Can I get a Replacement?
I bought an odd roll of 127 film for 50p from Doug Palmer's lovely shop in Bridport a few weeks ago. Needing to try out a new (old) camera, I unwrapped it and found myself with a roll of Agfa Superpan Supreme, no less, which from what I can gather would have been made during World War 2. I peeled off the tape and found this little notice, which clearly says that if I am not fully satisfied I can send the negatives to a New York address for a free replacement roll. I reckon that at the time of exposure it was about 75 years old, and had not been stored in a chiller.
I loaded my camera - a Minolta Miniflex - exposed the film at a guessed 50ASA and developed it in Gainer's developer, which is basically vitamin C with some alkali and a tiny pinch of phenidone. Wonders will never cease, I got pictures of reasonable density and no fog! On closer inspection, though, there were two problems - the grain is very squidgy and what should be even tones are uneven, plus the frame markings on the backing paper have printed across into the emulsion and can be seen on each picture.
Can I send it back?
Side by Side
A recent purchase by my good friend and colleague John Wade (www.johnwade.org) brought back to mind a camera I'm quite fond of, and mentioned here - the Toyocaflex-35. The Tougo-do company split in two during the war, leaving two different Tougo-do companies for a while thereafter. In 1955 the Toyohashi Tougo-do factory launched the Toyocaflex-35. This is one of the very few designs anywhere of 35mm twin-lens reflex. It is clearly a descendant of the wartime Meikai, but better made and now using standard 35mm cassettes instead of little packets of sheet film in the No-Need-Darkroom system. It is 60% heavier than its predecessor and works quite smoothly. The taking and viewing lenses are both Owla Anastigmat 4.5cm f/3.5 (taking lens in NKS shutter, 1-200 & B, which looks just like a Compur rimset). And sadly the Meikai's top-plate magnetic compass has gone. To compensate for this, a neat feature is the matching lens caps, the larger one embossed “Toyoca” and the small one “35”.
When I got it I had to do a thorough service - complete strip, replaced leatherette, cleaned all optics and outside, replaced the reflex mirror. Reattached A/R knob which had fallen off. It has knob wind, a body release, and is interlocked in such a way that if you forget to cock the shutter before firing, the body release is locked, and you have to fire it from the lens. Focusing is by a quadrant lever that moves both lenses in and out. Loading and winding film is easy, and the frame counter is clear. The direct finder is actually rather poor, but the reflex finder is quite good as a finder. There is now a focusing magnifier, but it’s not really much easier to focus than the old Meikai - fine focusing is impossible. I find it easiest to set the distance scale as usual. Rewinding is straightforward, if a bit tedious. The shutter is quiet, and the quadrant lever focusing is quite nice to use. The camera produces good sharp usable negatives.
What brought all this to mind is that John bought a Hulda 35, which is the same camera but with a different and much less common nameplate. Compare the pictures and you will see they are more or less identical. Why there were two names I don't know, perhaps for different retailers. It is something Tougo-do did with many other models too.
A small puzzle revolves around the various serial numbers:
Body Taking Lens Viewing lens
Toyoca 55430 542210 55053
Hulda 56631 55200 55380
See, the Toyoca taking lens has an extra digit in what is obviously a common numbering series across both name badges. I suppose it must be an engraving error!
Sugiyama's Collector's Guide to Japanese Cameras gives the Toyoca 4 stars for rarity (5 stars is the maximum) and doesn't mention the Hulda at all - these are not common cameras!
Devon not a Desert Island!
If you have read my previous post, you will know that I had in mind a two-month anthotype exposure using paper coated with spinach juice. I found a place to clamp up the 5x4" Arca Swiss monorail camera where it could watch a scene which is often sunlit but immobile (my house) and also sheltered from the rain. Once again the lens was a totally uncorrected f/2. I prepared and loaded the paper, and the exposure ran from August 3rd to October 3rd 2017. This should be a good test of my sensitometry and the possible occurrence of reciprocity failure. Over the two months we had a good amount of sunshine, but of course there is now a lot less each day, so the season for such experiments is over.
The moment of truth came this afternoon.
Not what I was hoping for!
On the positive side, it is easy to discern the masked edges of the paper, so the system does have some photosensitivity. The result is also attractive, in an abstract colourful kind of way. That was the good news.
