Camera with no name

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You folks who know Russian cameras well, here’s a chance to smile a small, superior smile, but I bet you can sympathize with my enthusiasm in finding out what the heck this thing is. I didn’t even know it was Russian, since the lens was at the bottom of a bag filled with all manner of photo left-overs but I guessed it, given the circumstance of it’s coming into my hands.

Isn’t it fun to have a mystery to solve once in awhile? I don’t mean a problem to solve, we all have too many of those, but a genuine whodunnit, complete with clues and evidence. To start at the beginning. A very nice woman contacted me and said that her late husband had had “a number” of cameras and that she would like to sell them through PHSNE. I pictured 20 or 30 cameras, neatly arrayed on shelves or perhaps already packed away in bubble wrap. I was partly right, for there were two boxes of bubble-wrapped cameras in her living room when we arrived, among ten boxes, six bags and assorted crates of cameras, lenses, bags, gear, broken glass vases, batteries without chargers, chargers without batteries and the assorted stuff of a hobby rudely interrupted by death. Her husband had been doing a lot of buying and not much organizing in his later years, and she had little energy to do much with the detritus. Here it was for us to cart away and sell. Cart we did. Before we could sell, however, we had to sort and label, price, fiddle with and (sometimes) clean. Much was straightforward, for though the cameras were often worse for having been unloved for a long time, we are people who like to do this stuff, right? And the naming and wiping and fixing and massaging of old gear is a way to honor the man who collected it, in a way. A worthwhile task.

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Halfway through a large bag of camera bodies, most disconnected form their lenses, I came upon this, relatively clean and still in its original case, but without any lens. The usual search for a label got me nowhere. Outside, no badge; inside, no label, no exhortation to use a particular film (as there is in many German cameras); no indication at all of where, or when it was made. Only the serial number engraved on the cold-shoe at the top of the body.

A more experienced camera buff would immediately recognize the shape and style of the body, or at least be able to name the lens-mount – Contax, Zeiss’s answer to the Leica. A rangefinder Contax is a fine machine; balanced, well made and usually still very good decades after its manufacture, but Zeiss labeled everything, and this was certainly not labeled. OK, so we move to the Russian copies, built, often with genuine Zeiss parts or with parts made from the original dies that had been transferred to Kiev after WWII. Cameras with the name of that city on the front are sometimes as good as the models they copied. Sometime…, not so much. Still, they labeled those too, and though my experience with cyrillic script is almost nil, I can usually make out the name, “Kiev” on the front of a camera. I picked up one of the other Kiev camera bodies from the bag to compare. Similar, not quite the same. He had a lot of Russian cameras. I dug some more… . Here was one that looked just like our mystery body

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Now is the time for you to be asking “Why didn’t you just Google it?” Well, first it helps to know what you want to Google, and I didn’t have a name. Second, the warehouse we use has no internet access–it’s old-school all the way. Out came the 2006 reference books, and a search through the Kiev section. It turns out that the one with the label is a Kiev 4a, made during the early 1960’s, at the Arsenal factory in Kiev (surprise, surprise!). Time to bring the thing home and see Mr Google.

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Now the foremost authority on Contax and Kiev cameras, or so the web will tell you, is a Mr. Peter Hennig, who writes about them here. His take on this particular model is interesting, and I have no reason to dispute him. I would urge anyone who is interested in the entire story (what there is of it) to follow the link and read his words. In effect, this is a relatively rare and un-acknowledged step-child in the Kiev line. Sometimes found with genuine Zeiss Sonnar lenses, they are also found with the famous Jupiter 8, fine lenses in their own right when the workers cared to make them so, but inconsistent if my sources are to be believed. I have never shot with one. Deep down in the bag that held the no-name body was a Jupiter 8, which I have re-united with the camera. Now found almost exclusively in the USA, this version of the 4a sometimes carries the engraved legend on its back of being made in the “USSR occupied Germany,” a claim Mr. Hennig disputes.  Again, I have no reason to argue with him.

So the real mystery remains. I now know what the camera is, I have a good idea when and were it was made. We even have a lens for it. What I don’t know is the larger why. Why did the Zavod Arsenal manufacture a line of these cameras without any label? Why are they here? Cold-war plot to fool the stupid capitalists into buying a Russian camera? Business plan to make cameras for re-badging? (This was a common strategy then as it is now, used by many companies–think Sears branding.) A major screw-up, shipped overseas to get them out of sight? The last is unlikely, no matter what you think of the quality standards of the Russian factories during the 60’s, they continued this line for quite awhile, perhaps two years or more (Hennig guesses fewer than 5000, but hey, that’s a lot of cameras), and the quality of this camera is as good as any Kiev I have seen–quite good, in fact. Maybe they just did it to screw with us, to make me ask questions.

Yup, that’s it. It’s all a plot to get me thinking. They simply wanted people to have a little mystery in their lives. Nice of them.

That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

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