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My wife Sara and I used to have this running joke leading up to her birthday each year.  Each year I’d say “Honey!  What would you like for your birthday?”

and she would reply “I’d like a Hasselblad”.  Usually with a big smile on her face, in a wink-wink-nudge-nudge kind of way.

Then I’d say “Ha ha, no, seriously, what would you like?” and we’d both laugh and move on to more serious things.

Hasselblad.  The 500c/m.  Man.  That camera.  It’s like the Rolls Royce of cameras.  It would send shivers down our spines and we’d get all giggly any time we’d talk about it.

Hasselblad.  We both wanted one.  For me, the Hasselblad 500c/m is the perfect camera.  It’s this beautiful, perfect melding of function and art mixed together.  It really is a work of art; this little square box and can come all apart and attach to other things to make other types of cameras.  If he was a Transformer he’d be the classiest one.  He’d probably have a swirly moustache and wear a top hat and speak in an elegant accent.

Sometime around 2007-2008 I worked part-time a few days a week at our local camera shop.  Three generations owned this shop.  A downtown staple.  The owner knew everyone that walked in.  He chatted everybody up.  He knew everyones stories.

A few months before Sara’s birthday, this older gentleman came into the shop.  A small, white haired guy, slightly bent over.  He wore one of those blue trucker hats that had the yellow crests on the bill.  It said MARINES.

The owner of the camera store knew of the little ongoing joke that Sara and I had.  Those two were talking for quite a while and as they finished up their conversation, I got called over.

“Sid, this is John.”

“Hi.”

“I told John about your little joke you have with Sara.  John actually works on Hasselblad cameras.”

“You do??” I asked him.

“I do” he said.  “I’m actually about to retire.  I’m going to be closing up my workshop.  I heard about your little run-on gag you have with your lady-friend.  Y’know, I have a bunch of Hasselblad parts at my workshop still.  Let me see if I can piece something together, and if I can, I’ll bring it back in here and we can talk.”

“Oh.  Totally.  That’s awesome.  Thank you.”

And John left the store.  And I figured that even if he did have something lying around, there is no way in hell I’d get my hands on one.  I’d priced them on Craigslist.  I’d followed them on eBay.  Even with the “Great Film Crash” since the advent of digital cameras, the Rolls Royce of cameras was still at a price I couldn’t reach.

 

 

Two days later, John comes walking back in with a plastic bag under his arm.  I got this tingle down my spine.

John pulls a 500c/m out of the bag.  He sets it down on the glass counter and he nods for me to  pick it up.  I paw at it.  It’s beautiful.  It’s all leather and silver streamlined trim.  It’s square and compact. And it’s calling to me.

“Sid.  Sid.  Look at me.  Looooook.”

I wind it, pull the darkslide, and press the shutter.  It makes that beautiful “CLOP-LOMP!” sound.  Oh, that sweet sweet sound.

I owned a Mamiya RB67 while in college.  That thing was a tank.  It was heavy and huge and it was near impossible for me to handhold and take a picture with it.  You could drop an RB from a very tall building and the impact below would make a crater in the ground.  But it would still work.  That camera was fantastic.

But this camera was totally different.  More elegant, refined.  Not cumbersome like a blaster, but refined like a lightsaber.  A more elegant weapon for a more elegant time.  This was the girl that everyone had a crush on.  That everyone wanted to take to the Prom.

 

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This was the one true thing when it came to cameras.

I’m just about to start whispering sweet nothings into it’s viewfinder when John speaks up.  He sounds kinda frustrated and angry.  Not with me, but with himself:

“I was able to piece a kit together.  The leather is good.  The foam inside is clean.  I put a brighter focusing screen in there so you can see better.  It’s in good shape.  But the serial numbers on the body and the film back don’t match.  I hope that’s okay.”

I’m about to get down on my knees and propose marriage and he’s irritated with himself that the serial number don’t match.

