University of Illinois graduate James Reston (1909-1995) served as executive editor of The New York Times for many years. His personal camera, a Rolleiflex dating from the 1950s, is part of the James Reston Collection in the University Archives.
Most photojournalism experts agree that the Rolleiflex, a medium-format twins lens camera, was the world’s premier press camera throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Rolleiflex cameras, manufactured in Braunschweig, Germany, by the company Franke und Heideke, later Rollei GmbH, featured the highest-quality German lenses—always either a Zeiss or a Schneider. (Reston’s camera had a Schneider lens.) The Rolleiflex’s “120-size” film format, larger than standard 35mm, together with the quality of its lenses, enabled photojournalists to produce stunning pictures. Even the best 35mm cameras, such as the Leica, were too small to capture images at a resolution as sharp as the Rolleiflex, and large format cameras, such as the Speed Graphic, were too large and cumbersome for press photographers to carry around.
The Rolleiflex was popular with both professional and amateur photographers, Reston himself being among the latter. The recent film Finding Vivian Meier, which tells the story of a brilliant amateur photographer who almost exclusively used a Rolleiflex, has generated a small revival of interest in both the Rolleiflex cameras and the photographers who used them.
Like Kodak in the United States, Rollei failed to transition successfully from analog to digital cameras, and after almost one hundred years in business, the company closed in April 2015.
Any extant Rolleiflex camera has considerable artefactual value, given its important role in the history of twentieth-century photojournalism and documentary photography. But the Rolleiflex camera belonging to James Reston, one of the most important journalists of the twentieth century, is particularly significant. Reston carried his Rolleiflex on many of his travels, including his famous, trailblazing trip to China in 1972.
Reston’s camera, which remains fully operative and in excellent condition, is on permanent display in a case mounted on the wall next to the entrance to the Reston Archives in the University Archives (Room 146 of the Main Library).
The University Library thanks Library Friend Tom Kilton for his gift which funded the display case where Reston’s camera is housed.