I know it's hard to generate interest in stories of other people's holidays, but we did have a couple of weeks in Cuba in January so I can make a small photo-historical report. One piece of good news was that quite separately I saw two tourists (not Cubans) actually taking photographs with film cameras – in both cases as it happens the Canon AE-1. Obviously a sound piece of equipment, still going strong. Secondly, we did come across a flea market in one of the central squares of Havana on Saturday. A lot of the stalls had cameras; some Fed and Zorki, plenty of Lomo and Lubitel, a few low-end pre-war folding Kodaks, and one very tired-looking Bantam Special. This rather parallels the nature of the car population. Cuba is well-known for keeping 1950s American cars going (which is still true) and also has plenty of very tatty Skodas and Ladas, just like the cameras from the era when Cuba and the Soviet Union were close.
On holiday in Anglesey earlier this year, we visited the charming town of Beaumaris. There's much to see including a splendid castle, the courthouse, and superb views across the Menai strait to the beauties of the North Wales scenery.
You can also visit the old gaol; and most interesting it turned out to be. On the walk round the gaol various cells and other rooms have been set up to illustrate life in the prison for inmates, staff, visitors and so on. From the history of Gandolfi's we know that in the 1920s they got a contract from the Home Office to produce cameras, which continued until after World War Two. For now, a quotation from a document by Fred Gandolfi should suffice:
In 1923 came a Contract to supply the Straits Settlements (Malay) with cameras for Police Prison Records. The order was for 12 cameras to take two pictures on a quarter plate each, with nine double book form plate-holders. This type of work led to supplying police cameras for use in the Irish Rebellion in 1925. In this case however the cameras were fitted with Thornton Pickard "Silent" roller blind shutters, since in many cases the camera was used through a hole in the wall to record the person unawares. Later came orders to supply the English, Scottish and Welsh prisons. Here the camera was larger to take three images on postcard (5.5 x 3.5 inches) fulllength, full face and profile. The difficulty with recording three images of different sizes was that the masking device had to be accurate without showing any margins in the divisions. In 1975 the Home Office ceased using wood cameras, having tried out all-metal roll-film apparatus. However some County Police continued to order our cameras but reverted to the original two-on quarterplate.
These Gandolfi cameras have of course all been phased out in working prisons today. From time to time examples show up on the used market, usually with labels stuck on to the sliding mask of the plateholder to remind the user what order to take the pictures in – always a fullface view, and either one or both profiles, all on one plate. What I have never seen before, though, is what confronted me when I entered a room in Beaumaris Gaol for the reception of prisoners. There in a corner was a Gandolfi prison camera, in a well used state, but more or less ready to go. The camera is mounted on a stout black Gandolfi-made wooden tripod, itself screwed to the floor. Opposite the camera is a wooden turntable, to which is (again permanently) fixed a wooden upright chair. Obviously the prisoner was sat on the chair, which fixed him or her in the right position and at the right distance. An assistant could then simply rotate the turntable carrying the prisoner so that the three (in this case) views could be taken. Whether this was a standard procedure I do not know. The chair and turntable could easily have been made locally for an enterprising prison photographer, or the whole setup may have been supplied by central authorities.
The wet collodion process seems to be undergoing a remarkable revival. Modern materials can help a little – as well as the traditional glass and "tin" substrates, a lot of people are using black anodised aluminium to make positives. It's light, inexpensive, and comes with a protective film which can be peeled off just before use to ensure really clean starting position.
I was set off down this track by a chance encounter with a Bristol-based photographer working with wet plates on a beach. Ed Low, an art student, had come across the process and was determined to make something of it himself. Despite having little practical support from his tutors, he has been able to make remarkable progress as I discovered when I interviewed him on the beach in the middle of winter.
As if that were not enough serendipity, there is more to come. In June I was on holiday in Iceland, and went into the city museum in Akureyri just to see what there was. The first room I went into turned out to be a temporary exhibition mounted by the museum's curator of photography Hörður Geirsson. The walls were covered with very well made 10 x 8 ambrotypes he had taken this year in the city, together with the cameras and the portable darkroom which Hörður had made to do the work. He had taught himself the process, including attendance at a workshop in the USA, and made himself all the equipment needed. That includes a 24 x 24" camera for which he made everything including the bellows, which has a very nice original Voigtländer Euryscope No.7 brass lens. Like Ed Low, he has also converted the boot of his car to form a travelling darkroom. Hörður plans to re-take as many as possible of their 19th century photographs from the same spot, and using the same technology.