“Uh. . .” was all I could say.

I paw at it some more, like a cat playing with a mouse.  All of my logic is gone.  All I can do is oggle the beautiful silver lines that move around the body of this camera.  I’m hypnotized.

“So” John begins and briefly snaps me out of my daydream.

“Here it is” I start thinking.  “The moment he tells me it’s like $1,200 bucks or more and I have to hand it back over to him”.  My brain starts to get depressed.

“I have to ask:  how much?” I say.  I’m a mix of excitement but I’m ever so slightly pulling away because I know I’m going to be ripped away from this beautiful mix of utilitarianism and sculpture.

“Welp, I think it’s great that you both are photographers.  And that you both met in art college.  And I cleaned this thing up just for her.  And since she loves photography and you love photography and she sounds like such a lovely lady, give me $200 and it’s yours.”

I was kind of in a daze.  I had prepared for him to say something close to a thousand.  My body was already instinctively starting to push the camera away from me when he tossed out the price.  It took a few seconds for it to catch up on me.

“Wait, what?”

“Two hundred.  And I might even have a prisim viewfinder back at the workshop.  If I do I’ll bring it by in the next few days.”

 

Nobody has ever seen me run faster out the door of the camera shop, down main street and to the closest ATM.  I ran like the Flash.  I ran for my wife.  I ran for that camera, and in my head, all the pictures I’d take and film I’d wind and times I’d just lovingly look over at it on a tri-pod.

I gave John the cash, and he again told me that if he found a prism for it, he’d bring it by in a few days and I could have it.

Suddenly I looked down and I owned the camera that was in my hand.  Wait.  What?

 

After John left, the owner of the camera store came up to me.  He asked me if I knew who John was.

“No.  He’s a really nice guy that just sold me a dream camera for a steal.” I said.

He told me to go home tonight, and look up the name John Kovacs on the internet.  I might get a better idea of who just left.

So I did.  And I wasn’t prepared for what I found.

 

John Kovacs.

John, it turns out, was one of the original group of technicians that was trained in Sweden many many years ago.  He had been working out of Nashua for decades under the name Hilton Command Exposures.  Back in the days before the Internet, he would be the guy who’s name you would see in the back of camera collector magazines.  He would be the guy that people would recommend to other Hasselblad owners when something went wrong with their camera.  You popped your Hassy in a box and sent it off to Hilton Command Exposures in Nashua NH, and,  weeks or months later,  you’d get your camera back fixed and in perfect working order.  He didn’t have a website.  He worked by word of mouth.

John is the patent holder for the workings that enable multiple exposures on cameras with a film-back mechanism.

And John Kovacs was one of the original group of technicians that worked on the NASA modification of the Hasselblad equipment for the Space Program.

Wait.  What?

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Two days later, John came back into the camera store with a prism for me.  I immediately jumped into asking him questions about all this stuff that I found online.

“Yeah” he said with slight irritation “that’s me.”

“Space!  You worked on the cameras that went to the moon!!  That’s amazing!”

John got even more irritated.

“Space.” he dryly said. “Fucking Armstrong couldn’t operate the camera with his big stupid moon gloves on, so I had to create a big dumb button that he could bang to take the exposure.”

It was one of the most surrealistic moments I’ve ever been part of.  Listening to someone irritated about the part they played in documenting people landing on the moon.  There is a whole documentary film in his angry statement.

Shortly after he left.  A week later he retired from being a Hasselblad technician, closed up his shop, sold the rest of his stuff to someone who turned around and sold all of it in pieces on eBay.  The legacy of John Kovacs, and his participation in the history of cameras and photography came to an end.

John moved to Florida to live the remainder of his life happy and retired.  One of the things I regret in our all-too-brief 4 day friendship was not getting a picture of him.  I found a scan of a newspaper article that talked about Hilton Command Exposures back in the early 1990’s.  Sitting there in his workshop, tending to someone’s mail-order, bringing a Rolls Royce of cameras back to life for people all over the world.