Instead of a photographic image, I have created a little garden of fungi of several kinds. Although the camera and its bellows seemed dry and unharmed by their outdoor experience, the sensitised paper felt damp when I took it out, and had obviously managed to attract moisture and provide a food source for these little local denizens. I tried to match up the result to the scene I hoped for. Did different coloured fungi grow in areas of different brightness? - now that would be quite some colour process! But sadly no, I can't discern the expected scene hidden in this colour field.
I remain fairly confident that in the dry conditions of a desert island, the result would have been very different. The climate of the Devon coastal regions is mild and can be damp, and a future experiment needs to be in a different kind of camera - sealed to keep out the moisture, perhaps with a big bag of silica gel to keep it so.
Autumn and winter are coming now, so further experiment will need to await the return of plentiful sunshine next year. That gives me time to design and build a better camera, at any rate!
Desert Island Photography
A week before a July 2017 meeting, I had a phone call asking for a short talk on “What camera would I take if I were stranded on a desert island?”
My first thought was that photography on a desert island without any of the supporting infrastructure that we’re so used to would be impossible. Film? Processing solutions? Electricity? I might take stuff with me, but once I’ve run out, what do I do?
However, when the going gets tough, the tough get going! In the circumstances, we need to keep it simple. For a start that means no enlarging, so the first requirement is that the camera should produce images at the final size – which in turn means that I should not be too demanding about the size of my pictures; my gallery is anyway going to be a small hut made of banana leaves.
My island, I have discovered, is deserted but by no means a desert. Although I am the only human, there is lush vegetation, small animals and birds, and fish in the lagoon. The essentials of life should therefore only take me a few hours a day, leaving ample time for exploration, photography, and sampling the fine wines which I shall learn to produce. The climate is subtropical, everything seems ideal, but unfortunately there is no silver mine; photography will have to be based on other chemistry than silver halides.
This raises a big problem, because nothing else is so fast. I shall have to be patient, and only photograph things that don’t move. I shall be happy with pictures 5x4”, so there is plenty of choice of cameras. I need something that packs reasonably small, and is very robust as I shan’t be able to get spare parts. A Gandolfi perhaps? – but I think there might be termites, so it needs to be metal. In a box I find an Arca Swiss monorail not being used for anything else, so there’s a good basis – strong, well-made, aluminium construction. I hope it will survive.
Now back to the speed problem. The easiest of processes to manage in the jungle would be cyanotype. Just two solutions to mix and paint on to any surface. If no paper, then leaves, wood, leather. A contact print or photogram in sunshine takes maybe 5-10 minutes, which is faster than most other non-silver processes such as dichromated gelatin. Processing is just washing with water. So when I first arrive I can bring the camera and some cyanotype ingredients, at least to get going. However, a 10-minute contact printing exposure is equivalent to a couple of days behind an f/2 lens in a camera! So no need for a shutter, fortunately for reliability.
Undaunted I set up the camera, but where to get a lens? The fastest affordable proper lens of about 20cm focal length is perhaps a Petzval Portrait at about f/3.5, but if we relax on the boring subject of aberrations, a large plano-convex lens (once part of a condenser) from the optical bits box is about 20cm f/2. Chromatic aberration is not a big problem as only blue/UV light affects the paper, but all the geometric aberrations remain. A 2-day exposure with this would alternatively need 4 days with the Petzval, over a week with a well-corrected lens such as a 210mm f/4.5 Xenar.
So here we go, and with a week’s notice for my talk I had only a couple of opportunities to get it right. The first exposure (1 day) was quite successful but a little underexposed. For the second (0.5 weeks) I allowed for the “chemical rays” by shortening the camera by 2% (4mm) after focussing visually, which probably didn’t help – and the sun got in and burnt two small holes in the paper! It was better exposed though, probably 2 days would be about right.
And when my chemicals run out? The longterm solution may be anthotype – juices from flowers, leaves or berries are painted on paper, allowed to dry, and exposed. For photograms exposures can be as short as 6 hours in sunshine, more commonly a few days. I haven’t tried it in the camera yet, but I should be able to get an image in as little as two months!
Is this the future of desert island photography? Anthotype photograms of Enchanter's Nightshade, made with spinach juice (6 hour exposure) and Italian red wine (5 day exposure). The faster of these might produce a direct positive in the camera in a couple of months.
