Tonchi & I: My film photography hero

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There are friendships… and there are FRIENDSHIPS that play out like that iconic scene in Casablanca where Rick goes, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”. And that’s how mine and Tonchi’s journey to hours and hours of cameras started.

Around 11 years ago I moved to Canada. While there a friend of mine took me to a Camera Swap Meet in Vancouver run by the PHSC where it was so easy to geek out on film cameras at fairly reasonable prices from $30 – $X,000. It was there that I met former Croatian Olympic Gymnast, Tonchi Martinic. He had a modest booth with 20 solid cameras but was really there to BUY from his neighbours.


What struck me was although his selection was small, it was substantially important in terms of WHAT he was selling.

It wasn’t a junk pile but well thought of for the avid shooter of various degrees. I remember walking away with my first medium format camera. A minty Rolleicord VB for CA$150 and I kid you not — you normally don’t forget love at first sight… — and this was the exact moment I fell in love with Medium Format TLR’s. As fate would have it, the Rolleicord I bought should have had a metal lens cap which Tonchi forgot to bring. As he lived pretty close to me, I told him I’d just swing by his apartment and grab it over the coming days. 

This is a 2015 Selfie. I boarded a flight home that night and the next time we saw each other was January 2020.

What was supposed to be a 10-minute grab and run, turned into a 2 hour show and tell, and has since snowballed into a decade-long and truly fascinating friendship. Every camera in my collection (that really matters) came to be because this man sat down with me, and “story-told” through decades of perfect and imperfect engineering.

It would have been easy for anybody who sells cameras, to impersonally sell a Leica to anyone who had the money. But I remember him asking what my dream camera was and when I said a Leica M6, he looked at me almost annoyingly,

“Huh! NO! You’re not ready. AND Why? You don’t need it”. I replied, “YO, you have three M6’s on your display case”. His reply? “It’s because they meant something to me in various stages of my life… not because they are the greatest camera in the world.” Tonchi bought his first Leica with the money he received from his Olympics participation. 


That conversation blew me away and changed my perspective on the acquisition of cameras.

As I found my footing in the hobby, I no longer amassed cameras for the sake of GAS. Each one had to be something I really wanted, understood, and was hopefully inspired by something. Tonchi wouldn’t sell me a single Leica for years (at it stands in 2020, I still haven’t bought a single Leica from him).

The only Leica that ever passed through both our hands was an epic trade between a Leica IIIC I had and he wanted for his collection… for a Rolleiflex. That story BTW is on JCH’s In Your Bag. Leicas aside, Tonchi would however introduce me to a treasure trove of cameras that literally spelt out my love for film cameras… not merely as a tool for taking photographs, but as collectable, handmade, and functional human achievement. 

“You need this, this, this, in your collection. I’ll find you one if I can!” This is the cabinet that always becomes the springboard of our conversations.

Tonchi knew from the start that our conversations tend to gravitate towards my fondness for TLR’s. And soon, he found me a Yashica 645 and a Rolleiflex Tessar. His calls would often start with, “Aislinn, I have something you’ll want to see”… and through the years, he has exposed me to cameras I have never and mostly will probably never see again.

Somehow, every single one had a story.

He would never randomly sell me a camera. In fact, he would only sell me something I requested. From a Hasselblad 500CM full kit with 3 lenses (which he found in some Dentist’s estate sale), to a black Baby Rollei he sold my brother for a Christmas gift to me, to giving various accessories he thought I should use on my current camera collection.  “ONLY if you really want it”, is what he usually responds.

I am not exaggerating when I say his collection is by far in its entirety, the most sophisticated private endeavour and lovingly put together. Almost all are mint or near mint, or if it wasn’t, sits at his workbench for a second life. The crown jewel? Is a fully functional, mint Contaflex TLR. But he would sometimes change answers to a Leica I, and a handful of German era militaria cameras, a weird camera he found in the bowels of an estate sale… that are to most, unicorns.


After a few spaghetti dinners with his sweet family and many coffees, he finally found me my first Rolleiflex Planar 3.5 that passed his standards. However, it needed a slight CLA so brought me to the home of a legend, Horst Wenzel. To many of you who have been shooting Rolleiflexes, that name should immediately resoundas the go-to mechanic for Rolleis.

Horst was your typical German (LOL), no fuss, straight forward, transactional, and more importantly, THE master. But that afternoon, I found myself sitting in his basement beside his workbench and we were yapping away about our lives. I joked that he reminded me of Bilbo Baggins. And he went, “WHO?”.

“See this, Aislinn? See here? Watch this. Hold this. What do you think this is for?”

Afternoons with these two gentlemen is like going back in time where the manual workbench and laborious problem solving is at the nucleus of industry. Even if half the time I don’t really understand what’s happening, I enjoy the company and the constant bickering between them. 

I enjoyed watching the paint dry on this tray of Leicas from his Chinese customers. I enjoyed listening to them ask me why Asia is suddenly hoarding Large Format cameras. I enjoy them nitpicking bad CLA jobs or more significantly, the pockets of stories that came out post-WW2 and Soviet Occupation. Horst and Tonchi were the duo who told me to take a step back, take off my rose coloured glasses and look at Japanese made cameras. We all have this fairytale that the German’s made the best… “Uh Yah, maybe back in 50-60 years ago” and a bit of finger-wagging about loving cameras no matter where they are made.

In their eyes, every camera was/is a product of hard work and imagination: May it be metal, plastic, or wooden.

