A Camera Maker’s Tale

Cameras? I thought I only the Japanese did that! Armies of engineers with degrees and pocket protectors to match surrounded by robots tirelessly doing their bidding day by day. Technology beyond the intellectual grasp of all but the bothersome nerd you sat next to in sixth grade science class. You push the button and let Kodak do the rest. What do you mean you build cameras?

We had just put the finishing touches on a radio controlled model airplane. My father decided it couldn’t hurt if we attempted just one flight before going to get lessons from a seasoned member of the model airplane club. It got into the air all right, but that darned school building just wouldn’t get out of the way. Those radio-controlled pylon racers we loved to watch turned to dust when they hit the ground at 200 scale miles per hour. Our plane came home in a few dozen pieces.

I grew up hearing the high-pitched whine of my father’s Porsche as he returned from work at Porsche Cars SW while my buddies and I played flag football in the backyard. With each new year came the excited anticipation; what would the new Porsche look like? When the first 911 arrived I though a spaceship had landed. It was pretty cool, but even at that young age I knew the Porsche Spyder just had to be the next best thing to . . . well, I really didn’t know yet!

Tall for my age, for three years I claimed to be 12 years old to get into the pit area. My father was racing Porches on the SCCA circuit and the pit steward said to me “If you see a car coming at you, just jump as high as you can.” Was he for real? A spin around the track, nestled in the sensuous curves of a family friend’s fire-breathing 427 AC Cobra, topped off the day. This was to be a formative experience in my fascination with humanity’s relationship to things mechanical.

I had just about flunked out of high school physics class and was about to decide what to do with myself in college. It was beginning to look like aeronautical engineering was out of the question. So what else did I have a passion for? Maybe my physics lab book filled with idle drawings held a clue. At that moment, I figured I was destined to be a painter. So off to art school I went, with a paintbrush in one hand and the ever-present camera in the other.

One day, while pondering the photo-darkroom class my painting professor had asked me to teach to some advanced drawing students, I walked into the university woodworking shop run by Roger Deatherage and had an epiphany. I couldn’t believe a dining table could be, well . . .  visually sensual. I had found a new path and a mentor in one instant of enlightenment. Within a year, the sweet smell of walnut and cherry shavings and dovetails appearing under my Japanese Dozuki saw had launched my path as a furniture designer/craftsman. Hey, aren’t there cameras made of wood?

Sometime later, after a particularly rough year in the custom furniture trade, I was breezing through the college math sequence, physics was finally fun, and I had aced the final in my computer programming class. I had gone to work for my friend Bill Collings, the luthier, so I could focus on my college work. I thought I might yet become that engineer. Learning a new facet of the woodworking trade while plotting my first tentative CAD drawings on a pen plotter, it seemed a proper path. However, it wasn’t long before the world of job descriptions and pocket protectors ceased to appeal. Retreat!

Cameras? I remembers the day the Hungarian, academy-trained painter came into my father’s motorcycle shop and, from a memory of his old motorcycle, drew a picture of it that would have made da Vinci smile; and on scrap paper, of course! For seven years he studied horse anatomy! He had a passion for the painters of the American west and had come to paint it himself. I was an aspiring painter once . . . but then I thought of those maddeningly inspiring Japanese – masters of so many crafts including my favorite – woodworking. Aren’t they the ones with the robots and . . . That’s it – cameras! Wait, I’m from German stock . . . Oh, that’s OK.

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