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Olympus XA – And the Nobel Laureate who used to own it – By Eric Huynh

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For me, there are two parts to this hobby of ours. The first is shooting these old cameras. The second is finding them. Which is how I found myself lining up at a dead stranger’s house at 8:30 AM (this is early for me, dear reader.) In today’s film revival era of $300 Canon AE-1s, estate sales are where I now look for cameras.

A picture of a house with a long driveway where the estate sale took place.

It was a nice neighborhood.

I wasn’t expecting much, though. Second day of the sale typically means that there’s nothing left, as the people in my area are relentless when it comes to estate sales. The last one I went to I came an hour early and I was 50th in line — behind retirees with nothing else to do, Asian aunties looking for a bargain, and professional resellers. All were motivated.

Today, however, I was first. Not encouraging. The guy first in line at the last sale walked out with a plastic orange juicer within 5 minutes. So you never know.

9:00. The company running the sale opened the front doors and in I went.

What do people at estate sales and burglars have in common? Both go into unfamiliar houses looking for where they keep the valuables.

I go from foyer to living room, searching for hints of camera equipment and passing a lifetime’s worth of possessions on the way. There was mid-century modern furniture already marked as SOLD, Japanese ceramics, and wine glasses and utensils no one ever seemed to want.

A picture of Japanese ceramic bowls in a box

Would you take them home?

As I passed by the kitchen enroute to the hallway, smiles caught the corner of my eye. A large canvas print of two older gentlemen whose identities I did not know, leaning against the bar.

A picture of two elderly, smiling gentlemen. Dr. Edwin Krebs on the left and Dr. Edmond Fischer on the right

Edwin Krebs (left) and Edmond Fischer in October 1992 after learning they would receive a Nobel Prize. Photo Credit: Davis Freeman photo

The den was where they collected the camera-related items. Next to a beautiful old Smith-Corona Typewriter were two telephoto lenses, an early 2000’s Nikon point-and-shoot, and… The familiar rounded black plastic body and bright red shutter release button of an Olympus XA. With the A11 flash attached.

A picture of an Olympus XA 35mm film camera in my hand. Found at an estate sale.

Don’t worry—I didn’t pay that much.

It’s a camera that doesn’t really need an introduction. Almost everyone (in the analog community, at least) knows of the pocketable rangefinder, its iconic clamshell and sharp Zuiko 35mm, f/2.8 lens. Plus, it can do this:

A .gif animation of a spinning Olympus XA2 film camera

Pro-tip: an XA can be used for games of Spin the Bottle. (Do kids still do that?)

I start looking over it, mentally comparing its condition to my own XA2. I open the shutter cover, adjust the aperture, and unscrew the battery cover designed to perfectly fit a 5-yen coin with an American dime. While the blades opened and closed, a bit of mint-green battery corrosion greeted me. Nothing white vinegar can’t clean up. I pluck them out and insert my own test LR44 batteries. Moving the bottom lever to the battery check mode resulted in a happy, electronic beep.

I point the camera toward the window and look through the viewfinder. There was a piece of blue cellophane in it, probably to increase the contrast on the infamously dim focusing patch. The meter needle reacts and compensates as I adjust the aperture. So far so good. When I advanced the film winder to take a test shot, I realized the rewind crank turned with it.

A piece of blue cellophane in the viewfinder, intended to increase contrast in the rangefinder patch.

He must have found the rangefinder patch a tad dim.

It was then an Asian auntie walked into the den, excitedly showing me her phone with the familiar mobile layout of Wikipedia on it.

“He won a Nobel Prize,” she said.

I nodded and smiled through my N95 mask to acknowledge her, but my pre-caffeinated brain struggled to appropriately digest this fact. Plus, I was preoccupied with rewinding the roll. Opening the back revealed it to be Kodak Gold.

I handed the roll to the woman at the cashier—along with a SD card that was in the Nikon point-and-shoot. “Could you give this to the family?” I ask. “There might be memories left in them.” She hesitated before taking them. “Oh, thank you dear. That’s very kind of you,” she said. “But the family didn’t seem too intent on saving anything.”

She held out her iPad with a Square card reader plugged into it. I tapped it with my phone to pay, feeling melancholy from her response. That roll was probably destined for the landfill, along with any moments left in it. At home, I clean the camera with isopropyl alcohol and cotton swabs. Very little grime came off it—a well taken care of camera.

A picture of an Olympus XA film camera to show its condition.

Just some superficial scratches and some dust.

The rear and bottom covers of an Olympus XA film camera

An arrow shaped etch Almost looks intentional.

It’s hard not to feel sentimental at these estate sales. You get a glimpse into their lives from going through their possessions. The weight of memory is always present. Those Japanese ceramics may have piqued their interest and picked up on a vacation to Kyoto in 1987. Or those wine glasses may have been toasted at birthdays, anniversaries, and Thanksgivings throughout the year. And this little Olympus XA may have been there to capture those moments. I’ll never know for sure. Part of me wished I kept that roll of Kodak Gold to develop and find out for myself, but those memories weren’t mine to have.

I then remember what the Asian auntie said. I Google ““Nobel Prize”, “Seattle”, and lastly, “obituary.” It wasn’t difficult to find him.

The man who once lived in that house, the man in the right of that photo, and the man who once used the Olympus XA: Edmond H. Fischer. 1992 Nobel Prize Winner for Physiology or Medicine with University of Washington colleague Edwin Krebs—the other man in the photo.

They characterized an enzyme instrumental in regulating reversible protein phosphorylation. Yeah, I don’t know what that means either.

But from what I gather, it’s what allows the proteins in our cells regulate our metabolism, growth, hormones, and our muscles to work. These insights have been vital in the research of cancer and diabetes.

Dr. Fischer was born in Shanghai in 1920 when it didn’t belong to China. Showing an interest in the life sciences, his brother gave him a proper professional grade microscope. He wanted to help people like his father, who had tuberculosis. At university, he and a friend rented an attic which they converted into a laboratory. His interest shifted from microbiology to biochemistry, which led him to a position at the UW School of Medicine. He said the mountains surrounding Seattle reminded him of Switzerland. In addition to literally being a Nobel Prize winning scientist, Dr. Fischer was also a talented pianist and held a private pilot’s license.

I like to think he took his XA to shoot landscapes of the Olympic Mountains and Cascade Range as he flew.

In any case, rest in peace Dr. Fischer (1920-2021). You can read more detailed obituaries in the following links below.

PS: If you’re curious, here are some of my shots with the XA, shot with Kodak TriX 400:

Scan13822

Scan13839

Scan13825

Scan13847

If you want to see more, find me on Instagram at @memoriespersecond.

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