One afternoon, Horst showed me how his German Shepherd, Maya, knows how to play hockey (uh, yeah she did and would have made a great defenseman). Then, out of nowhere, I just laid it out a question I knew had always been a touchy subject (I was prewarned).

Why have you never gotten a student to transfer all this knowledge to?


He replied saying he had…but none has ever stuck with him. He has realized that most people who wanted to learn have neither patience nor skill; or are there for the wrong reasons. Horst has worked a lifetime with a history going back to the Leica, Rollei, Zeiss factories. This is a man, who was a direct product of the height of analog photography. 

There was this afternoon when Horst asked me if I can teach him how Google Maps worked (HAHA!!) and the first thing he said was, “Ooohhh!! Can we see where you live in the Philippines?”

It’s sad (alarming) really, to realize time is our beloved industry’s current problem. It’s not the scarcity of anything… it’s slowly losing the people who have lived and breathed film photography in their careers. That window of 100 years behind us, has not been fully handed down on a micro, community/personal skill level and sometimes I feel, to where/to whom it should matter the most. 

There is absolutely no way anyone today would dream of creating a Rollei, or a Contessa, or an Exakta, or Barnack Leica…we may have the brainpower but we will never have the artistry and tenacity to profitably produce these objects. This was the subject the conversation I had with Tonchi 5 years ago over coffee on my last day in Vancouver – we still managed to squeeze in an hour or two on Granville Island with our cameras.

AND this is the heart of why I started FilmFolk, even Sunny16Lab: because one particular friendship inspired me to do so…for a hobby that I really loved all my life, I just had to find a place within it outside of taking photographs.

Over the course of the five years in Manila that followed my time in Vancouver, I have constantly kept in touch with Tonchi and Horst. Showing both of them the growth of FilmFolk and also just because I worry at how fast they were aging. I write traditional letters, send them postcards when I travel, send them Darkroom prints of my work and never once have I ever gotten a critical comment.

The feedback has always, ALWAYS been inspirational, a push to go on, and ideas on where I should head next. That’s the kind of friendship that we all need: the kind that moves you forward. 

January 2020, taken with Goodman1 & a Mamiya 80mm lens; Tri-X


In January 2020, we finally had a much-needed reunion and as always, it began with, “AISLINN!!! I found that camera you wanted!” (Contarex Bullseye in mint condition).

Tonchi had just turned 81 and finally sports a smartphone (which he hates). He is still sharp as a tack. This time, it was I who said, “Hey, I have something you have never seen before.” I brought out my Goodman 1 (Thank you Jojo Colina) and ONDU pinhole cameras. Rather than scoff or question the integrity of these “new wave” cameras of our generation, Tonchi said, “THIS IS AMAZING!!!” and spent the next hour asking what else is new “out there”. 

Tonchi’s snug apartment and his collection. Slowly finding its way to displays or his customers. Shots are taken with the ONDU Rise and Lomo CN800.

THAT’s the attitude we need in this industry.

THAT’S the positivity we all need.

It can’t always be about the OG’s of the camera world. Our minds (and wallets) have to open up to new ideas, expand and gamble. Whether it’s made of metal, glass, plastic, or wood. I cannot stress how proud I am of Tonchi for loving the industry so much that he has reached a level of enlightenment that most of us refuse to acknowledge:

CHANGE needs creativity to survive. 

The message I really want to hit home with this article is…find a friend in the Film Industry who will bring you up and make you a better friend to the community. I am lucky to have crossed paths with many, including our Overlord EM, Dan Ko, Vish Soniji… and so many more. This new decade should be about us teaching positivity, much like these Tonchi and Horst did for me. We owe it to fellows like this to represent Film Photography with class and the same joyous dedication/wonder for the hobby.


What about you? Who’s your anchor or anchors in our industry?

“Aislinn, I have something you’ve never and probably will never see again…”
Me, “Uh…not if you just leave it to me on your WILL”.

LOOOOOLLL all around.

If you would like to find Tonchi Martinic in Vancouver, he recently set up booth in the Vancouver Flea Market on Terminal Avenue, which is open on the weekends. While this is may not be the perfect time to go out shopping, in the chance that you bump into this old fella, tell him, Aislinn says hi.

~ Aislinn

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9 thoughts on “Tonchi & I: My film photography hero”

  1. Love this tender story that proudly wears its emotion on its sleeve! And grateful that these two awesome gentlemen, Tonchi and Horst, are still around. I would love, love, love to learn to repair cameras, have tried to find someone/somewhere to no avail. Thank you, Aislinn, for this article!

    Reply
  2. Very interesting and heartfelt story. And I couldn’t agree more that we are losing the the film repair knowledge-base as the older generations age out of the business.

    My only humble recommendation is to go buy an M6 TODAY! This is your dream camera and no one should tell you “you’re not ready for it”. Think about it, one of the surest ways for a camera to have meaning to you is to use it to capture images that are important to you over a long period of time.

    So what are you waiting for? I promise you, if you keep waiting for permission it will never come and eventually it will just be something you always wished you did – and then it will have no meaning to you…

    Reply
  3. Hi aislinn, thank you for your wonderful article, it was very touching.fascinating older camera’s and the great human experience that needs very little introduction.sadly analog technology appears to be on the wane, although it experienced a revival in the last 5 years.what a shame, as i still have film cameras, and pursue my hobby whenever i can find spare time.i can still see superior image quality from my transparency/ negatives compared to many high end digital cameras, there is something ethereal and tangible with film, whereas digital just appears devoid of the subtle nuances of reality, its too clinical and artificial. Take care and enjoy your hobby.

    Reply

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