5 Frames in Old California with an Old Leica – By Eric Norris

Let me start by admitting that here in California we have a slightly different view of what is “historic” than our fellow 35MMC readers in England and the rest of Europe. Where I live in Northern California, anything more than 50 years old is considered old. A building 100 years old is really old… the state of California, after all, has existed for just over 170 years.

Readers in England, no doubt, are thinking, “My local pub is older than that!” True enough, but here in California we value what history we have.

With this in mind, a recent business trip took me to one of the oldest places in the state: the city of San Juan Bautista, home of the Mission San Juan Bautista, one of the original missions founded by the Spaniards in the 18th Century. The mission was founded in on June 24, 1797, and the existing buildings were constructed starting in 1806, making the chapel almost 50 years older than California (in other words, really, really old)! The quaint downtown district features a number of buildings dating back to the 1800s (again, very old for California) and a wide assortment of antique stores. (Film buffs, by the way, might recognize the Mission from its appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film, Vertigo, although the famous scenes inside the bell tower were actually filmed on a sound stage elsewhere).

To document my trip to Old California, an Old Camera seemed to be most appropriate, so I loaded a roll of Ilford HP5 in my Leica iiic (1950-ish) and mounted a 50mm f2.0 Summitar lens. I shot 36 frames over the course of two photo walks in the afternoon and the next morning, and selected five of the best to share here. Everything was metered with a Gossen Luna Pro, a pocket-sized electronic meter that I use when I’m looking for slightly more accurate results than the metering app on my phone can provide.

So… here are 5 Frames in Old California with an Old Leica:

Mission San Juan Bautista
The bell tower and entrance to the chapel at Mission San Juan Bautista. Most of the structure dates back to the early 1800s, although the historic San Francisco earthquake of 1906 collapsed the outside walls, which had to be rebuilt.
The colonnade at the Mission San Juan Bautista. This part of the building appears in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film, Vertigo.
Old Hotel building
The Plaza Hotel, near the Mission, was built in 1858. It is part of a State Historic Park that includes the Mission and a number of other buildings.
Masonic lodge
The Masonic lodge, just down the street from the Mission, was completed on June 24, 1869 (so, relatively “new”).
Store display with antiques
Window display at one of the many antique stores in town.

San Juan Bautista is a charming small town with–for California–a great deal of history. Shooting pictures with a mechanical camera on black-and-white film added to the experience, harking back to an earlier era of photography.

I hope you enjoy the photos. Learn more about San Juan Bautista’s history here. To see other photos from my ongoing experiences with a wide variety of film cameras, check out my Instagram.

P.S. Those horizontal bands on the negatives? Yes, I noticed them, too. My guess is that they were in film. They are consistent across all 36 frames. The other roll of film I processed in the tank with this roll (Kodak Tri-X) doesn’t have them, so I don’t think they have anything to do with how the film was processed.

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8 thoughts on “5 Frames in Old California with an Old Leica – By Eric Norris”

  1. Hi Eric, I really enjoyed reading your article and looking at your images. A few years back we paid for professional family pictures at the mission and I still remember how much I enjoyed the location with it’s history, extraordinary geographical features (the San Andreas fault line runs behind the mission), and delicious restaurants. Don’t want to be accused of being a booster for the tourist board there, so I wanted to end by saying I’m also a huge fan of Barnacks! Cheers and happy shooting.

  2. Enjoyed the article and photos. The horizontal bands are a shutter problem, common on Leica’s when they’re due for an expert service. They’ll only appear at higher shutter speeds.

    1. Not sure if that is completely correct. The shutter travels horizontally in a Leica so the lines would be vertical if there was a shutter issue. My thoughts would lean into it being a scanning issue. Easily verified just by looking at the negatives

  3. Jacob hollenbeck

    Great shots! My wife and I stopped there once when driving back to Santa Maria from San Jose. It’s a really beautiful place.

  4. Michael McDermott

    Well I don’t consider 50 years old as old. I saw the B of A building and Transamerica building downtown San Francisco 50 years ago. That is not old in my book. More like yesterday. The Hibernia Bank in San Francisco, from 1892, is old. The Davis-Horton House in San Diego, from 1850, is quite old. Mission San Diego de Alcala, 1769, would be very old for California.

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