I hardly ever write about camera bags...in fact, when bag manufacturers try to pitch me, I usually protest that I never write about bags. Which is not quite accurate, but close.
I've never been a bag man. (Lenses, yes.) But I thought I'd at least heard of most major brands of camera bags, save some cheapie no-names.
Oh no, canvas-breath. Not even close.
Before I did Friday's Ona vs. Tenba shootout, one brand I had never heard about was Filson.
Turns out C.C. Filson Co. has been around since it was called "C.C. Filson's Pioneer Alaska Clothing and Blanket Manufacturers," specializing in goods to outfit the stampeders to the Klondike Gold Rush. It's been a big name in outdoor goods in the American West for more than a century. And, like Diamond Gusset in Lynchburg, Tennessee, where I buy my jeans, Filson's products are all U.S. made, which is getting to be an exclusive club.
Of course, one name I had heard of was David Alan Harvey. A longtime photojournalist standout, David has been a Magnum photographer since 1997 and has published three books, including his great study of the Hispanic diaspora in the U.S., Divided Soul, among many other accomplishments.
But put aside those parts of his resumé. A key fact about David Alan Harvey is that he's famously the most bag-obsessed photographer in Christendom—as humorously profiled in a well-known video clip called "Bag World (with Dr. David Alan Harvey, Professor of Bagology)," which features a cheerfully appalling glimpse into the storage locker where he keeps hundreds of rejected bags. (By the way, he means pounds, not ounces, at the beginning of the video. Slip o' the tongue, or just wishful thinking?)
So it turns out Filson took on the formidable challenge of making a bag that would satisfy even David Alan Harvey, and the result is the Filson Harvey:
Now, I like symbolism. And what better symbolism for a lowly camera bag than one designed to satisfy a famously picky Magnum photographer/bagologist by a company that made its name supplying prospectors for the Alaskan Gold Rush?
I mean, you almost can't make that up.
I don't mean to short the great Steve McCurry, whose gorgeous book Looking East is still on the list of my 50 favorite photobooks (note the size before you order it—it doesn't fit on every shelf). His Filson is called the McCurry Sportsman Bag (Amazon, B&H Photo.)
He's a great shooter, all right—but more importantly, is he a true bag freak? Can't say as I know. His Filson is bigger, in any case.
Anyway, sooner or later I'm going to have to take a closer look at the Filson Harvey. I'd almost use the thing just for the sake of its multitudinous provenances. The history and lore connected to it is almost too much to resist. I'm a sucker for that kind of thing.
(Thanks to the commenters who mentioned Filson in the last post)
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Bill Mitchell: "Alfred Eisenstaedt: 'When I go on assignments, I usually take along my old gadget bag. It's about eighteen years old now and dilapidated. People sometimes say, "You should get a new case, a bigger and better one. Surely you can afford it." My answer is, "Sure, but would it help me to take better pictures?"' The Eye of Eisenstaedt, The Viking Press, NYC, 1969, p. 198."
Mike replies: True, but not helping him take better pictures clearly hasn't stopped David Alan Harvey from getting "a new case" every, er, now and then.
Joseph Reeves: "Filson's slogan is 'Might as well have the best' and their clothing and gear live up to that statement."
Bob Baron: "I'll be interested in your review, Mike. I'm an admirer of David Harvey; I have watched the bagology video; I have a friend—a Leica shooter as I am, but more well known by far—who uses this bag; and, out of curiosity, I ordered it from B&H (using your link if I recall correctly) full well thinking I'd never pay that much for a bag again and would return it after I saw it in person. I said that almost daily for the full 30-day return period but never could bring myself to send it back. I used it again this weekend and I like it. There are a lot of arguments that can be made against it, but in the end it works."
Roberto Alonso: "All this talk about bags reminded me of a curious anecdote: in November 2002 I had the pleasure to meet one of the golden-era Magnum heavyweights, who shall remain anonymous. He was here in Northwest Spain to cover the oil spill after the 'Prestige' tanker fracas, for a major U.S. magazine and needed someplace where he could edit his take and send about a dozen selects to the picture desk there, so a common acquaintance put us both in contact so he could work from my studio.
"As he arrived, I noticed two things: first, he was dragging a very taciturn writer with him, who promptly proceeded to 'liberate' every beer in my fridge. Second, his whole kit consisted of a Nikon D90 with kit lens, plus one other small non-pro lens I can't remember now. Both had been tumbling for days in the divider-less, padding-less interior of a no-brand cheap camera bag, solely protected by a filthy small towel obviously 'borrowed.'"
Mike replies: Thanks, that's great.
I should tell my own professional photographer bag story. When I was a boy I was coming back from France with my father and there was one extra seat in First Class, so they offered it to us and my father let me have it. The man in the seat next to me said he was a fashion photographer coming back to New York from a fashion shoot in Paris. As we flew out over the coast he asked me if I'd like to see the sailboats. I said I thought we were too high up. He retrieved from under the seat in front of him as large a hard case as would fit, and when he opened it it was full of cameras and lenses, Hasselblads and Nikons, all tossed in together in a jumble without any sort of organization much less any padding or protection. Most of the equipment was remarkably beat up—the most beat up cameras I'd ever seen at the time.
He fished out a 500mm mirror lens, put it on a Nikon, and let me look down at the ocean. I did indeed see sailboats far below. When we'd gotten out over the ocean far enough that there weren't any more boats, I handed him the camera back and he tossed it carelessly back into the case and put the case back under the seat.
Actually, come to think of it, I think he was originally in the window seat and offered it to me so I could look out.
He talked to me a lot; he had a heavy accent and I had trouble understanding him. He was cheerful and very friendly, and made a good impression on me. I was maybe twelve or thirteen at the time—around 1970 or so. I never knew who he was but he was very kind.