Bellevue Through a Really Old Lens


One man's journey through the Bellevue neighborhood of Seattle with a Zeiss Ikon Ikonta folding camera...

Zeiss Ikon Ikonta folding camera

“Hey Kurt, look what I found at my Dad’s house.”

Coworker Jim was in the process of moving his father from a Bellevue home into a care facility; cleaning had been going on for several weeks, and Jimbo was netting all sorts of treasures. In his hand that day at our office was a beautiful old camera in a brown leather case. The Zeiss Ikon Ikonta was flat; I had never seen anything like it up close. The lens was hidden inside behind a door that opened on a hinge along the bottom of the camera body. With the press of a button, the viewfinder popped up and the lens door reluctantly started to open. I had to pry it gently with my fingernail.

When I did, the lens extended out from its bellows and locked into place.

Zeiss Ikon Ikonta folding camera

It smelled like the Fifties, a wafty blend of mechanical technology, leather, and dust – familiar scents to anyone who has owned or used a slide projector. It took a while for me to figure out the controls; the shutter button didn’t seem to work, which released a mechanism that was manually cocked on the lens. But the aperture, shutter speed, and focus worked fine. Eventually I discovered that the shutter mechanism wasn’t working quite as designed. In order to take a picture, I had to press and hold shutter preload (for lack of a better term) while also holding the shutter button; then I would release the preload first before releasing the shutter button. While it was a confusing bit of Photography Twister, the camera actually worked after figuring out the right combo of moves.

But best of all, I discovered that the Ikonta used medium-format 120 film – which is still made today.

I got the itch to try it out, but the only 120 film I had was fast black & white – Ilford Delta 3200. While it wasn’t an ideal film to test with, there wasn’t much to lose by shooting it anyway. So I loaded up and headed out, with the Ikonta attached to my grandfather’s 1950s tripod. I did so, knowing that the film roll might be sacrificed if something about the camera didn’t work. Oh well. It’s just film.

The first place I stopped was the Old Highland School, built in 1934 and still used as an extension of Highland Middle School:


I wrote about this building last year, in an article called Highland School’s Long Legacy in Overlake. The conditions shooting pictures at Highland are never good, because to capture the front of the building one has to shoot into the sun – with the exception of early morning and late evening. To point fast film at a light source pretty much doomed it to some kind of bleed. The resulting shots glowed around the source of light. After taking another picture of the “New” Highland Middle School – built in 1961 – I headed to my next destination.

Next place I stopped was Bel-Red Mini Park:

This stretch of land is technically a road, right-of-way no longer used by the city and repurposed as green space. In 2010 I wrote about how it came to be in 124th and Bel-Red Road – Back In The Day. It clearly lines up as an old road bed; this picture was taken from the park last year. The first photo in this set, showing the camera itself, was also taken at Bel-Red Mini Park. The fuzziness you see around the two photos above is from film getting overloaded by light. In the future I should be able to compensate for this, now that I know how the camera works – and if Jimbo lets me use it again :)

To shoot with this Ikonta, the tripod was absolutely necessary; it required set up and adjustments that would be very difficult if I was holding the camera by hand. First, I “guesstimated” the distance and focus the lens. Second I set the shutter and aperture (my middle-aged eyes had trouble seeing the little numbers on the lens, so off with the glasses). For these settings I sometimes used my Canon Rebel as a light meter of sorts, by pointing the SLR at the subject and using its computer’s shutter/aperture recommendations for the settings on the Ikonta. Cheating? Maybe to some. I just wanted to give my film the best chance possible to develop well. The final step was cocking the shutter and then two-handing the release as described before. It probably needs some kind of repair.

I headed to Old Bellevue after spending time at Bel-Red Mini Park. I’ve written extensively about Old Bellevue recently, which to some degree maintains the original spirit of what Bellevue once was. Of course in 100 years it has seen a lot of change, but there are still buildings left of the early part of the last century and – even more important – a side of the city that isn’t spit polished like the squarish skyline parts of downtown. I love it there.

