For Elizabeth Reed, the primary character in the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, photography is more than an art. It’s a calling. Elizabeth wants her camera to do more than interpret or preserve. She wants to plumb the soul of a person or place. For her, taking pictures is a spiritual act.
As the novel opens, Elizabeth struggles through her last summer before college. She needs to decide whether, after graduation, she will return to help run the family farm, settle in a distant city to practice law or abandon both options by continuing to follow guitarist Hayden Quinn and his band around the country like a groupie with a Nikon.
She wants to do it all (all except the groupie part) but photography has become her first love, and the place she feels compelled to explore is her home in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Minisink Valley. At the center of that home is the magnetic pull of the Delaware River.
Working as a stringer for the local newspaper allows her to expand her skills and subject matter. It also gives her a wildly exciting feeling for which she’s developed a craving—seeing her work in print.
In the mid-to-late 1960s, the period in which Born Under a Bad Sign takes place, news photographers would have used the gear Elizabeth chose, a rugged 35 mm cameras more affordable than exotic brands like Leica or medium-format models like those manufactured by Hasselblad. Her bag would have contained two camera bodies and lenses with at least three focal lengths: wide-angle (28 mm), normal (55 mm) and telephoto (135 mm or larger).
Elizabeth started with a Nikon F Photomic T body. Introduced in 1965, the camera was a TTL model, meaning it metering light through the lens rather than requiring the photographer to use a handheld meter—essential to capturing anything that moved. To the body she added a telephoto lens for portrait and distance work, a motor drive shooting four frames per second to capture action and an electronic flash unit for indoor subjects.
That made for a heavy rig. The camera body weighed 24 oz., the lens 14 oz. and the motor drive 10 oz. for a total of at least three pounds. Bolt to the body one of the early Nikon electronic flash units (affectionately known as potato mashers) and you have a slab of glass and metal that could easily serve as a defensive weapon.
Elizabeth carried smaller cameras for specialized work. She had a rangefinder with a fixed lens and view finder that did not look through the lens. The Konica C35 would have been a logical choice. It offered a 38 mm, f/2.8 lens. A lightweight unit compared to the Nikon, the camera clocked in at 13.4 oz. And while she couldn’t see or compose directly through the lens, rangefinders didn’t use a mirror to direct light into the viewfinder. That made for a smaller, quieter and somewhat unobtrusive camera.
Elizabeth also carried a Kodak Instamatic 100 with a built-in flashgun that took a peanut bulb. Unlike the Nikon, the Instamatic offered fixed focus, aperture and shutter speed. Her father bought it 1963 for $16. It still worked, and was compact enough that Elizabeth could carry it in a pocket. The 126-format film was smaller than 35 mm but the camera would shoot print or slide film, which made it a good backup when she needed stealth.
Which, as a photojournalist, you might sometimes need.
Finding Woodstock is a personal reflection on a decade that changed many of our lives—the Sixties. A companion to the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, the collection of short essays provides the backstory to a generation that is still trying, in the words of Joni Mitchell, to get back to the garden.
With original photography by the author.