 

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Sara was over the moon when she opened her birthday present that year.  And, doubly over the moon when I told her the story that came with the camera.  That some of the most skilled hands refurbed this camera, and that those hands adjusted the camera’s that are still sitting up there on the moon.  And we got one of the very last cameras he worked on before he retired.

John died on January 18, 2013 in North Fort Myers, Florida where he retired. He was a WWII Veteran with the United States Marine Corps. He was formerly the proud owner of Hilton Command Exposures in Nashua.

That camera will never part from us.  It’s too important.  There is too much history behind it.  And one of the things that makes me sad is the history of photography, and of Hasselblad cameras, just became a little less because of John’s passing.  These individuals who are on the outskirts of the history of photography are starting to pass.  While we are obsessed with resolution and cramming megapixels into sensors and how to find the fast track to success, people like John who could turn a camera inside out and back again, are passing on.

I hope the information that was in John’s brain was passed on to somebody.  Or somebodies.  I hope he didn’t die with all the years of technical information and history without being able to pass all that on.  Because I can’t bear knowing that he did.

Share your stories.  Share the stories of those who pass those stories on to you.  Photography is much larger that just taking pictures of things and putting them in a book or on a website.  Share the stories, the conversations that come with them.  Preserve the past and the history, however small it might seem to be.

There is so much more I wish I knew about John.  But I’m glad that I get to share my story about him, however small it might be.

And every time I hear that CLOP-LOMP! coming out of my Hasselblad, I’m preserving John’s legacy and sharing who he was in a minuscule way.

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Sid Ceaser

Sid Ceaser is a commercial, editorial & fine art photographer based in Nashua, NH and is a monthly contributor to DEDPXL. In addition to shooting he also teaches workshops and runs a podcast with designer Dave Seah.

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39 Comments

  1. RJ Bradbury

    Amazing story Sid. What an interesting fella John Kovacs was. May he Rest in Peace.

    It’s like that camera was meant to be left with you guys.

    The older cameras have something about them, not just in output but the process. they are more simple than today’s cameras yet take more thought to shoot with.

    One day I hope to own something like this myself but I doubt i’ll get it for $200.

    Thanks for sharing Sid.

    • Sid Ceaser

      Keep your eyes open, you never know when you’ll come across something. And when you do, dig into the story of what it’s been; what it’s been used for and by whom. They might be just gears and handles and glass and switches, but the their stories are so so individual and unique.

  2. Lea

    Very cool story to hear. Thanks for sharing. Makes me realize that for all my years as a photographer, I know very little history like this. I’m going to make a point to learn.

  3. Adam Favre

    A great first story for the return of the website. Ty for sharing this story.

  4. Vic Román

    DEDPXL is back! Thanks for this story Sid. Photography is definitely much larger.

  5. David Vernon

    That was simply wonderful.

  6. Guillermo

    What an amazing story, Sid. Thanks for sharing it :_)

    And also, a great way to get DEDPXL running again 😉

  7. John Wangelin

    Really cool story! Glad to see blogs popping back up on here.

  8. Chris Dowswell

    Awesome story Sid! Thank you for sharing… it’s true, the people and the stories matter way more than just pushing buttons and taking pictures.

  9. Thiagones

    I’m a happy owner of a Hasselblad 500C, in perfect working order!

    This camera is built like a tank, and it feels like it. Really solid.

    The pictures I take with it are amazing! I love it so much!

    • Sid Ceaser

      So elegant. So lovely. I think the RB67 might win out as far as weight and feeling “solid”, but, man, it can’t hold a candle to the silver curves of a 500-style body.

      What’s the story behind your 500? Where did it come from? Who had it previously?