Whilst camera collectors are beginning to talk seriously about collecting digital equipment, practising digital photographers (at least some of them) are turning to the Victorian period's most successful photographic technology and reviving it for pictorial purposes. It's a strange world!
The archive of the Dallmeyer company in the 19th century has been made available online. Seán MacKenna photographed and digitised the production records of the Dallmeyer Lens Company, which are held by the Brent Archive, over a period of several years with the view to making these records available to all. This was still a work in progress at the time of his death in October 2012 and with the help of several people a website at www.thedallmeyerarchive.com has been published based on the records that he left. It enables the dating and identification of Dallmeyer lenses produced between 1863 and 1901, serial numbers 4500 to 65000 (approximately). There are sections on the more common lens types produced between 1860 and 1900. Also included are biographies of John H Dallmeyer and Thomas R Dallmeyer, some information on Dallmeyer's workers and ten lantern slides showing them at work. There’s also a series of Dallmeyer catalogues, and price lists and adverts derived from the BJA, 1861 to 1900.
The BJP has announced that its entire archive is to be digitised and made available to researchers worldwide, starting in 2014. It’s not clear what the timescale is for completion, nor what the charges for access might be. It promises to be an excellent tool for researchers into photographic history, especially if it comes with a good search facility.
The Royal Photographic Society has digitised the entire run of the RPS Journal, from March 1853 to the end of 2012, at archive.rps.org. It is searchable, and free to access. The magazines can be browsed, or you can enter a search term and get a list of matches. Clicking one of these leads to a well-scanned two-page spread of the original magazine, where you can read the original article, including illustrations. Regrettably the search process is very basic – you can search for a specific word or phrase, but there’s no means of finding an article containing two separated words. And you have to be accurate – I got 159 references to Mr. Sutton but none at all to Mr Sutton. Nevertheless this will be a valuable resource for anyone researching photographers or cameras.
Running at least until the end of April 2015, www.daguerreobase.org is a European funded non-profit research project that aims to collect at least 25,000 descriptions of daguerreotype objects in the Daguerreobase database and make a digital representation of them available. It is intended to document as many daguerreotypes as possible in public and private collections (yes, even if you only have one) and make images of them and many curatorial details available to all, also free of charge. The detail asked if you wish to enter an image is considerable, so some may be put off by the complexity. If you are looking for a photographer, location, or subject, or looking for daguerreotypes with particular characteristics, this is, or will be, the place to go.
Henry Fox Talbot’s correspondence is now online at foxtalbot.dmu.ac.uk. De Montfort University has prepared a comprehensive edition of nearly 10,000 letters to and from Talbot, with a sophisticated search tool allowing you to home in on topics, correspondents, dates and so on. You get a transcription rather than a facsimile, with useful annotations from the researchers.
The Lomo company – famed for “lomography”, and also the Kiev Arsenal factory, recently raised about $1.5m using the internet as a funding source, to design and build a new Petzval lens suitable for modern DSLRs – Canon or Nikon fitting. This seems remarkable in several ways – to raise such a large sum from the general public in 30 days, and that enough people would want the product. To quote from Lomography: “Characteristic photos shot with the Petzval lens are recognizable for their sharpness and crispness in the centre, strong color saturation, wonderful swirly bokeh effect, artful vignettes and narrow depth of field. Because of the characteristic swirly bokeh effect that it produces, the New Petzval Lens is perfect for portraits where you want your subject to be the center of attention. The New Petzval Lens features premium glass optics and is manufactured in Russia by Zenit, a company with a long and distinguished history in lens design.” Historic Petzval lenses in your collection are probably inconveniently long in focal length for such small cameras, so if you want to try the experience this could be the way to go. You’ll need to stump up $459 for your pre-order, delivery later this year. It’s in a brass mount, and certainly looks the part. Alternatively, making one yourself from bits in the optical scrap box doesn’t look beyond the bounds of possibility.
