Portrait Magnet: A Dandy Rolleiflex T Dressed to the Nines in its Gray Leather Suit

I carried with me a Rolleiflex, held high in my hand with my elbow bent to keep it at chest level. No strap. No case. Just the Rolleiflex.

It’s a model T, a later model that is a bit of a dandy of a camera, dressed to the nines in its fancy gray leather suit.

I took it to a flea market in Denver, thinking that there’s a certain mentality among sellers that they probably wouldn’t want to be photographed. They’re often kind of independent thinkers, fiercely tough and weathered, out working for themselves. I thought if I could get them to say yes to portraits, I could get anyone.

I had 12 exposures in the Rolleiflex, a new roll of Ilford HP5 black and white film was just loaded. The first person I met was a gentleman selling DVDs and a bunch of junk spewed out on the asphalt. I saw season 6 of The Office and asked the price. For a buck, I bought it. Then showed him my camera and asked if I could photograph him with it. He said yes and posed with his totally impractical bin of DVDs (impractical if you wanted to see all he had for sale.)

Next up the market lane was a guy selling a late model Smith Corona portable typewriter. He said $20, I said $10, he said yes. I paid him, then asked if he would pose with it like a typewriter salesman. He did willingly. This was easier than I thought. Maybe because I was a paying customer, I thought.

I trekked further down the row of salesmen and women peddling their wares. A gentleman with a lot of musical gear standing under his umbrella mentioned his father used to use a camera like the one I was holding–the camera did the introduction. I asked for his portrait and told him to step out from under the umbrella into the light. He asked should he smile, I said be yourself, whatever you feel. Here’s his portrait. This was getting easy and I wasn’t even his customer.

At this rate I would be out of film by the end of the first row. Because I’m left-eyed, I tend to walk on the left side of the row first, then return back down the same row so I don’t have to cross back and forth between shoppers.

This man with the guitar was sitting with the guitar for sale. I asked if he played, he said yes, so he did. I waited for him to look up. I thanked him for his song, and it was a treat to meet him, and all the people the camera was bringing to me.

This couple I’ve bought photo accessories from before, they recognized me, so were more than willing to pose. I set them up together, just a bit of direction to compose the frame.

This man I had bought a Leatherman multi-tool from a few weeks ago, so mentioned that and asked for a portrait. Completely willing. I did it quick.

A man was shopping and, with his cowboy hat made me think he must be carrying a lasso over his shoulder–a real cowboy. Only upon a closer look, it turned out to be an electrical cord. I mentioned that I thought it was a rope and asked for his portrait. He said no, then paused and said ok, smiled for the old camera.

It’s all in the power of the ask, and the fancy old camera looking up at them. Further along, I came across this man who mentioned he’s a photographer and he loved Rolleiflexes, so of course, picture time. I sat him down and turned him around for the frame.

This guy was enamored by the camera, called it a beauty and I said let’s make your portrait. He got his son to pose with him who certainly had never seen anything like it. Perhaps has never had a piece of film recording his likeness before.

After I was finished row one, I was on number frame 12. I quickly found someone to photograph to finish the roll before these three said, “Cool camera” or something to that effect. I told them I was out of film, much to their disappointment. But then I made my way back to the car for a new roll, a 10-year expired roll of Tmax 100 and loaded it into the gray handsome camera. I returned and said I reloaded as I couldn’t miss their photograph.

Everyone got one frame. Never two. One per setup so I could get more people photographed. The Rolleiflex was doing all the work. I just had to show up and be willing to say hello.

It’s the beauty of using the dapper gray charmer I held in my hand. And it was easily the most fun I had photographing in the street in a long time. I love street photography, but street portraiture I hadn’t made for some time, I was inspired by Amy Touchette who I heard on a B&H Podcast, actually two of them, this one too, so decided time to break out the Rolleiflex. (I have made documentary photos–street photos–at the market many times before. But not street portraits.)

Part II–I took the unfinished roll to the RiNo section of Denver intent on meeting more people and finishing it with portraits of strangers, people I met on the street. Stay tuned for those street portraits coming next time.

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