      S

  10. Jennifer Farris

    SID!!!! This is amazing!! I love the whole story. I, too, am a complete sucker for the gorgeous Hassy but, have yet to get my greedy, little hands on one. However, I’m also a hopeless romantic and the most moving line in this whole story? I ran for my wife.
    Dude. I may have wept a little bit. Well done, good sir, well done.

    Jenn

  11. Shannon

    Most excellent account! Thanks for sharing.

  12. Andrew Riddle

    Great story. This is what needs to be shared.

  13. Zack Arias

    Damn. I love this story so much. Thanks Sid.

    • Sid Ceaser

      Thanks for allowing me to share it, Sir.

  14. Jim Kelly

    Very moving story. All Jedis know we must keep the old ways alive.

  15. Douglas Drumond

    I was always looking for a Hasselblad 500CM, but it’s too expensive in Brazil. Usually, people sell it for R$6000-6500 (≈ USD2k). The cheapest I found was R$4k for a camera that I wasn’t sure if it was working (it was being sold on Mercado Livre, an eBay-like site). One day I decided to go to a photo store to buy some strobes, while one of the employees was getting my order, I started talking to the owner and I noticed a Hasselblad there. I wasn’t sure because I didn’t have my glasses on (they were in my pocket), I asked: “is that a Hasselblad?”, “sure it is.” “Man, I’m looking for a 500CM” “That’s a 500CM” “How much?” “R$1500, R$2000 with the lens” (50mm f/4). Of course, I bought it! That lens alone was worth the R$1500. And I was able to play with it inside the store and be sure it was working fine.

  16. Casey

    Heartwarming story. Thank you, Sid! I wanted a Hasselblad for years and when I got it, I understood the elegance and beauty of it. You summed it up so well in your piece.

    Looking forward to more from you in the future.

  17. Sam

    What a fantastic story. Well written and such a nice outcome.

    I hope you get some ace pictures with the camera.

  18. Ed Rosack

    What a great story – thanks so much for sharing it!

    Ed

  19. Tord S. Eriksson

    Delightful story!

    I live in the town where Hasselblads was invented and produced, and know people who were part of the manufacturing process.

    Great story!

    And my wife’s first husband (R.I.P.), owned a Hasselblad, and I used one during my Art School days!

  20. Richard Wintle

    I’ve never touched one, never even seen one I think. But your story brings the camera to life for me. Thanks for sharing.

  21. Joe Murray

    marvelous story telling, you put a smile on my face; you and your wife are sharing a beautiful adventure together..very inspiring…never forget to pay it forward..John certainly didn’t forget.

    joe murray

    Directors Guild Of America-Director
    Int’l Cinematographers Guild -Director of Photography
    http://www.nativesonsfilms.com

  22. jpe

    But nowadays you can get basic c500 for 500 bucks or even less. And then you have to begin paying for film and processing. Nice memory but a memory.

  23. Jack Winberg

    Sid:

    I cannot thank you enough for that story – it elicited tears. As a poor kid growing up in Chicago, I wore lines in the Central Camera store window, gazing at, among other things, Hasseblad’s. Never got one,

    Put myself through medical school with a used Speed Graphic, and I shoot MFT now, very happily.

    Thanks yet again……… Jack Winberg

  24. Lin

    Love it !!! Great story – Thanks !!!!

  25. Michael Newberry

    Sid,

    That’s a beautiful story, so beautifully told that I could feel it every step of the way. Thanks!

  26. Rob Dombi

    Such and inspirational story.
    I’m so glad that your wife got the dream camera.
    I have worked with Hasselblad cameras and they are really the best, they are just like a dream. I think everyone who is into photography should need to experience the Hasselblad feeling.

    Thank you for sharing this amazing sorry.

  27. Magnus Jandinger

    It’s unfortunately not just the people passing on. I live in Gothenburg, Sweden, the home of the Hasselblad company and actually have my office in the very building the cameras were originally built. Today the only sign of that, amongst the IT-consultancy & law firms, exclusive gym, fashion brands, and property developers that now inhabits the place, is a commemorative plack about the cameras that went to the moon being built there. All that photographic history and all you can see of it today is a (fittingly I must admit) 6×6 plack.