Recently I paid a visit with the family to Castle Drogo, a National Trust property west of Exeter. I'd been before, but not for many years, so perhaps they've changed the displays. It is probably the last castle to be built in England, being completed in the 1920s as a family home for Julius Drewe, a grocer (Home & Colonial Stores) with mediaevalist interests. In Mrs Frances Drewe's boudoir are displayed the two largest Opalotypes I have ever seen!
Opalotypes, or Opal Prints, were first seen in the mid-1860s but were of minor importance then. They became very popular as an up-market presentation around 1890-1900, and most collectors will have come across a few examples. A sheet of white (opal) glass carries a print - usually a carbon print made using Autotype carbon tissue, sometimes a collodion or silver/gelatin print made by coating the opal glass and processing in the usual way. It is an attractive format, with a good range of tones, and in its carbon form very durable, as neither the pigment nor the support suffer from the fading effects of light and the usual deteriorations of silver-based emulsions. They are naturally black and white, of course, but often hand- coloured either selectively or fully.
They are commonly seen as portraits, like most other print processes sold to the general public. Examples I have previously come across are suitable for display in ordinary living rooms - that is to say, around whole-plate or 10x8 inches. I have in my collection several of those, and a 12x15 inch oval, which I thought was a big one. Audrey Linkman in her book on Victorian Portraits suggests 11x13 inches as a common size, and they are also known as portrait miniatures, following the lead of miniature paintings on ivory
If you are building a castle, though, you don't do things by halves. As the illustration shows, two of these prints are enough to fill a wall. The portraits are of Julius's mother and Frances' mother, and are 33x45 inches plus frames. They are in excellent condition - there was no visible silvering, so I think they are probably carbon prints. The studio signature is Sauvy, Manchester, a photographer I haven't previously come across. He was of French origin - Adam Alphonse Sauvy was at the Maison Francaise in King St., Manchester from 1887-1900. The Castle Drogo prints must have been made by contact printing from enlarged copy negatives - possibly not by Sauvy, but were they printed by Lafosse, also of Manchester, and a large-scale Opalotype printer to the trade? The Collections Manager at Castle Drogo doesn't know, but a review of their photograph collection is planned for this winter, so we may find out more.
Let me introduce the strange circumstances of the very first additive colour photograph, which worked even though it should not have.
In 1802 Thomas Young proposed the theory of colour sensation in humans, suggesting that we have three sets of sensors, detecting red, green and blue. All colour sensations are either single primaries or mixtures in some proportion. This theory was further developed around 1850 by Hermann von Helmholtz, was confirmed physiologically, and is now understood in terms of the three types of cone cells in the retina.
In 1855 the then-young Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell proposed, and in 1861 demonstrated, the first photograph taken using this principle. Additive colour displays, still used today in TV screens, combine R,G & B light sources to give full-colour images. (Most photographic colour systems in modern times have worked the other way - in subtractive colour, a multi-layered film removes unwanted colour from white light, either in transmission with slides, or reflection with paper prints.)
Maxwell’s reasoning was that if photographs be taken of a coloured subject sequentially through red, green and blue filters, three monochrome images would result which would record the content of the three primary colours in the subject. If these are then processed to positives they can be projected through the original filters; by using three lanterns and carefully registering the images, the image of the subject should be displayed in its original colours.
The trouble with Maxwell’s experiment was that although it appeared to work, it shouldn’t have. He was using the wet collodion process, which was only sensitive to UV and blue light. He should only have been able to record the blue channel. Maxwell found that his blue exposure was a few seconds, red 8 minutes, and for green he got nothing at all unless he made his filter rather weak and gave a very long exposure. Nevertheless, his result did not look too bad, as we can still see; his colour separations are preserved at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge.
The 1961 centenary of the event was celebrated by Ralph Evans of Kodak, who used the occasion to find out what happened. The sensitivity of the emulsion shows that half of the blue light would be recorded, as would a very small fraction of the green, and no red. However, the dye used to make the red in the ribbon reflects mostly in the red as you would expect, but has a significant secondary peak in the blue/UV region. This secondary peak, present in proportion to the amount of red in the scene, exposes the UV-sensitive wet collodion plate where red is visible to the eye. We now have an explanation for Maxwell’s exposure times as well. The blue was recorded normally, taking only twice the usual exposure for his plate; green was very difficult, relying on a tiny fraction of all the green present; and the red sensitivity was low but usable, as (we now know) there was a significant blue/UV content in proportion to the red.
