Broken Banjo Photography

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Jesse and His Typewriters: Berkeley, California

This is Jesse. He has worked for over twenty years at Berkeley Typewriter on University Avenue, though has been a typewriter technician for twice that. His brother, Joe, owns the shop. I was looking for props for a nearby photo shoot one day last year, and simply wandered in.
An unplanned photo; a portrait photographer needs to always be ready to create a good image, despite zero planning, and without the expensive, complex setups needed for studio or commercial shots.  After spending a half hour with Jesse, exploring the shop, I asked for his portrait, and to choose a couple of typewriters important to him.  I did not choose pretty red ones that I thought looked nice; he knows what's important in his own life.  Two speedlights were used.  One was set on the counter, camera right, facing the ceiling and tilted to feather some light on his face.  It had no modifications on it.  The other was held by me and aimed at the wall behind me, to create some bounce that would fill the room.  Too much highlight on the right typewriter?  Yup.  Shadows visible behind the typewriters in the background?  Sure.  But to make this shot perfect would not only take too long, but would ruin the moment of spontaneity.  Use what you can in the time that you have.  Shot with a Nikon D3, at around 25mm.  In post-processing, I muted the colors and split-toned to create a bit of a sepia tint without going overboard.  Shooting time, from proposal to packing up: 4 minutes.  Processing: 30 minutes.
 This was an example of excellent cultural and visual serendipity.  I was photographing a big event nearby, The Nonprofit Technology Conference, where I was planning to build a photo booth for attendee portraits.  My concept for a creative backdrop was this: these people are inundated daily with the very latest in technology...what if I photographed them with "obsolete tech", such as Nintendo machines, old IBM printers, Laserdiscs, and, yes, maybe a typewriter or two.

I had a very small budget, so "cheap to free" was my range for props.  When I stumbled into Berkeley Typewriter, I quickly learned that the word "obsolete" should never be uttered in a shop like that.  "We have no parts to spare," I was told.  After all, in a world dealing with machines that are no longer manufactured, every single key, ribbon, and body needs to be saved in case it is needed.

However, showing an interest in the process and story of the business, Jesse invited me on a tour of the place.  From the showroom out front, full of gorgeous machines from the 20's through 60's, to the back rooms, he told me of the resurgence of interest in typewriters.  They're hot.  People buy them for their offices as props, for their kids as gifts, for their weddings as creative guestbook-writers.  They are rented for Hollywood films (need an authentic typewriter for a 1940's office scene?  Here's your place!).

In the back, there are tool chests and drawers everywhere full of parts.  Keys are organized by style, brand, and font (remember when you were stuck with just one font?), and he told me about his favorite styles, and about the cultural upswings in the business.  

"You can take photos of any of these," he said, thinking that my primary interest was in the equipment.  

"Actually," I said, "I'd love to take a quick portrait of you."

"Me?  No, you want the typewriters," he said, with a combination of pride in the restored machines and shyness.

What we did was wrangle up two typewriters from behind him...ones with a story, some of the oldest ones in the shop that he has been restoring.  Both are from the same era (late 1800's), the very first generations of typewriters.  If I recall the story, both were made in the same city, but the one on the left became a model of standard design, and the one on the right lost ground in the market quickly.  One reason, said Jesse, was the names of the companies.  The late 1800's and early 1900's were times of great patriotism, and people were supporting American companies.  Unfortunately for the typewriter on the right, the designer chose to name the company after himself.  While both manufactured in America, one company used its decidedly common name (Smith, on the left), and the other used its own: Blickensderfer.

I will be in Berkeley next week, nearly a year after taking this photo, and will drop in to give him a copy.

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