  28. Caleb Williams

    This $200 story reminds me of one of my own. Back in the late 1980’s, I met John Kovacs at his Hilton Command Exposures shop in Nashua exactly twice, once when I dropped off a camera, and once when I went to pick it up. I had an ancient Hasselblad 1000F and the flash sync wouldn’t work. On my way from Pennsylvania to a week’s vacation in Maine, I stopped in Nashua and dropped off the camera to see if he could get the flash sync to work. On the return trip, I found myself in one of those “after you, Alfonse” moments at the door of the shop with a customer who was leaving. I have no idea who he was. Entering the shop, John asked me what I did with the camera I had brought to him for repair. “Take pictures!” I said. Well, he said, if that is all, wouldn’t you want a more up to date camera? It turns out that his collection of vintage Hasselblad cameras was missing the very one I had brought to him. With that old camera and $200, I could have me a re-built 500C, and it took me all of 2 seconds to say, “Yes!” John even accepted my Pennsylvania check for the purchase! With the camera packaged up, I was about to leave the shop, and he asked me if I was bothered by nudity. Not at all, I make nude photos all the time. He said that the guy I had nearly bumped into on my way into the shop had just brought in a photo he had taken at a wedding the previous week that he thought John would appreciate showing to other photogs. It was a photo of the flower toss moment, and it was excellently timed and framed to catch bride looking over her shoulder to see who was going to catch it, the flowers in mid air, the excited expressions of the of the crowd of women, and the woman who was gong to catch it. This woman was clearly used to catching the re-bound in basketball games, because she had jumped way above the other women, and as she reached out with arms fully extended to catch the bouquet, her chest had also extended beyond the confines of her sleeveless dress, and was fully exposed. The man who delivered the photo to John said he never saw it happen, and was totally surprised when he saw the proofs; the bride never saw the photo. John told me it was moments like this, seeing what photographers could do with the tools he repaired for them, that kept him going when he got totally bored with fixing cameras. And then, someone brings him a photo like this, and suddenly it all seems worthwhile.

    • Sid Ceaser

      Yes! YEEEES!

      I’m still in shock that John’s workshop was in the same town as me. In fact, my apartment is like, less than two miles from where his shop was. How crazy is that.

      It’s funny that you mentioned that 1000 series camera, because over at PetaPixel (where they reposted this article), James Reese Morton, who used to be the parts manager at Hasselblad USA for many years said:

      “John was the only repair person who had the knowledge to repair the Hasselblad 1000 cameras which came before the 500C camera.”

      When I questioned if there were are still any 1000 cameras around, he replied:

      “If they are still around they probably won’t work. The focal plan shutters are no longer available and John purchased all the parts we had. It was a complex camera and hard to repair.”

      How crazy is that! I’ve been getting emails from all kinds of people since this tribute to John has gone online. It’s nuts.

      And I’m so glad that he loved to share images with people. Such an awesome story!

      Caleb, THANK YOU for sharing that. John just became more fleshed out to me after reading that.

      Cheers,
      Sid

      • John P

        Sid, I enjoyed your article very much. I was friends with John and actually worked with him for 10 years at Hilton Command Exposures. Some day when I’m in the area I’d like to stop by your place for a visit.

        • Sid Ceaser

          John!

          Yes! Email me! I have so many questions! Please contact me so we can get together.

          Cheers,
          Sid

  29. Jeremy

    Beautiful story. Getting back into film myself, I purchased the 500cm last week (!). I disagree with your CLOP-LOMP! It’s more like KER-KLUNK! 😀

    • Sid Ceaser

      I think, to me, it’s actually a “CHOCK-LOCK”, but I didn’t want to go back and edit 🙂

      S