“I was the young one. Now I’m the old one.”

Some antiques, some junk items, are destined to stay on shelves.
But the items on Albert Sabbah’s stalls are designed to be handled. His selection of vintage Leicas, Rolleiflexes or even 1980s camera are beautifully tactile, finely-engineered and are more likely destined, he says, to be used by students discovering the magic of film photography than to end up as shelf queens. Albert’s a practical man, his stall jutting out into the street, seducing you with its approachability; like many of  his cameras, he’s led an interesting life.

I remember seeing your stall here for five or ten years. But you started out actually taking photographs, didn’t you? How did that start?

Originally, I’m from Syria. I came over to London in 1965. I was an apprentice, and then I was a photo-journalist and general photographer.

So you arrived in the middle of Swinging London, how was that?

It was beautiful, really nice. I went to the Isle of Wight festival, took lots of shots of Jimi Hendrix. I had a camera like this, a Mamiya C3. It was very nice, I loved it. If you’re a hippie as well… I was not really, except that one week in the Isle of Wight. It wouldn’t be my cup of tea now, but it’s all right when you’re 18 or 20, beautiful, nice music, staying in the tents, having all-day, all-night music. I don’t know how I’d feel now. But I love music. We stayed about one week.

Did you sell any photos from the festival? Are they with an agency?

I don’t have my photos with an agency, though – I was doing it all by myself, I didn’t really know anybody. My nephew is a photographer, he’s well known , he’s doing all right, and is meeting people, going to all these places. For me, to do that was difficult. So I ended up doing photos for antique dealers, the majority of my friends were antique dealers. Before they send the real item abroad they send a picture. So I’d take photos of carpets, baths, anything. Then when I stopped taking so many photos, I thought to come here to Portobello. And the other bits, this and that, you learn along the way. But mainly I’m on cameras.

So you were on Portobello in the 1970s. How was it in those days?

Truthfully, it was much better. There were real antiques, everywhere. Then I was the young one, but now I’m the old one. Most of what you see now is new and repro – I would say in my opinion rubbish. But in 1970s, all around you were genuine antique dealers, there were things to buy for ten thousand pounds, you name it.

Where did those people go?

I don’t know really. I suppose some stopped, some moved somewhere else, and then some new ones came. Really, if you are an antique dealer, when you see the next stall someone is selling new watches, ten pounds, 20 pounds, you get irritated! I was in a unit with five shops., one lady had been there 30 years, opposite the lady was at least 10 years. Then, in front of us, they put this stall was all new handbags. It almost covered up the whole unit. So this woman who had used to make lots of money, suddenly she took nothing. So she left. When she left, I left, the other woman left, the guy left. Then suddenly it was all new handbags. The owner, they don’t care, only about the money, they thought she wouldn’t move. But she did. And then I came here. But these things happen.

Everybody who has a stall has usually made one amazing discovery. What was yours?

I’m not a very lucky person generally! But I did find a few. For instance I was in West Ruislip auction, the guy had a box of cameras, he had an early digital, very clumsy and ugly. People were looking at that, but he had another box, with about 10 cameras, Instamatics, nobody was looking at. The auctioneer was, Who is going to pay 20 pounds?I put up my hand. Nobody else did. I said Allelulia. I picked it up. It was a Leica 1, one of the earliest, 1937. There are two models – if it was was the other one it would have been five six thousand, this one when I came home, I checked, it was about six hundred, seven hundred pounds. I put it on the stall, a Spanish woman came up, said, I’ll take it, straight away. That’s the only one, I didn’t have many others like that.

You mentioned that it’s not just older collectors buy your cameras, it’s younger people too?

Oh yes. Like look at this camera, 1860s, 1870, no speed, just aperture. And it’s still professional even now, it’s becoming a fashion, after they take the digital photos, the last pictures of the session they take with one of these. With an eight by four negative. The majority of youngsters, ‘cos they grew up with digital, to them it’s some sort of fantasy. They have the digital but they like to use film. Then there’s another category, people studying photography, they look at who used this camera, who used that, and they like to own it. When I was an apprentice photographer, I used to look at these cameras in shop windows. And now the situation is different, they have money, and they buy it.


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