Olympus 35RC and a Couple Rolls of Kodak Ultramax – The Radical Retro Red Vacation

By John Pemberton

I took two vacations when I was young.  I never recall being disappointed about it, but looking back with a lifetime of experience I realize it was the best my single mother could do at the time.  I was fortunate.

The first came when I was 14.  Mom wanted to go back to Minnesota and visit the old places from her college days and early career.  How she ended up at the University of Minnesota is a long story.  It involves the dynamics of a family desperately trying to keep hold of a family business while facing a future where a degree with salaried employment likely held better prospects for the next generation.  She left for college at the age of 20, a couple years later than her high school classmates.  Upon settling into university, she bonded with her Aunt Helen, on staff at the university press.  Helen had urged mom to take this giant step (against her mother’s wishes) and would become a lifelong mentor for her.

This trip was about mom revisiting some of the best memories of her life.  She had established a career for herself, been married, widowed, and had a 14 year old who seemed off to a good start.  She wanted to go back and remember those days of discovery, make peace with all that had come since, and share with me where her happiest days had been spent.  Showing me the things that she and Aunt Helen had seen together on days spent away from university life.

One of the important aspects of the trip would be the pictures created along the way.  Helen had done that back in the day.  In more recent times mom had become notorious for decapitating extended family members with the Instamatic.  Having shown some skill with the same camera at Boy Scout camp during previous summers, I was charged with the task.  Our departure was in proximity to my birthday.  My gift that year was a camera upgrade.  Specifically, a Minolta Autopak 450E camera that used 110 format film.  That trip, with that camera is a key event in my origin story as a photographer.

This spring Jenny and I were planning our late May, early June vacation, the one we take soon after the grind of two semesters of college teaching ends.  With several elements in play, we decided we would take a trip to some of the more remote ends of Wisconsin.  We had yet to take our t@b camper out for anything more than a long weekend.  We had visited the far north of the state (Ashland county) several years ago for the wedding of a young employee of mine.  The focus on that trip was Melissa’s wedding but we realized there was more to see than we had time for, we wanted to go back.  The time seemed right.  We planned to take a western route on our way back south.  This would track with a bit of the trip with mom 40 years earlier.

Minnesota and Wisconsin are in many ways similar states.  Separated by a string of rivers, they sit next to each other, have a pronounced northern, often Nordic European immigrant heritage, remote woodlands, folklore of mighty lumberjacks, been exploited for raw materials, lots of water in various forms, and to a Hoosier’s ear, share a funny accent.  I suspected this trip would have elements that would take me back to the trip 40 years ago with mom.

I wanted to capture that sense of nostalgia with at least part of my photography on this trip.

Nothing like a little kitsch to entertain a 14 year old
The big river, bridges and dams were fascinating to me at the time.
The St Croix Falls are down below these granite walls, We sped by with no clue what was at the bottom of the cliff below
We made it up to Bemidji and Hibbing. The Iron Range.

Recently, when I have gone on vacation, becoming a tourist, my go to camera kit has not included the gear I do most of my project work with.  The last two trips we have made to Europe, I used my cell phone exclusively, unless I was shooting subject matter that would contribute to an existing body of work.  Only for those blocks of time did a mirrorless kit came out.

I wanted to do something similar here, make images that could have been made on that trip 40 years ago.  A few weeks prior to leaving I was at the local used camera store, I had spotted an Olympus 35rc and my will power was at an ebb.  For my friend, Andrew Howe, this camera holds a place in his photographic journey similar to what the Minolta Autopak holds for me.  For many it was the first camera with buttons, sliders or dials, where mastery of those appendages taught you the basics of photography.

The camera is well reviewed by others on this site, but here are some key features.  It has a fixed 42mm lens with a largest aperture of f2.8 and quickest shutter speed of 1/500.  ISO adjustment is a ring around the front lens.  It has a shutter priority automatic mode that works really well.  When in manual, the light meter takes the shutter speed as given and a needle in the viewfinder points to the appropriate aperture.  If in auto-mode, it adjusts the aperture to match the needle reading and takes the picture.

It is TINY.  The volume displacement (L*W*H) of this camera is smaller than most 110 cameras.  The increase in picture quality is a world away.  I intended to compare images from this trip to those I made on the trip 40 years ago, but to do so would be silly.  The improvement in image quality is just too great.

Once I had decided to deliberately make pictures with that camera, I needed some film.  I went back to the store and decided on 2 rolls of Kodak Ultramax 400.  Bright poppy colors, including the reds that Kodak was known for.  The late seventies and early eighties would wash over me again.  I would keep an eye open for red elements and subject matter on the trip.

Our t@b 320 features retro styling in red.  Many of the accessories we bought to compliment it were also red.  We would be bringing plenty of red subject matter with us on the journey.

Millie the camping dog is ready to GO!
Yeah – I am humoring Jenny with all the red stuff!

The itinerary of the trip took us north from our home in central Indiana to a state park outside Rockford Illinois for a one night layover.  Then we drove to Copper River Falls SP, about 30 miles SE of Ashland, WI and Lake Superior.  The Copper River Falls are where several tributaries of the Mad River come together, dropping altitude on their descent to Lake Superior.  The water has a distinct bronze color to it from the tannins in the soil that surround it.  We stayed three nights.  Ticks.  Lots of Ticks.

Waters of the Copper Falls area

From there, we drove the 40 miles along the Lake Shoreline and took the ferry to Madeline Island and onto Big Bay State Park.  We stayed 4 nights.

