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Book of the Week: Selected by Meggan Gould

Book Review After Exposure Photographs by Nils Bergendal Reviewed by Meggan Gould "Opening After Exposure – a Cyclopedia of Broken Cameras was akin to stumbling upon a kindred spirit, united by esoteric fixations. Nils Bergendal, however, is both more organized and more systematic than I. Here, he pre-exhumes a camera graveyard, and spins an astonishing history of (mostly) 35mm cameras through its remnants..."

After ExposureBy Nils Bergendal
After Exposure
a Cyclopedia of Broken Cameras
Photographs by Nils Bergendal

Self-published, 2021. 200 pp., 8¼x6¼".

Late last year, I spent several glorious days deep within the camera collections of the California Museum of Photography. I obsessed, as I am wont, over the language on camera bodies, the subtle ways manufacturers molded their own instruments of vision, the arrows, the film counters. (Remember when we used to count film frames, ever aware of how many images we had remaining? Before images were infinite.)

Opening After Exposure – a Cyclopedia of Broken Cameras was akin to stumbling upon a kindred spirit, united by esoteric fixations. Nils Bergendal, however, is both more organized and more systematic than I. Here, he pre-exhumes a camera graveyard, and spins an astonishing history of (mostly) 35mm cameras through its remnants. To mark the retirement of Christer Andersson, a Swedish camera repair guru, the author catalogued the shop’s spare part collection, before they were relegated to the trash. In extensive conversations with Andersson, Bergendal gathered anecdotes about the cameras, really just the tip of the iceberg, teasing us with Andersson’s depth of knowledge about the minutiae of each camera’s quirks.

Throughout most of the book, a 1:1 reproduction of each camera, rescued for a fleeting moment from its imminent fate, floats neatly on a gray background. Most are lens-less, gaping, maws; the cameras lie autopsied before us, impotent, innards exposed. Wires stick out like unruly hairs. Each left page gives us two corresponding paragraphs: Bergendal’s succinct contextualization of each camera model, drawing on relevant technological developments, corporate histories, and politics, followed by Andersson’s reflections on his tactile experience therewith. I revel in both voices. Bergendal refers to one camera’s design as an “elegant lump,” while Andersson grumpily describes the regular “shutter blade salad” to which another is disposed. There is affection — intimacy, even — conveyed within the repairman’s musings on each camera’s personality and quirks.

I am enchanted by the human histories of each of these: some as consistently worthless piles of cranky gears or prematurely drained batteries, others as sexy engineering marvels, not prone to disrepair and a joy to work with. We see, and read of, design dead-ends and spectacular innovations. And then we see human-inflicted damage: impact dents, water wounds, frayed edges and exposed wiring. All of this hints at the complicated lives that each of these cameras lived before their momentary arrest on these pages.

Most books on the history of the camera celebrate polished, idealized specimens. Here we see the infirm and the geriatric — doomed, delicate carcasses at their inevitable conclusion. I am reminded of Hervé Guibert, writing in Ghost Image: “The camera, its diaphragm, its shutter speeds, its carcasslike case is really a small, autonomous being. But it is a mutilated being that we have to carry around with us like an infant.” I imagine their feel and heft in hand when lensed and young, the straps they dangled upon, the opening and the closing of their film cavities, the prosaic and peculiar moments they may have captured. I imagine, also, our protagonist camera repairman (Andersson) hunched over them, in his Malmö workshop, trying to return the power of vision. One page shows us the tools he used, many of which look like they might have an uncomfortable overlap with dentistry.

My own first 'real' camera was a Nikkormat, handed down from my mother. It was — and remains, somehow — a robust camera. I read herein that the Nikkormat was a “solidly built but somewhat clumsy device typical of its time,” which reminds me of myself. The Pentax K1000, I learn, sold approximately 3 million units. In almost two decades of teaching, I feel like I have personally touched about half of them. Bergendal also uses the word “workhorse” lovingly in its context, as I often have. I learn from the camera repairman that many of the Pentax’s exposure meters were faulty, and I nod, unsurprised.

Chronological detailing of individual cameras, representatives of their role within seven decades of photo history (1950-2015), comprises most of After Exposure. Bergendal breaks up this text/image dialogue with intermittent photographs of camera viewfinders; these are some of the few enlargements he indulges. The book begins with multiple spreads that sort and catalogue specific parts, all photographed on a light gray background. The austerity of these compositions does not negate joy, however; there is deadpan humor in each spread’s meticulous organizational logic. A pyramid of prisms is followed by shutter speed and ISO selectors and film counters, gridded by size. Film advance levers march across one page, gears roll across another (less gridded, this is my favorite. I practically drool.) Batteries and battery covers! Film rewind mechanisms! Neither provenance nor corporate branding matter — here are the true workhorse components, delivering us, frame by frame, our silver-laced memories.

Design was afforded considerable attention in the making of this book, from a cloth cover with elegant viewfinder-reminiscent rectangular forms to the spreads separating each decade. In the latter, it is as if Bergendal unleashed a heretofore repressed desire to attack the heap of cameras as pure raw material. From an aerial vantage point, he spread out the camera remnants, arranging and rearranging them into whimsical formations; stripped camera parts are puzzled together to form the dates, with a side dose of whimsy.

These cameras have since been consigned to their forever home in the Swedish trash system. Dan Jönsson’s introductory essay, Machines for Perpetuation, grounds us in time’s inexorable trudge (and photography’s complicated role therein). He writes: “As a final, feeble gesture whilst on their way to the next station in the cycle they blink at us with the last glimmer of the light which once radiated from them…” A flash of exposure, a retinal afterimage, and they are gone.

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Meggan Gould is an artist living and working outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she is an Associate Professor of Art at the University of New Mexico. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,, the SALT Institute for Documentary Studies, and Speos (Paris Photographic Institute), where she finally began her studies in photography. She received an MFA in photography from the University of Massachusetts — Dartmouth. She recently wrote a book, Sorry, No Pictures, about her own relationship to photography.