Allen's Blog

The Ingenuity of Marty Forscher

During the past six months, while we have been working to build the new Visual Departures web site which launched just last week, I knew that a personal blog would be part of the project. I have always been certain that the blog would not be just about our company and its products but about a range of topics including (but not limited to) photography, film and video; the people who make and edit the images; travel; food; and observations that one makes after nearly 50 years of working as a photographer and in television.

But just as we started the design process, I learned of the death of an old friend and one of the truly great people in the history of 20th century photography, Marty Forscher. During the 40 years that Marty presided over Professional Camera Repair Service in New York City (the business continued for about 15 years after Marty’s retirement in 1987 and closed in 2001, largely because of the vast changes in technology), thousands of emerging and established photographers looked to Marty and his staff for support, advice, and the technical skills that kept us going in remote locations or in the studio.

He was always a lovely person, and on the days when PCRS was swamped with customers at its West 47th Street offices, everyone waited his or her turn (usually by reading the bulletin board that was an early ancestor of Craig’s List). To understand Marty’s importance, you have to know something about equipment in the days before electronic shutters, auto-focus, and sharp-as-a-tack zoom lenses.

Nikon (Nikkor) 43-86mm zoom lens

Once upon a time, when only Nikon and Leica were the 35mm cameras of note (with Hasselblad, Rollei, Linhof, and Deardorff as the larger format options), all our gear needed regular maintenance. I used to travel on extended assignments with as many as seven Nikon and Leica bodies and at least as many lenses. Even when the earliest zoom lenses arrived, they were slow, not particularly sharp, and very limited in their zoom range. My first was the Nikon 43-86mm, and it was quickly relegated to the drawer where it lives today.

Focal plane shutters malfunctioned, the lubricants that kept everything working smoothly had to be changed if you were going on a long assignment in very cold or very hot climates, and about every six months, each of my cameras would go in for “C-L-A” (clean, lube and adjust). Right through the ’70s, there was no FedEx, no fax, certainly no cell phone technology. I would go through long periods on location with the only means of quick communication back home being the government Telex operator in a distant press center (for a ‘consideration’ — or bribe, if you like.)

Back to Marty — he was a hero to all of us. If we could get the gear to him, his team would figure out a way to get it back to us. Back in those days, I could take a package to an airport anywhere in the world and find a passenger or crew member who would hand-carry exposed film or a broken camera back to New York, where he would be met at the airport by someone who would get the film or equipment where it needed to be. Of course, a lot of Marty’s business went away when electronic shutters (for me it was the Nikon F3) came into use. After that point, I could shoot thousands of rolls of film without having to do more maintenance than a can of pressurized air and a box of batteries would allow (those motor drives were thirsty.) At the same time, zoom lenses became a real alternative to prime optics, so we were carrying around a lot less gear. That trend continues to this day, and there aren’t any bags of film to get through security.

And there were Marty’s equipment innovations, like the ProBack which allowed us to make Polaroid test shots with a Nikon. For that, he went to engineers at NASA to develop a precisely-machined block of fiber optics that would allow an image to be transferred from the film plane of the camera to the Polaroid material. When the Nikon 15mm rectilinear wide-angle lens came on the market, it was (and is) a remarkable piece of glass. With its huge, bulbous front element, Nikon solved the problem of using filters by providing some glass filters that bayoneted into the back of lens. But it was Marty’s team that figured out how to let me use any filter I needed, like the CC filters for fluorescent lighting.

PCRS filter punch kit

The answer consisted of a machined steel and brass circular punch, a block of wood, and some spring steel rings. I would take a Kodak gel in its protective tissue, put it on the wooden block, and with a hammer (not included) punch out a perfect circle that could nest alongside Nikon’s skylight filter, secured by one of the tiny steel rings. Now that is a long story, but it’s part of what made Marty and PCRS such an integral part of our working lives.

I last saw Marty in New York at the PhotoPlus show several years ago. He was with the great filmmaker (and photographer) Morris Engel. Morris’s wife, the photographer Ruth Orkin, had died many years before.

If you don’t already know it, you should make seeing Morris Engel’s film, The Little Fugitive (1953), an absolute necessity. It’s part of a great two-DVD set of his and Ruth’s films from the 1950s, issued by Kino International.

I spent about a half hour walking through the show with the two of them. As we walked (slowly, to be sure), I can’t tell you how many other photographers came by to pay their respects. Before I sat down to write this, I went to my own equipment shelves to look at Marty’s handiwork. I still have it all. I’m sure many of you (if you’re over a certain age) have your own Marty memories and stories.

In some future post, I’ll share the story of being followed to PCRS by two armed robbers, then followed to my car in the middle of a summer day in Rockefeller Center and then carjacked while a lot of people watched. End result: a lot of gear lost, the bad guys got away, and I’m around 37 years later to tell the tale…