No giant lumberjacks or Blue Ox’s but there was this big’ole Walleye.
In case those of you reading in the UK ever wondered what happened to all those old double deckers…They make for great food trucks.
The Ferry for Madeline, and the rest of the Apostle Islands is based out of Bayfield
This is what I get for talking about mom decapitating family members with the Instamatic.

One day on the island was spent chilling out, one day on trails in the Park and one day taking a cruise out to the Apostle Islands National Lake Shore.  Unfortunately the waves that day were too big and choppy to get out to the most scenic parts of the islands’ shores.  No hideous insects to report.

Lake Superior Sunset on Madeline Island
The lagoon on Madeline Island
Out beyond the sheltered waters of the inner islands, the waves were too choppy to see the most scenic coastlines

Then heading southwest our third stop featured three nights in the Minnesota part of Interstate Park, which straddles the LaCroix River that divides Wisconsin from Minnesota in this area.  50 miles downstream, the LaCroix flows into the Mississippi.  There are tall (for these parts anyway) granite walls that encompass the river in the Interstate Park area.  I remember these rocks vividly from the rim as mom and I drove by 40 years earlier, taking pictures best I could from the window of a moving car.  On this trip Jenny and I spent one day on the river in a river boat and another driving to the Mississippi confluence, deliberately seeking memories of the past.  Mosquitoes.  HUGE F-ing MOSQUITOES that were flying off with babies, children and small dogs.

Fortunately, we were able to keep them away from Millie and we made it back to Rockford and eventually home.

A nice cruise up to the fall, back through the dalles, and several miles down stream on the LaCroix. Up along the dalles on the Minnesota side, 40 years ago we sped by completely unaware of the boats below.

When we got home, sent the film off to mpix, who’s service is strangely fast considering that the USPS is involved.  The turn around time for scans is a day or two more than the lab at the local camera store and the quality is noticeably better.

As it approaches its destiny with the Mississippi, the LaCroix broadens and is a favorite fishing spot
Under the rail bridge and too the right, is the confluence of the two rivers, LaCroix and Mississippi. I do have a picture from back in the day of this bridge, but from a rainy nasty day

I greatly enjoyed the trip and am pleased with the images, though I found connections to memories of 40 years ago less frequent than I had imagined.

Only a small portion of these 2 trips actually overlapped.  Where they did, time and proximity to a large urban center had its effect.  The concrete kitsch of farm animals, giant lumberjacks and their pet ox’s did not survive the trials of time.  Stillwater, 40 years ago a sleepy little riverside weekend getaway town, once featured an Inn, where for dinner, you could net your entree (a trout) from the artificial stream than ran through the restaurant.  The Inn was now gone.  The town still has a nostalgic character, but is now a densely developed ex-urb of Minneapolis-St Paul.

Further from the twin cities, the vistas from the river road that forty years ago were open and expansive, (collateral effects from logging 50 years yet prior) were now obscured.  New growth forests are now maturing and reclaiming the domain of their ancestors.

Of course, I am no longer a wide eyed 14 year old boy on his first vacation.  40 years later my eyes have seen more things.  The legacy that remains is my enthusiasm for photography.  I have written about it before, HERE and HERE.  It is perhaps my most treasured legacy that my family has left for me.

As for the Olympus 35rc.  I need to shoot with it more, a lot more.


You can find me, my personal work on my Site.

I am also a contributing writer at the Live View publication on Medium.

I also am the founder of F2.8Press, Publishers of Undiscovered Photography.  We have an open call for submissions for our Zine:  “Archive”.  Check us out on Twitter!

When I am not wandering aimlessly  with a camera, I am a Lecturer of Economics and Statistics at Butler University.

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About The Author

By John Pemberton
John Pemberton is a retired Marketing Scientist who’s vocation is now teaching Statistics, Economics and Marketing Research as a university lecturer. He is also a photographer. He has been fascinated by the power of cameras since the age of 10. Aside from a semester of photography as a junior in high school, he is self taught. His fascination began with a Kodak Instamatic. Technical skills developed and honed using a manual Petri 2.8 rangefinder. The fascination was rediscovered in the digital age with an Olympus PEN E-PL1. He currently shoots digitally with an Olympus M1, PEN - F and on film with an Olympus OM-2n, 35rc and a Petri 2.8.
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Nate on Olympus 35RC and a Couple Rolls of Kodak Ultramax – The Radical Retro Red Vacation

Comment posted: 14/08/2023

Mpix still does film processing!? That's fantastic news to me; I thought they got out of the film biz.

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John Pemberton replied:

Comment posted: 14/08/2023

Yes - they do. It is not an easy link to find on their site, but here it is: https://www.mpix.com/products/film Perhaps they are transitioning film processing back to the Miller's Branded portion of the business?


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Jeffrey on Olympus 35RC and a Couple Rolls of Kodak Ultramax – The Radical Retro Red Vacation

Comment posted: 16/08/2023

Wonderful piece, John. My wife and I are native Minnesotans and we spent our 1st wedding anniversary in Bayfield Wisconsin, 26 years ago. It’s a beautiful area, and I really enjoyed revisiting those memories through the images you shared. My photography journey also started with Olympus camera back when I was 17 and my father gave me his OM-2. I’m now in my mid-50’s and It’s still my favorite camera to shoot with today.

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John Pemberton replied:

Comment posted: 16/08/2023

Thank You for the kind words Jeffrey. I am glad I could conjure some pleasant memories! I too love my OM-2n. In fact, I actually have two bodies. The second is back up or a duplicate if I ever want to swap back and forth between emulsions.


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