Back in the Cold War days, the Soviet Union had a camera industry second only to that of Japan’s. Vast numbers of cameras were built, including many cheap and simple models sold at subsidised low cost to the west to raise hard currency, on a scale only an industrial superpower could produce.
It’s rare to find a camera shop shelf or second-hand store that doesn’t have at least one of these old Soviet shooters; the ubiquitous Zenit SLRs, the Zorki rangefinders, the Fed Leica clones and Kiev Contax copies.
But other Soviet designs – ones that weren’t made in the hundreds of thousands or millions – are also still available, though might have to have a little more patience tracking them down.
One of them is the Start, made by the same factory that churned out Zenits and Zorkis in the millions. But this 1950s-era design was a serious attempt to create a ‘system’ SLR that might rival Western, top-end SLRs as a photojournalist’s choice.
The Start’s career as a press favourite ended, however when its makers decided not to make any lenses for it other than the standard Helios-44. That said, there are few cameras that look quite so retro-futuristic as the Start, an icon of Communist sophistication from the same age as Sputnik and soaring Soviet jets.
I have two Starts, and the pictures here are from the same example I used a few months back on an Impossible/Instagram walk through London. These shots were taken around the same time, on a Saturday walk around Greenwich in south-east London.
It turned out the Start need a replacement film cassette (all these early films have scratches from where the film has been rubbing against metal) but these pics, taken on a roll of Agfaphoto CT100 Precisa slide film, have reminded me why I loved taking pics on my first Start back in the early 2000s. It might not be the lightest SLR to have the camera bag, but its lens – uncoated, and prone to flare and the occasional soft spot – gives an odd retro sheen. It’s like a time machine, making shots in 2014 look they were taken 40 or 50 years ago.
As the weather’s now begun the long, slow shuffle through autumn into winter, it’s unlikely the Start will see much colour work until the Spring. But I’m looking forward to capturing some winter tones in black and white. Backwards is the way forwards.