The Soviet Leica
God bless and god damn the Zorki S
My trials and tribulations with the Zorki S was a brief affair. Purchased at a flea market for $60 USD, on the slight chance that it would be operable. I am not so daft as to buy a used camera without the forethought that it’s trashed. The shutter worked, the aperture blades were smooth, the dials all turned smoothly. Operable, film tested, maybe even CLA’d if I dared ask. But in this weird camera, I inadvertently dived into the world of Leica cameras. The Zorki S (Зоркиӣ С) is a fully manual camera produced at the Krasnogorsk Machine Factory just outside Moscow from 1955 to about 1959. It is an almost exact copy of the “Barnack” Leica II. A beautiful and ingenious camera, the Leica II changed 35mm photography forever. Without the Leica II who knows where photography as a function and medium would have traversed too. But this Zorki S (C) is no Leica. It may be a solid, part by part copy, a “clone” of a Leica, but it certainly isn’t one. The camera has a M39 screw mount, which allows it to fit almost any Leica, Vöightlander, Nikon, Canon, Nicca, Industar or Jupiter lens from 1970 and prior. Many of these lenses, like the Industar-22 (Индустар), a 50mm, is a collapsable lens, allowing you to fold the lens into the camera body, thus making it perfectly compact. But as I said before, this is no Leica. The shutter may sound the same, the lenses may be damn near the same, but it certainly does not operate like a Leica. Perhaps I am simply an unlucky bastard and got a very finicky Zorki, but it does not seem that I am totally alone on the few, but major issues I have had with this camera.
Let’s start with how you load the film. It’s a nightmare. I understand that it’s 1930’s camera technology. Glass plate photos were starting to go out of fashion like my god is it old technology. Twist the lever and the bottom plate falls out, cut the leader, and load the film in from the bottom. It makes sense, until you actually try it. Cram in the film, more like smash it in, and pray that there is enough pressure from the back and bottom plate to stiffen the film around the take up sprocket. Maybe even use the dull end of your pocket knife to navigate the film over the sprockets. But here is where it gets even more interesting. The take up spool is so poorly made, that the film easily slips out and becomes loose. This is no doubt to myself, a problem more common with Zorki’s, and less a Leica problem. Nearly all of my malfunctions have to do with the poorly made take up spool. As a result of this, the take up spool cannot handle more than maybe 7 photos before it begins to wrap itself around the assist sprocket that helps take up the roll. At about photo 15 the wind up lever on top of the camera will freeze and you know it’s end time for the poor roll of film. Luckily I have had few problems with rewinding the film. But not matter what, after you rewind it, there is still at least a few inches of film that I need to cut out of the camera with my pocket knife. So far I’ve gotten about 15 good photographs out of the camera out of three rolls of film. Not good numbers.
The first roll of film was a disaster. Blissfully ignorant, I wound the film into the camera and began taking a photo walk. I made my way to a cafe for breakfast, shooting pictures of passerby’s and construction workers. I walked to my neighbourhood cafe bar and showed my new vintage camera triumphantly to Daria, the bartender. As soon as I took a photo, tick, it froze. Fuck. I attempted to roll up the film back into the canister but it was so jammed that there was no hope. So I committed a capital sin of film photography, I popped open the camera in daylight. The film was totalled, the camera was jammed, I had no reason to care about my photos, merely a test roll. But this was no dance with film I had ever tangoed before. The entire roll of film was wrapped around the sprockets before the take roll. The take up roll fell clean out of the camera. “Daria, do you have a knife?” I began to saw the film out of the camera, and ripped out at least a foot it not more of film from the camera. Chunks and long pieces of film kept flying out onto the bar. At this point I knew this camera was more than I had anticipated. Perhaps I had loaded the film wrong. I mean it was the first roll after all, most used cameras I have bought eat the first roll for dinner before they loosen up and become operable again. But there was a different feeling behind this one. This was not a once off problem, this was a serious malfunction.
The next morning I tried to load the camera. Perhaps there is something wrong with me and not the camera? A very American way to think about the situation. So I pulled out a roll of Fuji C200, a cheaper color film I have never shot before. I cut the leader. No cracks in the film. Good. I jammed it into the camera. It actually loaded quite smoothly compared to the roll before. I rotated the take up dial. I could hear the slip and crack in the film. Again. My god. I ripped the roll of film out of the camera before it could swallow the roll like poor Jonah. Ok, what else can I test it with? Ilford HP5, my go to black and white film in the States. Fomapan is cheaper in Poland. Sorry Ilford. I cut the leader of roll. The film immediately broke. The film was insanely brittle. I was shocked and how fragile it had become. That’s a no go. Fine, Fomapan it is. But with some luck from god itself, the film loaded. Oh my, I think it’s working. So I decided to take another photo walk, this in time into the direction of the film lab. I got 15 photos into the roll. Crunch, and jam. Right in front of Mariacki Cathedral. God himself had damned this camera. I rewound the film and finally admitted defeat.
The very few, clean photos I had taken on this camera did show one thing if any. This technology, no matter how primitive compared to technology today, was absolutely essential in developing how we take photographs today, and the ways that we think about photography. It’s small size and straightforward method of shooting forever changed the photographic process from being a long and time consuming ordeal, to being just as easy as lining up a shot, and snapping it. The Leica II’s design and blueprints spread around the world, allowing others to copy the camera. Today it would be a high crime to clone such a piece of artwork for mass production. Court proceedings would follow and large amounts of money wasted. I feel guilty buying a Zorki instead of the true blue original Leica. But when you’re in the East, (Central Europe if you’re Polish and reading this), then Zorki’s abound. These little, beautiful testaments to time, technology and globalization. Currently the camera sits on the window sill in my living room next to my plants. Although inoperable, its statement as a work of design and operation is a testament to photography as a whole.