The Willamette River travels 187 miles on it’s main stem journey before it meets the Columbia River. During it’s course it slurps at the banks and makes lapping sounds at old concrete foundations where factories once stood. Before meeting the Columbia it passes under several bridges in the city of Portland before passing under the most beautiful bridge: the St. Johns; the crowning feature of a neighborhood sharing the same name.
In St. Johns there is a rail yard and several distribution centers at the more industrial end. A grain mill near the Kelly Point Park marks the terminus for the rail yard. In the heart of the neighborhood there are restaurants, coffee shops, and the mecca for film photographers that is Blue Moon Camera and Machine.
Though I lived, literally blocks, from Blue Moon Camera I have only been in a few times. No one in the store knows my name, and it’s been a decade since I’ve been to the shop. I open the door without the intention to shop, but know very well that stepping through the door is an invitation to do just that.
From the counter a man steps towards me and says, “Hi, I’m Jake.” I introduce myself and he asks me if he can help me find anything. I tell him I’m looking for Zeb and he motions to a glass case behind himself and motions for me to head in that direction.
Zeb greets me from behind a display case of cameras fit for a museum. The cameras perhaps aren’t the most collectible or rare in the case, but they’re the ones you would want if you were building a dream team of cameras. In the lower cases it’s mostly small format. Behind Zeb is mostly medium format and in front of the window, to his right, is large format.
We chat for a minute, a general pleasantries type of conversation before a customer comes up to Zeb. I step aside and she asks if he thinks she should sell her Mamiya 645. “Is it the autofocus model?” Zeb asks. “Yes, it is, but I can’t remember which,” the customer responds. They chat for a moment about whether it’s digital capable or not, and what her options might be. Zeb disappears to the back of the shop for a minute and I let my mind and feet drift about the store.
The shop represents a curated selection of everything you need and nothing you don’t. During my time in the shop I spotted no Gary Fong flash domes, and no grey balance lens caps. What I did see however were really well thought out choices for film photographers to choose from. It was ample without being overwhelming.
My favorite display in the shop is the front window. For as long as I can remember it has been a display of large format cameras. In another article I mentioned walking to the shop at night to clear my head, long after they’d closed and just stare wistfully at the cameras. My longish nose would sometimes smudge the glass and I’d immediately leave feeling as though I’d committed some sort of trespass.
Zeb returns from the back with a quote for the camera should she choose to bring it in for consignment, but also with a proposition you don’t often hear when money is involved. “If I were you,” Zeb said, “I’d get a roll or really good color film and try the camera out again and see if you like it. Especially if it’s been a while. You could get a digital back, but I think you’d be really surprised by the results if you shot some film and had some good scans done.” The customer thanked him for the recommendation in a manner that implied understanding and agreement and then she left.
We start to chat again about cameras, life, and photography. I asked him about his pinhole work in an attempt to figure out why the process never really stuck with me, but so many others seem to really excel at, and was served up an answer that seemed to exemplify an understanding of the craft on a level I’ve yet to achieve. When you can go into a shop, and leave with more than a bag or gear or tsotchke’s, but instead with a greater understanding of your own craft you have to ask yourself what the value of something like that is. Is it priceless?
I ask Zeb if he could take anything in the store home what would it be. He’s contemplative for a moment and reaches up into the case for a Linhof. Within seconds he’s breaking it all down for me: the function of the camera itself, the quality with which it’s been made, and lastly some pointers on the unique nature of this camera within the press camera family. It’s impressive to say the least.
During this conversation, I should mention, that Zeb breaks from his explanation on the Linhof to great customers by name as they walk in the door. It’s the kind of service you receive when people are passionate about what they do. It’s the kind of service you seldom receive anymore.
The Linhof makes it’s journey from the glass counter in front of me to the case behind Zeb. “Oh, just a second,” Zeb says as he makes his way for the back of the shop. He reemerges with a Contax 645 in his hand. “This is pretty cool,” he started to explain, “someone left this in their basement and just forgot about it. It has some mold issues, but we’re going to rehab it.” For a moment I take in the fact that someone would leave such a sought after camera in their basement? My imagination is wild and at this moment and my head cuts to a scene where I am kneeling in the rain crying out “why” to the gods. This daydream is only broken when Zeb says, “Hey Kris” to a man approaching the case.
I’m in daydream mode staring through the case as Zeb talks about the customer’s scanning needs with him. He stops for a moment to make an introduction for which I stop daydreaming, and he goes on to talk about the project that Kris and he worked together on. It’s the subject of a post of it’s own, but it’s the kind of story that is the thing of legend.
The short version of the story is man meets older man while repairing motorcycles, and what unfolds is the tale of a collection of previously unseen photographs from the Vietnam war being published through the hard work and dedication of talented people.
Kris heads over to another counter to drop off his negatives for rush scanning and Zeb and I chat for a few moments. Closing time approaches, but Zeb never rushes our conversation, I didn’t come in with the intentions of buying anything but I did purchase a copy of the aforementioned book and a coffee mug which is on my desk at the time of writing.
If you take anything away from this account of my time at Blue Moon let it be this: for all of the time that I lived in Portland, Blue Moon was a hub for creative activity. It served as a place where you could ask silly questions and get solid answers. It’s the kind of shop where your dollars actually do matter because even though you’re engaged in a simple act of commerce you’re actually getting a lot more when you go in there.