Maxwell’s method seemed to work because of his choice of subject, but could not then be used in the real world. His 1861 demonstration at the Royal Institution was the first time a colour photograph had been projected, but three-colour photography only became feasible once Vogel developed dyes (in 1873-84) to sensitise emulsions to a wider range of wavelengths. Maxwell’s principles eventually formed the basis of the early successful colour processes a generation after his demonstration, including Autochrome and three-colour cameras such as those of Ives and Miethe.
I have been exploring the world of early wide-angle lenses. Wide-angles have always been amongst the most difficult to design. Although there were earlier, specialist examples, wide-angle Rapid Rectilinears and later wide-angle anastigmats came on the scene from the 1880s. The advent of new optical glasses in that period help solve some of the design problems, but working apertures were very small - f/14 or f/16 would be the fastest, and you might need to stop down a good deal smaller than that to get acceptable results. These were typically lenses for architectural or landscape photographers using cameras of half-plate or larger. The 35mm photographer could also find the odd specialist (expensive) lens even in the 1930s but for most people until the 1960s a 35mm lens was probably the widest in the camera bag. The problem was not made any easier by the popularity of the SLR, which needs a large space between the back of the lens and the film, to accommodate the mirror box. That problem was solved by the use of retrofocus designs (the principle of the telephoto lens, used backwards) with quite large numbers of elements, therefore needing the coating technology which was developed during the Second World War. The early pinnacle of this was the remarkable 8mm f/2.8 Nikkor fisheye, which can be seen as two lenses in one. The front half is a fisheye lens gathering an image of a 180° hemisphere, and that is passed on to a kind of relay system which projects it through the empty space in the camera to either the viewfinder or the film. Its predecessor, a couple of years earlier, had needed the mirror to be locked up as the rear of the lens projected through the camera to within a few millimetres of the film plane.
I am hoping to try out some of the early rectilinears and anastigmats, and compare their performance. They look pretty, and carry famous names like Zeiss, Ross, Wray, Berthiot and Rodenstock - but how well do they work? As most of them have lost their mounting flanges long ago, I have dug out of my box of oddments one of those iris-diaphragm-like adjustable-diameter lens boards and mounted it on a Sinar panel. Wonderful! I don't know why I didn't do this years ago, it makes quick trials of lenses so dramatically easier.
There are plenty of Gandolfi cameras around dating from, loosely, around 1900 and thereafter.The earlier models, roughly 1885 to 1900, were different and do not seem to be easy to find. As a young man, Louis Gandolfi was finding his way in the world and trying different designs. Eventually, as we all know, he concentrated on producing high-quality bespoke cameras albeit frequently from a catalogue of regularly used designs. His few early advertisements show different cameras, which apparently (unlike all his later products) should have the model name engraved on the nameplate as well as his own name as manufacturer. So does anyone have one of these? If so I would be very interested to see photographs.
When we go about our photographic pursuits, whether it be using cameras, choosing cameras, looking at photographs, or whatever, seldom do we give any thought to our own eyes. None of this could happen without them. They are remarkable, dependable senses which superficially resemble a camera in their operation, though if you investigate their inner workings you will be amazed at how different from cameras they really are. Perhaps a little bit more like digital photography (although of course not digital at all) - you cannot discuss the workings of the eye on its own without discussing the workings of a large chunk of your brain as well. As much as a quarter of your brain is devoted to visual processing one way or another, and it is the combination of all of that image processing, starting with a surprisingly poor-quality input from the eyeballs themselves, which produces a totally convincing representation of the outside world as a sensation in your head. Exploration of optical illusions, many of which can be remarkably persistent even in the face of your knowledge that they are producing false information, can demonstrate that your impression of the world is a heavily interpreted version of the optical images that your eye receives.
For myself, I have probably been more conscious of the workings of my eyes than some other people because they have been "off-spec" ever since I was a toddler. Because my father worked for the Kodak he was aware of the issues of colour vision; and knowing that my maternal grandfather was colour-blind, my brother and I were expected to suffer from the same condition. So as soon as I was old enough to give sensible answers I was tried out on the Ishihara test and to nobody's surprise was found to be red-green colour-blind. The genetics of this condition are well known - it is inherited through the female line but only exhibited (with rare exceptions) by males. So it is passed from grandfather to mother to grandson as it duly did in my case. On top of that, I have been extremely short-sighted from childhood, and wore glasses from about the age of six. By the time I was in my early twenties, my short sight was so severe (-10D in the better eye) that I could focus the end of my nose. I have spent my life behind spectacles, or in the last thirty years or so, contact lenses. This has occasional benefits - if you want to work really close up on something you can use the naked eye - but most of the time is a nuisance to be constantly tolerated.
