By Mark Kronquist
“Dear Mark, Thank you very much for your support. We are safe here in our region. I guess our region is not still interesting for occupation. Especially since our very geographical position protects us from invasion. A huge problem for us is the sky. I never thought before that I would listen to the sky.”
This quote came from a friend of mine in Ukraine, a few days after the Russian invasion. Ukraine is a country that has helped shape my photography, years before it became an independent country.
My first experience with Eastern Bloc cameras came in the mid 80’s as a student studying abroad near London. At the time, as I recall, the USSR had a “showcase” store called Zenith House run by its official UK camera importer. To an American Preppy toting a beat-up Leica IIIf with an Elmar 50 ($59 BGN KEH) even at the time, the stock looked like a throwback to a much earlier time. Today it would be a retro hipster treasure trove. I wish I had photos. What I did and do have is a Kiev-4. Zenith House had them for a college budget stretching equivalent price $69 each, new in leather cases and boxes with English language manuals. I bought two, loaded one with the Tasma 64 film (three for a US dollar but you had to insert the foil-wrapped film into a reusable cassette, also about 3 for $1). As I recall they were kind enough to let me do so in a dark closet and I left the establishment (it really was more an import house warehouse than a store) with a loaded Kiev and a big grin.
As with many photographers, when in a new environment, you want to try new films, cameras and lenses. Based on my very positive experience with Kiev-4 (Contax) rangefinder cameras, on my first trip to the Soviet Union (as it was at the time) I found non-official channels where a $10 bill and a pack of Marlboros (being a non-smoker, I had already incurred the wrath of Intourist by tipping a bus driver with a pack. How was I to know the proper tip was a cigarette? A very stern lecture followed but any lasting consequences were mollified by the proffering of a pack to the woman offering the lecture.)
Wiser, and realising my two-carton import limit was huge, I proceeded to swap US $10 bills and as many cigarettes as needed to acquire a bag full of early FEDs, Zorkis, Leningrads, Zeiss Ikon-alike Moskva folders. and goodly amounts of 120 ISO-64 film (I had plenty of TXP and Kodacolor 400 35mm). I am in the process of having the literally hundreds of rolls digitised from many trips.
By the time of my next trip back, the wall had fallen. Whisked on Polish airline LOT to Warsaw then to Kyiv then to Moscow then to Leningrad/St Petersburg (renaming was just happening). Whilst in Moscow, Boris Yeltsin dissolved parliament and there was quite a bit of unrest. Reverting to form and not wanting to appear too Western, I acquired more Soviet RFs and the 85s and 135 lenses.
Realising that my film burn ration was insane, I went into GUM, the then-confused, now quite posh department store. In tortured Russian I asked for as much Foto 400 as they had (35mm) and they produced a small mountain for under a dime a roll…they then informed me I would need Kassette-cassette, one, as the film was spooled and wrapped in dark paper and foil but needed to be loaded into a cassette in the dark before it could go into the camera. The poor clerk at the store tried to tell me it was a waste of my money to buy more than one cassette. I tried to tell them that there were tanks in the streets, and I would be happy to purchase all they would sell me. Shaking their head at the spendthrift Westerner (again paving the way with the help of the Marlboro Man) tallied my purchase, sent me off to another window to pay and another one to collect.
Because no one was sure what was going to happen politically, I purchased a developing kit and developed the negs of the unrest in my hotel room. In a brilliant move out of James Bond (or more likely ‘Get Smart’. I hid the developed film in the insole of my shoes. Well, the Russians couldn’t have cared less, but transiting through Amsterdam, the US Customs Agent flagged me for a hardcore rip-it-apart. I must have put a giant joint in my shoes, right? No. She gloved up, had two guys present and went through everything only to find the negatives, of tanks and such.
“Why do you have these? Where are they from?”
“Respectfully, ma’am, as you can plainly see from my passport, I was in Moscow photographing. May I go now?”
On my return to Oregon, I showed the other Kiev to the local Leica rep and he snapped it up for just under $200, because no one here had seen or held real Eastern-Bloc cameras.
I was hooked and the trade in cameras, film and lenses has paid for many interesting trips to Russia and Ukraine and continued pretty much until the moment the war started.
The Berlin Wall may have been pulled down, but not all the Soviet-era film makers have gone. Everything from LOMOgraphy’s Berlin and Potsdam to Camera Rescue’s Santa Rae are made by factories that had been behind the Iron Curtain. There is a film factory still in eastern Ukraine, once the home of the famous Svema, and now known as Astrum.
My friend at Eco Vintage Cameras reports that the plucky Ukraine Post has resumed shipping abroad as I write this and that his eBay store is up and running. (https://www.ebay.com/usr/vintageandphoto)
In my first trip to The Ukraine, in my early 20s, one state store camera person invited me to his home to meet his family without asking, as the Russians always did, if I had any Marlboros or they could trade for or buy my Levi’s or T Short Nikes or Eastport back pack… The Ukrainians just wanted to be friends and great friends they still are.
I wish them well in their struggle for their freedom and I look forward to the day when I can again visit and help them grow and prosper.