Holding Steady

Ron Kadrmas uses vintage cameras for his photography.

Life through the lens of a local photographer

Ron Kadrmas’ apartment is a shrine to his own photographic achievements.

Framed landscape and nature photos line his walls, chronicling 27 years spent in patient observance of just the right conditions for Kadrmas’ particular style of shooting.

Kadrmas, a resident of the Middlefield Oaks Assisted Living and Memory Care facility, has found a distinct affinity for a camera technology considered by many to be antiquated or just downright cumbersome compared to modern alternatives.

Virtually all of the shots Kadrmas keeps on display in his room were shot with two cameras — a 1901 Kodak and a 1903 Korona.

The familiar accordion-shaped folds behind the lenses of the cameras immediately elicit visions of a bygone era, suggesting that these devices are antiques simply sitting on the shelf for show — but Kadrmas assures that they are quite useable.

Though more than a century old, Kadrmas fixes them with modern lenses, often using 4x5 sheets for his film. The style requires that the photographer be decisive and precise in choosing shots.

As if this weren’t challenging enough, Kadrmas also lives with progressive-relapsing multiple sclerosis (PRMS), the rarest form of MS, making up only about five percent of cases.

When he first began photography, he could still walk. But progressively, he was forced to take photos from a chair or from the side of a van. For the past 11 years, he’s been confined to a wheelchair.

But this hasn’t stopped him. Fittingly, Kadrmas tends to focus on natural subjects such as landscapes.

“Landscapes are a little bit slower than me,” he said jokingly.

Finding Photography

Kadrmas had spent many of his years experiencing the picturesque landscapes of Montana and Alaska, but it wasn’t until he moved to Oregon that his interest in photography really took off.

Aided in part by a friend who owned a camera store, Kadrmas taught himself the art of photography. When he first started out, he recalled using a Nikon F4 and Pentax 6x7, relatively modern single-lens reflex cameras, with long-range lenses to take shots of nature and wildlife.

Gradually, however, his interest turned to older and older technology.

“Everything has to be thought out,” he said of his affection for this older but purer form. “And with the older lenses, you’ve got a nice softness to them.”

He hesitated, then said, “It’s just like being a real photographer.”

The learning curve was steep, however.

“It was a lot of trial and error,” said Kadrmas. “You take a lot of pictures before you get them to be fantastic.”

Kadrmas’ multiple sclerosis impacted his ability to expend energy and move, but he adapted his style.

“Everything’s been shot by the vehicle or in my van or my power chair,” he said of the photos decking his walls. “And so it takes a lot of patience to get something.”

Kadrmas’ range of phtography includes shots from eastern Oregon, coastal shots from Bandon and Gold Beach, and also scenes from Montana, British Columbia and North Dakota.

Back in the day when he would put on galleries, some photographs sold for as much as $1,800, he said.

Kadrmas is also fond of pinhole photography, which uses a tiny aperture to allow in light and creates a softening effect on the photo. This means the shutter must be open for several minutes to properly capture all the light.

Windy days, Kadrmas said, can have unintended beautiful effects.

“You have a five- or six-minute exposure and the camera’s vibrating a little bit. … To me it’s magic to see what you get from it,” he said.

Kadrmas only takes a handful of photos each time he goes on an outing, waiting patiently to capture these perfect moments.

One side of the wall in Kadrmas’ room displays a series of framed lightning shots from North Dakota, a testament to his ability to wield the antique objects.

“It doesn’t matter what you shoot it with,” he explained. “You could have the ugliest taped up camera as long as you know its lightproof and if you have a good lens on it.”

Still, the lightning photos are stunningly crisp, rivalling anything produced in the digital age. 

Kadrmas explained that he used to spend time in Bismarck, North Dakota visiting family.

“I ended up spending nine weeks there in the summer and I got hooked on this,” he said as he scanned the framed lightning photographs. “They’re all shot with me standing right outside my van with a tripod, camera and a cable release. And you can feel the lightning when it’s coming.”

He vocally emulated the rising sense of a lightning strike.

“Your hair stands up. And so, what you do is, as long as you have the shutter open, and it’s black — all you’re doing is getting black — so when it got close — I could feel it — and at a certain second, I let go and close shutter. And sometimes I got it, sometimes I didn’t.”

He scanned the wall of photographs again.

“But I love them because nobody else has the same one. That’s what I like about lightning,” he said.

He also experimented with star trails, taking up to six-and-a-half-hour exposures of the night sky to create whirling bands of light.

Like many who swear by film, Kadrmas absolutely refuses to go digital and rejects the use of Photoshop for his art.

He recalled years ago a gallery he put on in Portland.

“And everybody was coming up to me and saying, ‘How did you Photoshop that?’ It pissed me off,” he said. “But I kept my cool, I waited until the next day in the morning, I got up and went to a printer and got little plaques made and put them underneath: ‘These pictures have not been digitally violated.’”

Kadrmas insisted that his love for film and older technology isn’t just nostalgia, though. He compared his approach to photographer friends who have taken the digital path.

While the digital photographer shoots hundreds of shots during an outing, Kadrmas will shoot only a handful, forcing him to be very selective of light and scenery conditions. This means a lot of sitting and waiting, though in this time “you see so many things that you don’t normally see,” he said. 

Taking Another Shot

The challenge of MS has been a factor throughout his photography career, but has not been insurmountable.

Kadrmas described the increasing difficulty he had in going out over the years as his condition worsened, his energy depleted and his mental outlook degrading. Photography, however, kept him going.

“I kept pushing myself,” he said. “Once it got the bug of doing this, I learned that you can’t say, ‘Well, I don’t feel good,’ and let the picture go because you’ll never get that light or you’ll never get that scene. So have to push yourself.”

Today, Kadrmas no longer puts on galleries or sells his photos. He still shoots, but uses his smaller cameras, in particular a “baby” Graflex, as he can’t shoot with his larger, older models any longer.

“I don’t have the strength to put a wood tripod here and hold the camera with me and the film holders and all that,” he explained.

Locally, he’s enjoyed photographing Dorena Lake, forested areas by the Middlefield Golf Course and the Village Green.

On the latter, Kadrmas is disappointed to see it closing.

“That garden in there was really neat,” he said, describing the joy of using pinhole photography on the property. “You never know what you’re actually going to get. … But I got some really fantastic stuff.”

Though he describes the future of living with MS as a “crapshoot,” he is looking forward to another year in the area to continue his photography and take advantage of the changing colors.

“There’s still a lot more to shoot and see,” he said.

Kadrmas also hopes his own story can serve as inspiration for people who face similar challenges.

“You don’t have to give up and die,” he said. “You could have terminal cancer and you’re not going to be able to do certain things, but you can put up with it. And, you know, it’s not been a completely joyful journey, but it’s been rewarding. But I have to work at it and I want people to see that you don’t have to stop doing things.”

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