book review After the exhibition Photographs by Nils Bergendal Reviewed by Meggan Gould “Opening After Exposure – a Cyclopedia of Broken Cameras was like coming across a kindred spirit, united by esoteric fixations. Nils Bergendal, however, is both more organized and more systematic than me. Here he pre-exhumes a graveyard of cameras, and tells an amazing story of (mostly) 35mm cameras through its remains…”
After the exhibition
a Cyclopedia of broken cameras
Photographs by Nils Bergendal
Self-published, 2021. 200 pp., 8¼x6¼”.
Late last year, I spent several glorious days deep in the camera collections of the California Museum of Photography. I was obsessed, as I always am, with the language of camera bodies, the subtle ways manufacturers fashioned their own viewing instruments, arrows, film counters. (Remember when we used to count movie frames, always aware of how many frames we had left? Before, frames were endless.)
Opening After Exposure – a Cyclopedia of Broken Cameras was like running into a kindred spirit, united by esoteric fixations. Nils Bergendal, however, is both more organized and more systematic than me. Here he pre-exhumes a camera graveyard and tells an amazing story of (mostly) 35mm cameras through its remains. On the occasion of the retirement of Christer Andersson, a Swedish camera repair guru, the author cataloged the store’s collection of spare parts, before they were relegated to the trash. In in-depth conversations with Andersson, Bergendal collected anecdotes about the cameras, really just the tip of the iceberg, teasing us with Andersson’s depth of knowledge about the details of each camera’s quirks.
For most of the book, a 1:1 reproduction of each camera, saved for a fleeting moment from its impending doom, floats perfectly against a gray background. Most are without lentils, gaping, mouths; the cameras are autopsied in front of us, powerless, the entrails exposed. The threads stick out like unruly hairs. Each left-hand page gives us two matching paragraphs: Bergendal’s succinct contextualization of each camera model, drawing on relevant technology developments, company stories and politics, followed by Andersson’s reflections on his experience touch with these. I revel in both voices. Bergendal refers to the design of a camera as a “sleek block”, while Andersson grumpily describes the usual “shutter blade salad” another is disposed to. There’s affection – intimacy, even – conveyed in the repairman’s thoughts on each camera’s personality and quirks.
I’m enchanted by the human stories behind each of them: some like piles of shoddy gears or prematurely drained batteries, others like sexy, non-deteriorating marvels of engineering with which it is pleasant to work. We see and read about design dead ends and spectacular innovations. And then we see man-made damage: impact dents, water damage, frayed edges, and exposed wiring. All of this hints at the complicated lives each of these cameras lived before their momentary arrest on these pages.
Most books on the history of the camera celebrate polished and idealized specimens. Here we see the crippled and the geriatric – doomed and delicate carcasses at their inevitable conclusion. I remember Hervé Guibert, writing in ghost image: “The camera, its diaphragm, its shutter speeds, its carcass body is really a small autonomous being. But it is a mutilated being that we must carry with us like an infant. I imagine how they felt and weighed in hand when young and lent, the straps they hung on, the opening and closing of their film cavities, the prosaic and peculiar moments they were able to capture . I imagine, too, our camera-fixing protagonist (Andersson) hunched over them, in his studio in Malmö, trying to restore the power of vision. One page shows us the tools he used, many of which seem to have an uncomfortable overlap with dentistry.
My first “real” camera was a Nikkormat, inherited from my mother. It was – and remains, in a way – a rugged camera. I read here that the Nikkormat was a “solidly constructed but somewhat clumsy device typical of its time”, which reminds me of myself. The Pentax K1000, I learn, sold about 3 million units. In nearly two decades of teaching, I feel like I personally touched about half of them. Bergendal also uses the word “workhorse” lovingly in context, as I have often done. I learn from the camera repairman that many of the Pentax’s exposure meters were faulty, and I nod, unsurprisingly.
Chronological details of individual cameras, representative of their role over the seven decades of photographic history (1950-2015), include most of the After the exhibition. Bergendal breaks this text/image dialogue with intermittent photographs of camera viewfinders; these are some of the rare enlargements to which he devotes himself. The book begins with several plates that sort and catalog specific pieces, all photographed against a light gray background. The austerity of these compositions, however, does not negate the joy; there is deadpan humor in the meticulous organizational logic of each broadcast. A pyramid of prisms is followed by shutter speed and ISO selectors and film counters, gridded by size. Film advance levers scroll on one page, gears roll on another (less checkered is my favorite. I’m practically drooling.) Batteries and battery covers! Film rewind mechanisms! Neither provenance nor corporate branding matters – here are the true components of the workhorse, delivering to us, frame by frame, our silver memories.
Considerable attention has been paid to design in the making of this book, from a fabric cover to elegant rectangular shapes reminiscent of the viewfinder to the boards separating each decade. In the latter, everything happens as if Bergendal unleashed a hitherto repressed desire to attack the heap of cameras as pure raw material. From an aerial perspective, he spread out the remnants of the camera, arranging and rearranging them into fanciful formations; stripped-down camera parts are put together to form the dates, with a dose of fantasy.
These cameras have since been consigned to their forever home in the Swedish waste system. Introductory essay by Dan Jönsson, machines to perpetuate, anchors us in the inexorable march of time (and the complicated role of photography in it). He writes, “In a final, faint gesture as they move to the next station in the cycle, they gaze upon us with the last glimmer of the light that once radiated from them…” A flash of exposure, an afterimage retinal, and they’re gone.
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Megan Gould is an artist who lives and works outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she is an Associate Professor of Art at the University of New Mexico. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the SALT Institute for Documentary Studies and Speos (Paris Photographic Institute), where she eventually began her studies in photography. She earned an MFA in Photography from the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth. She recently wrote a book, Sorry, no pictureson his own relationship to photography.