I just heard, late last night, that Marty Forscher died last Wednesday. That name won't mean anything to some, but right now photographers who have been around for a while will be going "Awwww...."
Similarly, some people won't see much in the shot at the head of this post. To others it will look deeply familiar—down to the scratches, so typical of a zillion 'Roid test shots that got louped and then tossed on the studio floor and stepped on and whatnot....
This is actually the first-ever test shot made with a two-shots-on-one sheet fiber-optic Pro Back. (Photographers had complained about "wasting" so much of the area of a Polaroid sheet with just one 35mm test shot. So Marty fixed it.)
Marty Forscher presided for years over a place in New York City just down the street from the offices of LIFE magazine called Professional Camera Repair—otherwise—widely—known as "Marty Forscher's." He was nominally a camera repairman, but he was also an inventor (most notably of the Polaroid back for 35mm cameras, first marketed as the Forscher Pro Back and later licensed to NPC); a sort of unofficial support staff for generations of independent photographers, from lordly Richard Avedon on down to the lowliest wet-behind-the-ears student; and, mainly, a wizard who could do anything—fix anything, create whatever you envisioned, attach any one thing to any other thing even if they weren't intended to go together, make things work differently from the way they were intended to work, and on and on.
He famously called the Nikon F "a hockey puck that could take pictures."
He was a gadfly who prodded the camera manufacturers to making better, stronger, more resilient, more reliable, and more easily repairable gear. They didn't listen to everything he said, but they listened.
He believed in the mission of photography and its best practices, its ability to witness, to draw attention to injustice and affect social change.
When I was coming up in photography, Marty Forscher stories were part of the background radiation. It seemed like everybody had one. People who never set foot inside Professional Camera Repair knew who he was and had heard some of the stories or a few of his bon mots.
Rod Sainty remembers an address Marty made to an annual gathering of pro news photographers some time around 1978–80. "Though acknowledging the increased features that cameras had which enabled amateurs to make photos more easily," Rod says, "he was dismayed at the increasing frailty of cameras with which pros had to work. I remember his opening statement that he had been appointed 'keeper of the flame' of cameras past, and a later one that 'camera manufacturers should decide whether they are in the tool business or in the toy business.'"
There's a brief obituary at PDN. He retired in 1987, and Professional Camera Repair closed its doors, a victim of rising rents and declining business, in 2001.
He was 87.
(Thanks to Rod Sainty and Noah Schwartz)
UPDATE: Noah has posted a page of photographs, articles, and related ephemera on Photo.net. Thanks to Rod for mentioning this in the comments.
UPDATE #2 (October 10th): There is now an obituary in The New York Times, written by Margalit Fox, in which TOP is mentioned, and Marshall Arbitman (see below) is quoted (!).
Featured Comment by Jim: "Professional Camera Repair helped keep a lot of my 'hockey pucks' of various kinds working over the years. There didn't seem to be any destruction I could heap upon my cameras as a pro that Marty couldn't fix. I don't know if the 'good old days' were really as good as I remember, but Marty sure made working hard with cameras a lot easier."
Featured Comment by Carl Leonardi: "Marty will be missed—an icon of the photographic film era. The magic was, you believed he could repair anything and make it work again. He took the fear out of camera abuse. I probably met him in the '60s when I brought [LIFE magazine photographer Bill] Vandivert's Leicas and Nikons in for their annual cleaning. Yes it was like going to the local shoe cobbler to repair what was left of an old pair of shoes. No matter what shape your camera was in—'Take it to Marty, he'll fix it' was the word heard round the world."
Featured Comment by Chris V: "As a graduate student in the '60s, I had the privilege of taking my mentor's fell-off-the-tripod Hasselblad to Marty's. I knew I was in a special world. But when another customer, a kindly older lady, asked me if I was familiar with Cornell Capa, I was confused. My sister had been a 'Kappa' (kappa-kappa-gamma) at Cornell, but that didn't seem to fit the conversation at hand. The lady assured me that I would soon know what she was talking about. I think if that Hasselblad had managed to fall off the tripod a couple more times, the Professional Camera Repair environment might well have turned me into more than just an amateur photographer. And I'd love to know who that lady was."
Featured Comment by Marshall Arbitman: "I walked into his shop in, musta been about 1982. Around my neck was a Pentax MX. On my face was a pained expression. Without batting an eye, this impish, graying, stoop-shouldered guy looks at my face, looks at the camera and says: 'Lemme guess. The diodes flicker in the finder and jump all over the place when you meter, and Pentax says they've never hearda such a thing happening. Whyncha just come here first?' He was right. He later told me, lest I think him some sort of camera mystic, that his last MX through the door was just a few days earlier, my camera had no dents, scratches, missing pieces or saltwater residue, and my face looked just like the last guy's. So, QED. Made sense. Still makes sense. But after hearing Marty Forscher stories for 25 years, I don't buy it for a minute."
Featured Comment by Arthur Kramer: "I loved Marty. He was a skier and an athlete and I was sure he would outlive me by 20 years or so. Well so geht es. I remember all the guys who hung out with Marty. A great group. Of course back then there was only one camera, the Leica M3, but the Nikon was creeping up on it. Sleep well old friend. You have many friends who will miss you and remember you."
(Ed. Note: Art Kramer, of whom my son is an honorary nephew, was the optical columnist for Modern Photography magazine for many years. He was the pioneer of laboratory lens tests in consumer photography magazines. —Mike)