Well, here she is.
Meet The Voigtlander Bessamatic, born in West Germany, sometime between 1958-63.
To me, she instinctively and simply became 'Bessie', when we were finally reunited, after many, many years apart on Saturday afternoon. And I know. The name. Guitars aside - i don't generally name inanimate objects, but she has been a part of my life for as long as i can remember. Her tough leather coat has a warm, familiar smell. She has captured me as a naked baby, bathing in a kitchen sink. Witnessed me as a frowning toddler, frozen in back & white, peering up over the horizon on a day out at the park, peered down at me in the pram, immortalised my childish pout; recording moments from my birth to mid-teens.
Bessie belonged to my late father, who was considerably older than my mother, and had travelled the world to an impressive, adventurous degree by the time they met. (From the little I know, that's whole other, cinematic story.) Unfortunately, I know very little about his life, as he & my mother weren't together long before i was born and he passed away only a year or so later.
My mum lent Bessie to my cousin, about 15 years ago, after she had expressed an interest in photography, so I'd not seen (or heard) the camera for a very long time. I did, however, remember the unforgettable sounds of the shutter and the warm, mechanical snap-back of the rapid winding lever. They are not easily forgotten. Maybe I'm over-romanticising the matter. Maybe because they are such beautiful, warm, distinctive sounds that i've known and recognised since my earliest days; maybe that's why they feel safe and true.
My mum & I don't often talk of my father. I think, on many occasions, we have avoided talking about him because it - naturally - would upset us to see each other upset. I remember (now, with a laugh), how one Sunday afternoon maybe 15 years ago, my mother, stepdad, my then girlfriend and i were sitting around the kitchen table after enjoying Sunday lunch together. Somehow, my father made a rare appearance in conversation - doubly so, as his name very rarely popped up in 'company'. (Not through shame or embarrassment, but simply because his absence touched so deeply.) Anyway, for whatever reason, his name came up that Sunday, and my mum started telling one of her few stories about him. My emotions soon showed, which upset my my girlfriend, who also started crying, followed shortly by my mum. So my girlfriend was crying, trying to comfort me; i was crying, trying to comfort my mum; and my stepdad - who saw the funny side of the situation immediately - wondered what on earth was going on with this weird wailing family!
This camera means so much to me not simply because it belonged to my father. Of course that's a big part of it. But because it's one of the very few personal items of his that have found their way to me; now that i'm old enough to value, appreciate, love and use them the way he once did. I know he loved photography. I know he used this camera; hell, he even pointed it at me a few times, apparently. When i hold it to my face, i smell the same warm, leathered air he smelt. As I peer through the viewfinder, it's the slow, gentle undulations of the same lightmeter needle that he watched all those lost years ago, that i watched today...
Bessie & I managed one or two shots in the sun (and torrential) rain today. I felt very self-conscious raising the big old friend to my face in public, but it felt so right that any awkwardness was soon forgotten. (In fact, any self-consciousness was more to do with knowing that my dad was probably watching me as my nervous fingers - suddenly one and a half yrs old again - gently, clumsily, learned their way around Bessie's warm, worn, worldly curves.)
I am so grateful for being given the privilege of spending some time with as beautiful and graceful a machine as Bessie, and I am all too aware, than I do not 'own' her; but that it's simply my turn to look after her while our paths run together for as long as that may be...
The way her needle bounced as we found the right light. The way she snapped shut - closing her eye on the world, with that characteristic sound, as if to say "yep, got it"; almost winking at me, as i peered inside her secret mind. It all feels right. Feels like home...
PS: and can you believe it - i was lucky enough to find a scanned pdf documents (2 parts) of the original manual for Bessie online. Here are the links, if you're at all interested... part 1 is http://www.cameramanuals.org/voigtlander_pdf/voigtlander_bessamatic-1.pdf and part 2 can be found here http://www.cameramanuals.org/voigtlander_pdf/voigtlander_bessamatic-2.pdf