About the skies over Bishkek. And life on the ground.

Around the World in Almost 60 Years: The Roots and Routes of Agfa Silette, From Munich via North Africa to Central Asia

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A photoblog might as well start with the story of a camera. THE camera. ITS camera. Silette is its name. Silette Pronto, mind you. The original Silette. It’s an old, far-traveled camera, and one of many stories. And one with a long family history. My father took hundreds of photos with it when he lived for two years in Tripoli, Libya, from 1956 to 1958. This was him back then, with the Silette in action:

Yes, it’s that old. And it’s resilient, that Silette. It survived the handful of cameras that I have ever owned: among them my first Agfamatic pocket camera (ritsch, ratsch, klick!), which my grandmother gave me at age eight, a Polaroid (the coolest thing in the 1970s), and my first digital, which found its sad demise hitting that one single hard rock far and between in the desert sands of Palmyra. These cameras came and went—but Silette was here to stay. The photos it has produced over the decades – your typical family snapshots – fill multiple family albums, documenting the lives of several generations.

My father bought it in 1956, for $24.30, at the PX in Tripoli. The price tag is still on the original, signature blue-and-orange Agfa box. One of his first purchases in Libya. But its busy transnational life started before it was sitting on the store shelf, to be sold by and to Americans (and to other nationals working for the U.S. military) on a U.S. base in North Africa. And it started elsewhere.

It was first introduced in 1954. Made in Germany. At the Agfa Camera-Werke in Munich. A Wirtschaftswunder product, intended to meet the staggering consumer demands created by the booming West German postwar economy. This Silette probably traveled from its Bavarian origins as a German export to the U.S., to be redistributed stateside to the global PX system, ending up at Libya’s Wheelus Air Base. And in my father’s hands. He paid for it with his U.S. salary. And took it home to Germany after two years. The roots and routes of the Silette: the transnational circuits of production, economic exchange, and labor mobility, embedded in the larger geopolitics of the 1950s.

Silette would return to the U.S. many years later, in 2006. As every camera with a long life – in fact, as any material object – it has created more than images. It has generated its own anecdotes that get retold at family gatherings. Such as the story of my graduation, with cap and gown and pomp and circumstance and all. Silette was frantically clicking away that day, capturing that glorious occasion. At least that’s what we thought. Until we realized that there was no film in the camera. The thing itself has become the stuff of memories, even without producing images on paper that we anchor our memories in.

But not so fast. This is not the end of the story of a camera. Silette is far from retiring at the tender age of almost 60. After decades of crisscrossing between Europe, the U.S., and Africa, it will travel with me to Kyrgyzstan later this week. New sights are waiting for us. And, as experienced and restless travelers, we are both getting antsy for them. In the meantime, I am trying to figure out how the camera works (to make this photoblog work), keeping close to the skies. Bear with me, and with Silette, at such great heights:

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