete bridges over oozing tidal creeks until a clearing eventually opened up before me. I seemed to be in an old shipyard. I consulted my map. Where am I? What am I doing here? Where do I want to go?
I saw that the spit of land I was on tapered to a point and there was what Google maps claimed to be a maritime museum. Sounded inviting – but that turned out not to be correct.
I drove twenty minutes in the blazing sun (encountering nobody) down a riverside dirt trail to get there. I rolled up on what looked like a small, dilapidated old Coast Guard station and a few bored looking fellas seated around a table, smoking. They were visibly puzzled by my arrival, but invited me to join them for tea all the same. I learned from them that it was a traffic control station for large commercial vessels ferrying goods into and out of Saigon. After a cordial chat, courtesy of Google Translate, I cut across the heart of Saigon to make a loop of my return home.
Crossing the newest bridge, Cầu Ba Son, I returned to my own district, Thu Thiem. I’ve learned that the 60,000 people who lived on this land were forcibly cleared off in exchange for a pittance of their property value. As the concierge held the open the door of my own luxury residential tower, complete with 5th floor, open air swimming pool, gym, and topiary, I couldn’t help thinking that I, the American poor, have arrived and displaced the local poor.
Thinking again about my photos, I’m rather unimpressed with them – but maybe the final product isn’t even the most important thing. I loved the experience of taking them and learning about where I live. The challenge of making a good image with ancient analog technology. I love the interactions with kind and interesting strangers and little sporadic side quests my hobby sends me on. I would like the image quality to be better. So what’s the problem here? Me? The camera? The film? The lab? Hard to say. But figuring it out is part of the fun. I’m heading to Laos for a hike with a friend of mine – a fellow contributor to 35mmc – and will continue to experiment with different filmstock and labs to see if I can squeeze some better results out of this old Yashica. After all – if I wanted instant clinical perfection – that’s what digital cameras are for.
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