A Big Dumb Button

My wife Sara and I used to have this running joke leading up to her birthday each year. Each year I’d say, “Honey! What would you like for your birthday?,” and she would reply “I’d like a Hasselblad”. Usually with a big smile on her face, in a wink-wink-nudge-nudge kind of way.

Then I’d say “Ha ha, no, seriously, what would you like?” and we’d both laugh and move on to more serious things.

Hasselblad. The 500c/m. Man. That camera. It’s like the Rolls Royce of cameras. It would send shivers down our spines and we’d get all giggly any time we’d talk about it.

Hasselblad. We both wanted one. For me, the Hasselblad 500c/m is the perfect camera. It’s this beautiful, perfect melding of function and art mixed together. It really is a work of art; this little square box and can come all apart and attach to other things to make other types of cameras. If he was a Transformer he’d be the classiest one. He’d probably have a swirly moustache and wear a top hat and speak in an elegant accent.

Sometime around 2007-2008, I worked part-time a few days a week at our local camera shop. Three generations owned this shop. A downtown staple. The owner knew everyone that walked in. He chatted everybody up. He knew everyones stories.

A few months before Sara’s birthday, this older gentleman came into the shop. A small, white-haired guy, slightly bent over. He wore one of those blue trucker hats that had the yellow crests on the bill. It said MARINES.

The owner of the camera store knew of the little ongoing joke that Sara and I had. Those two were talking for quite a while and as they finished up their conversation, I got called over.

“Sid, this is John.”

“Hi.”

“I told John about your little joke you have with Sara. John actually works on Hasselblad cameras.”

“You do??” I asked him.

“I do,” he said. “I’m actually about to retire. I’m going to be closing up my workshop. I heard about your little run-on gag you have with your lady-friend. Y’know, I have a bunch of Hasselblad parts at my workshop still. Let me see if I can piece something together, and if I can, I’ll bring it back in here and we can talk.”

“Oh. Totally. That’s awesome. Thank you.”

And John left the store. And I figured that even if he did have something lying around, there is no way in hell I’d get my hands on one. I’d priced them on Craigslist. I’d followed them on eBay. Even with the “Great Film Crash” since the advent of digital cameras, the Rolls Royce of cameras was still at a price I couldn’t reach.

Two days later, John comes walking back in with a plastic bag under his arm. I got this tingle down my spine.

John pulls a 500c/m out of the bag. He sets it down on the glass counter and he nods for me to pick it up. I paw at it. It’s beautiful. It’s all leather and silver streamlined trim. It’s square and compact. And it’s calling to me.

“Sid. Sid. Look at me. Looooook.”

I wind it, pull the darkslide, and press the shutter. It makes that beautiful “CLOP-LOMP!” sound. Oh, that sweet, sweet sound.

I owned a Mamiya RB67 while in college. That thing was a tank. It was heavy and huge and it was near impossible for me to handhold and take a picture with it. You could drop an RB from a very tall building and the impact below would make a crater in the ground. But it would still work. That camera was fantastic.

But this camera was totally different. More elegant, refined. Not cumbersome like a blaster, but refined like a lightsaber. A more elegant weapon for a more elegant time. This was the girl that everyone had a crush on. That everyone wanted to take to the Prom.

This was the one true thing when it came to cameras.

I’m just about to start whispering sweet nothings into it’s viewfinder when John speaks up. He sounds kinda frustrated and angry. Not with me, but with himself:

“I was able to piece a kit together. The leather is good. The foam inside is clean. I put a brighter focusing screen in there so you can see better. It’s in good shape. But the serial numbers on the body and the film back don’t match. I hope that’s okay.”

I’m about to get down on my knees and propose marriage and he’s irritated with himself that the serial number don’t match.

“Uh…” was all I could say.

I paw at it some more, like a cat playing with a mouse. All of my logic is gone. All I can do is oggle the beautiful silver lines that move around the body of this camera. I’m hypnotized.

“So,” John begins and briefly snaps me out of my daydream.

“Here it is,” I start thinking. “The moment he tells me it’s like $1,200 bucks or more and I have to hand it back over to him”. My brain starts to get depressed.

“I have to ask: how much?” I say. I’m a mix of excitement but I’m ever so slightly pulling away because I know I’m going to be ripped away from this beautiful mix of utilitarianism and sculpture.

“Welp, I think it’s great that you both are photographers. And that you both met in art college. And I cleaned this thing up just for her. And since she loves photography and you love photography and she sounds like such a lovely lady, give me $200 and it’s yours.”

I was kind of in a daze. I had prepared for him to say something close to a thousand. My body was already instinctively starting to push the camera away from me when he tossed out the price. It took a few seconds for it to catch up on me.