My next stop was on 103rd Avenue NE, between Old Bellevue’s Main Street and NE 2nd to the north:

T’Latte is seen towards the end of the block; best thick-cut toast and peanut butter outside of my own kitchen. The graininess of the fast film is very evident in this shot, but Ilford does a great job of at least making the grain consistent – to the point that it sometimes becomes an enduring part of the photograph; with grain, suddenly new is old. Ilford 3200 also produces fine tones, and is my favorite medium format film for winter shooting.

The next step for testing this camera was to do an interior shot, and the quickest subject I could think of was capturing a barista working the equipment:

This worker at Cupcake Royale was happy to help when he saw the retro Ikonta camera attached to a vintage tripod. The interior of this former IHOP restaurant has all sorts of retro charm. While the shot itself does look a bit staged, there was none of that; I simply asked the barista to work the machine while I set up the camera. The result almost has the feel of an older setting. The film captured more tonal quality inside than I expected, especially since it was done using the natural light; fast film will do that, but I also attribute some of that to the quality of the lens in the Ikonta.

I headed the East Bellevue after that, and found this abandoned house:


In 1950, two smallish homes were built at the 1500 block of 173rd Avenue NE. Each one sat on more than two acres of land. For the past five years now, those houses have been empty. About two weeks ago, one of them was mowed down before its lot was cleared for development. The remaining house next door was boarded up, potentially awaiting a similar fate.

I’ve taken pictures of these houses in the past, with this Holga photo being my favorite. Of course abandonment brings on ancillary character, like dead travel trailers and busted mailboxes – both which this site had but are gone. Is the little house above next? Very possible; it’s a sad truth that an 800 sq foot house on a two-acre lot in this area isn’t bound to stay around.

Thankfully, I’ve captured them before the new stuff goes in. Look for “Back In The Day” posts from 173rd in the future.

Out of twelve shots on the roll, eleven came out; shooting with the Ikonta was fulfilling, and the results were satisfactory. Next roll will be color, and a slower speed; I’m looking forward to playing with depth of field on this nice clear lens. Nearly sixty years after it was made, this Zeiss Ikon still performs. It goes to show that – even without a digital sensor – photography can live on in many facets.

Alessio Beretta recently wrote at Lomography about shooting with film. “We have reached a point of total fiction,” he states about digital photography. “Some photos are a collage of photos and other images created ad hoc.” When it comes to film, he considers that medium as more honest to the subject. “[A]nalog is photography in the true sense of the word, there are no tricks, what you see is what you have recorded on the film and will remain unchanged.” Everything in the framing of the camera is captured on film; one shot, mistake or not. There is no delete button. Honesty is not always perfect, but the notion of capturing the real deal is what interests many people – even today in the waning days of analog.

While film sales overall are only a fraction of what they were a decade ago, there is still a dedicated culture of photographers who love celluloid. Growing numbers of younger photographers, in fact, are “discovering” what it’s like to capture life through something other than a phone or digital camera. My sons, while favoring the digitals, know well that I still shoot film and that it’s a different experience; they no longer ask, “Where’s the picture?” after I snap a film shot, accepting that they have to wait for me to scan the developed negative before they can see what came out. If anything, it helps them understand that the world isn’t completely flooded with instant gratification.

Sometimes waiting is okay.

A big round of thanks goes to Jimbo, for loaning me this mechanical treasure. Next time, another set of pictures from another corner of Bellevue. Until then, enjoy the view – Digital OR Analog!

- Article by Kurt Clark.

Kurt Clark is a reader/blogger whose posts appear on the Bellevue-PI blog. His subjects are typically city history, or “before and after” comparisons of the same spot in Bellevue decades apart. He still shoots film actively, and currently owns a Holga, two AE-1s, two EOS SLRs, two Minolta Himatics, a 70s-era Vivitar 220SL, and a red plastic kids camera that takes really creepy pictures. Kurt lives in Bellevue WA with his wife and two sons.

written by abpos on 2011-10-19 in #lifestyle

One Comment

  1. berndtotto
    berndtotto ·

    Well ... hard to judge about the quality of this camera from pictures taken on a Delta 3200 ;-))

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