Then we come to the next problem! As we get older, and it happens to almost everybody, the focusing lens inside the eye adjusts less and less as it stiffens up, and we need reading glasses. Of course, this happened to me too, to the point where I had no accommodation (as the focusing mechanism is called) at all. Problem, or opportunity? What is the point of having a non-focusing internal lens being compensated by a non-focusing external lens? Why not omit the external one and replace the internal one with a substitute of the correct focal length?
So that is the discussion that I had firstly with my optician, and then with several eye surgeons. The conclusion was that it's a good plan! The operation is really the same as is given to people who develop cataracts, which are a deterioration of the natural lens which makes it cloudy. Except, I didn't have a cataract, and I did need replacement lenses of very unusual strength.
As I write this, the lens in my left eye was replaced just over a fortnight ago, and in my right eye the day before yesterday. Already I am seeing at least as well as I used to with contact lenses, and for the first time in my life I have something like normal vision. Of course I still need reading glasses, and as yet nobody has come up with any solution to the colour vision problem … I'm not holding my breath.
Preparing my talk on subminiatures for a meeting, I took the cameras out and spent some time with them – they’ve been a bit neglected recently. Do other people do this? I have periods when a particular part of the collection gets a lot of attention, and then I move on to other parts. Because I did a group exhibition this year with two other photographers, my attention has all been on cameras that will actually make pictures good enough to print large and put on a gallery wall. That focuses one’s attention more on the larger formats – I showed a mixture of digital and film exposures, including the delightful Corfield WA67. For those who don’t know it, this is a superbly made (hand-made, really) architectural wide-angle camera for 6x7 on 120 film. It was a part of the re-launch of the Corfield camera business in the early 1990s; probably only a couple of hundred were made. I reckon it counts as collectible as well as usable, despite being relatively young. Needless to say, it takes outstanding pictures.
Anyway, back to the subminiatures. They are a pretty quirky bunch, many having been designed around their own unique cassettes (a really bad idea, commercially) and many of them must carry with them the heartache of their designers and promoters. All that effort and money, and very few sales. Inevitably they incorporate new ideas, some good and some less so. Looking over the cameras that I took to my talk, several can be labelled unique in some way – the Viscawide is, I think, the only 16mm swing-lens panorama camera (the Roundshot uses the smaller Minox film); the MEC16SB has the honour of being the world’s first camera with a TTL lightmeter. So the MEC is a milestone, the Viscawide a dead end. However, there’s one camera that stood out, with an invention never taken up by anyone else, but which really works and could have added convenience to almost any 35mm or medium format camera. I write of the Yashica Y16 of 1959.
The Y16 is a well-made, conventional looking 16mm pocket camera, a rectangular block of nicely enamelled metal, pale grey with a choice of colours for the front panel. It loads using cartridges, which snap in and out very easily allowing mid-roll film changes with the loss of only one frame. The cleverest bit, though, is the shutter; speeds are 1/25 - 1/200 plus "S". The "S" shutter speed is a really cunning idea and operates like a combination of B and T. When the shutter is set on "S", press the release halfway and the shutter opens. Continue to press it all the way and the shutter closes. With this feature, you can vary the shutter speed from about 1/8 of a second to as long as you want. For a short speed, such as 1/4, press the shutter release until it opens and continue the finger movement to close it. For a bit longer, delay the second movement. For much longer speeds, press the shutter release halfway until it opens and then let go - the shutter stays open until you come back and press the shutter all the way. This really works, and after a small amount of practice you wonder how you ever did without it.
Of course, the half-press of the shutter button has now been taken over by another function, to activate automatic focus and exposure operations, so we shan’t be following the Y16’s example today. But the opportunity lost by camera makers for two decades from 1959 actually makes me rather sad!
An occasional and irregular blog, mostly of photographic experimentation and photographic history.