“Wait, what?”

“Two hundred. And I might even have a prisim viewfinder back at the workshop. If I do I’ll bring it by in the next few days.”

Nobody has ever seen me run faster out the door of the camera shop, down main street and to the closest ATM. I ran like The Flash. I ran for my wife. I ran for that camera, and in my head, all the pictures I’d take and film I’d wind and times I’d just lovingly look over at it on a tri-pod.

I gave John the cash, and he again told me that if he found a prism for it, he’d bring it by in a few days and I could have it.

Suddenly I looked down and I owned the camera that was in my hand. Wait. What?

After John left, the owner of the camera store came up to me. He asked me if I knew who John was.

“No. He’s a really nice guy that just sold me a dream camera for a steal.” I said.

He told me to go home tonight, and look up the name John Kovacs on the internet. I might get a better idea of who just left.

So I did. And I wasn’t prepared for what I found.

John Kovacs.

John, it turns out, was one of the original group of technicians that was trained in Sweden many, many years ago. He had been working out of Nashua, New Hampshire, for decades under the name Hilton Command Exposures. Back in the days before the Internet, he would be the guy who’s name you would see in the back of camera collector magazines. He would be the guy that people would recommend to other Hasselblad owners when something went wrong with their camera. You popped your Hassy in a box and sent it off to Hilton Command Exposures in Nashua NH, and, weeks or months later, you’d get your camera back fixed and in perfect working order. He didn’t have a website. He worked by word of mouth.

John is the patent holder for the workings that enable multiple exposures on cameras with a film-back mechanism.

And John Kovacs was one of the original group of technicians that worked on the NASA modification of the Hasselblad equipment for the Space Program.

Wait. What?

Two days later, John came back into the camera store with a prism for me. I immediately jumped into asking him questions about all this stuff that I found online.

“Yeah,” he said with slight irritation, “that’s me.”

“Space! You worked on the cameras that went to the moon!! That’s amazing!”

John got even more irritated.

“Space,” he dryly said. “F**king Armstrong couldn’t operate the camera with his big stupid moon gloves on, so I had to create a big dumb button that he could bang to take the exposure.”

It was one of the most surrealistic moments I’ve ever been part of. Listening to someone irritated about the part they played in documenting people landing on the moon. There is a whole documentary film in his angry statement.

Shortly after he left. A week later he retired from being a Hasselblad technician, closed up his shop, sold the rest of his stuff to someone who turned around and sold all of it in pieces on eBay. The legacy of John Kovacs, and his participation in the history of cameras and photography came to an end.

John moved to Florida to live the remainder of his life happy and retired. One of the things I regret in our all-too-brief 4 day friendship was not getting a picture of him. I found a scan of a newspaper article that talked about Hilton Command Exposures back in the early 1990’s. Sitting there in his workshop, tending to someone’s mail-order, bringing a Rolls Royce of cameras back to life for people all over the world.

Sara was over the moon when she opened her birthday present that year. And, doubly over the moon when I told her the story that came with the camera. That some of the most skilled hands refurbed this camera, and that those hands adjusted the camera’s that are still sitting up there on the moon. And we got one of the very last cameras he worked on before he retired.

John died on January 18, 2013, in North Fort Myers, Florida, where he retired. He was a WWII Veteran with the United States Marine Corps. He was formerly the proud owner of Hilton Command Exposures in Nashua.

That camera will never part from us. It’s too important. There is too much history behind it. And one of the things that makes me sad is the history of photography, and of Hasselblad cameras, just became a little less because of John’s passing. These individuals who are on the outskirts of the history of photography are starting to pass. While we are obsessed with resolution and cramming megapixels into sensors and how to find the fast track to success, people like John who could turn a camera inside out and back again, are passing on.

I hope the information that was in John’s brain was passed on to somebody. Or somebodies. I hope he didn’t die with all the years of technical information and history without being able to pass all that on. Because I can’t bear knowing that he did.

Share your stories. Share the stories of those who pass those stories on to you. Photography is much larger that just taking pictures of things and putting them in a book or on a website. Share the stories, the conversations that come with them. Preserve the past and the history, however small it might seem to be.

There is so much more I wish I knew about John. But I’m glad that I get to share my story about him, however small it might be.

And every time I hear that CLOP-LOMP! coming out of my Hasselblad, I’m preserving John’s legacy and sharing who he was in a minuscule way.


About the author: Sid Ceaser is a studio and location photographer based in Nashua, New Hampshire. He specializes in band and musician publicity, press kit and promo photos, as well as headshot photos for people in entertainment and business. In addition to shooting he also teaches workshops and runs a podcast with designer Dave Seah. You can connect with him through his website, blog, Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter. This article was also published here.

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