Dear Retro Cameras In Thailand: I Want My Camouflage Back

A definite photographic change has been slowly afoot in Bangkok. The new retro-look camera seems to have been the catalyst for this change. At first I thought it might have just been my own imagination, or a false perception of mine in some way. Now I am decided, the newer cameras of a more vintage design have slowly taken back a previously built-in advantage to somebody shooting street here with an older film camera. I clearly recall up to around 2011 or so, my chrome and black Leica M6 classic occupied a lovely spot on the photographic equipment continuum. It almost seemed to be like a Germanic cloaking device for discreet image making. The typical reaction to it would vary but in general it would either elicit quaint smiles, indifference or simply no reaction whatsoever. Back then, as long as it wasn’t a large, matte black SLR/DSLR body with the usual long lens sporting a brightly lettered yellow or red corporate-branded camera strap…it was almost certain to be under everybody’s radar. Didn’t have to be a fancy-pants Leica of course, a black and chrome seventies SLR with a small lens on might also have faired similarly well but something about an old rangefinder in that classic look with a little patina here and there really got the job done.

Then it all changed. Looking back I now have a clear memory of exactly when that tipping point was. Of course, as is so often the case with pivotal moments, you don’t see them for what they are at the time. Only in retrospect does the significance and detail play a part. I think it was in 2011, I was commuting by Bangkok skytrain. Arriving at my stop, I found myself in that less than completely comfortable purgatory state between not being as early as I would have liked for work and in danger of, but not quite yet, being late. As I walked hurriedly through the shopping mall that obstructed the route between the train and my place of work, I took a glance in the usual camera shop window and noticed something odd catching my eye. At first I thought the owner of the shop selling all the digital gear was just having some fun showing off his prized, boxed Leica M film camera on the shelf to add a certain sizzle and window dressing. I then took a closer look and saw a Fuji X100 for the first time; it was in a nice box lined with some kind of classy looking satin material. The material served as a beautiful way to contrast against what was increasingly likely to be a digital camera in front of my very eyes. The black, the brushed silver metal, the rangefinderesque windows on the front. An obvious rip off but very well executed. I viewed it without tension, trauma, hate or neurosis, which served as evidence of how right they got it from the start in identifying this new market. I had a hundred questions of course but the shop was closed and the clock was ticking against me.


Later on, the full extent of what I had witnessed was revealed unto others and myself all over the web. The rest, as they say, is history.  History is best defined as our sources of information combined with our expertise in processing them.  I didn’t really process the information from the sighting of this thing very well at the time and now I can look back and see how this crept up on me. Fuji wrote history their way and much as I loathe the term ‘game changer’, in fairness… this might actually be one case where the hat fits. Anyone doubting that need only look as far as the veritable smorgasbord of small cameras in a chrome and black retro style that have since emerged over the past five years or so. Frankly, it has been a little hard to keep up, even for the camera geeks. It now seems as though any Thai kid who feels the need to have a photographic device in addition to their smartphone (admittedly a shrinking group but that might best be reserved as a topic for another day) is brandishing such a camera style. There was a strong ‘you better have a big DSLR on your person at all times to look like a pro or you ain’t s*#@t’ movement prevalent in Bangkok that was truly hard not to notice in recent years. Kids taking pictures of the food they are about to eat in restaurants using full sized pro Nikon D digital bodies designed for professional sports photographers was something that I personally witnessed many times. However, it seems as though many of its adherents have now become turncoats, crossing over to salute the new flag of smaller, often mirror less black and chrome kit. Just a perfect match for ripped skinny jeans, large square-fronted baseball caps and a cool T-shirt whose English meaning might not be completely understood by them as they wear it.


Of course, ultimately I am happy that so many young people now love buying cameras and that they dig the retro vibes. I even believe that history has in some extreme cases come full circle. Some young people who have used modern retro-looking cameras have found them to be a gateway drug for actually buying some of the real old film cameras upon which their digital descendants were based. To be fair, it isn’t just the young ‘uns. This is a photographic paradigm shift that has occurred throughout the older demographic of camera carrying Thai people also. That can’t be a bad thing besides photography doesn’t need any more old men on lawns telling the kids to go and play in front of their own houses. I’m just grumpy to have lost that little edge. I am now forced to be more inventive with my approach for stealthy and innocent (preferably film) cameras capable of delivering excellent results on Bangkok streets. The TLR world via Rolleiflex is proving to be the perfect thumb in the dike for me presently. Of course, it is now so old and quaint that it can actually elicit compliments and conversations from the very strangers that I am trying to shoot, something of an own goal perhaps. Not to mention the appearance of the odd digital camera in a TLR style on the market here and there in recent times. Maybe five years from now every hipster will be ‘rocking a twin lens’ and they will be less incognito also. Still, Churchill said that ‘success consists of going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm’, maybe I should just walk around Bangkok grinning like a maniac with an 8 x 10 camera on a huge wooden tripod and shoot with a large black cloth over my head like Meyerowitz.


The hipsters would never cover their heads like that, nobody would be able to see how cool they were and I would be more camouflaged than ever. Mm, I might be on to something.