Photohistory on the TV
As I write this, we are just at the beginning of a new photography season on BBC4 which I am finding fascinating. It is wonderful to see photography, and the history of photography, being given a prominent place in the schedules, and therefore in the public consciousness.
We started with Eamonn McCabe, the Guardian’s sometime picture editor, with a three-part series on the history of British photography. The first episode was a lightning tour through the 19th century concentrating very specifically on British photography. We were thus introduced to Fox Talbot, Frederick Scott Archer, Hill and Adamson, and Julia Margaret Cameron. It was remarkable how little it was possible to say about the daguerreotype and still make sense of the early history of photography! To most of our readers there was probably little here that you didn't already know, but if you want to introduce your friends and family to the fascination of early photography then it looks as if this series will be a good way to begin.
The second program I watched was called "The Man Who Shot Tutankhamun", and told the story of Harry Burton, who was Howard Carter’s photographer in the Valley of the Kings. Not just in 1922 when he discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb, but for another decade afterwards as well, whilst they were doing the detailed excavations. It was really worthwhile to concentrate on the quality of the photography, done under fairly difficult conditions and to a very high standard, technically and artistically. What made a real difference was the involvement of photographer Harry Cory Wright. Cory Wright is an experienced large format photographer who brought along his 1950s Gandolfi to replicate as closely as possible the experience that Burton would have had. The original photographs were taken on 10x8 glass plates, so that is what was used for the modern experiment. Interestingly, the professional archaeologists still working there are using 10 x 8 cameras themselves for some of their work, albeit using sheet film rather than glass plates. Why? – right now, you can still get better resolution that way than with any digital solution, though eventually even that will change, no doubt.
To do his trial, Cory Wright needed to coat his own glass plates using liquid emulsion and a brush. Although no fuss was made about this, serious brushmarks were visible in at least one of the resulting negatives!
The team also contrived to get access to an adjacent tomb in which Harry Burton had actually done his own negative processing. What was very clear was that Burton was achieving far higher standards of cleanliness in the dusty and dirty conditions than Cory Wright could. By this time in his career Burton had been photographing in the Egyptian desert for many years, and had undoubtedly refined his technique.
The other day I came across a very weird mathematical thing. It’s called Benford’s law, and it describes how numbers generated by more or less any process form themselves into the same pattern. Suppose you made a list of the populations of all the towns in Britain, or a list of the individual sums you paid for all the cameras you’ve ever bought. You might suppose that the first digit of each number in one of those lists would be equally likely to be anything from 1-9, but it turns out that is not so. With any large sample of numbers you find that about 30% of them begin with a 1, 18% with a 2, right down to 4.6% starting with a 9. This was first discovered in 1881, but it took until 1996 for a statistician to work out why. The reason is too complicated to go into here, and anyway need not trouble us.
It turns out, though, to have real practical applications. For example, it has been used by forensic accountants to root out fraud, where financial figures don’t follow Benford’s law, and millions of pounds worth of fraudulent expense claims or rigged sales figures have been detected. It can be used to detect any reasonably large set of data that does not follow the natural or expected pattern, having been subjected to some sort of manipulation.
So I thought, I know a set of data which has probably been manipulated more than most by manufacturers over the years, and that is the serial numbers they engrave on the items we buy. We know, don’t we, or at least we reckon, that manufacturers don’t start their counting at one, they leave gaps in their sequences, all sorts of tricks mostly aimed at inflating the apparent number of items sold. So as I have a little database in my computer of all the photo-historical things that I own or have owned, it was time for a little experiment.
It turned out that I had records of 655 serial numbers which start with digits (some of them start with letters and I left those out), relating to cameras, lenses, shutters, accessories and so on. That seems to be a large enough random sample to use Benford’s law to see if the world’s manufacturers of photographic goods do indeed cheat when it comes to setting serial numbers. And they do.
Looking at the first digits of my serial numbers, the digits 1, 2, 5, 6 & 7 do indeed turn up with a frequency reasonably close to what Benford’s law predicts. However, 8 shows up 16% too often, 4 is 18% too rare, 3 is 21% over, and 9 is an enormous 37% in excess. I don’t know how much you can make of the specific ups and downs, but it’s clear in particular that too many of these numbers start with 8 or 9.
So I have demonstrated statistically what we already knew, that over the years manufacturers have indeed used their commercial skills to tweak their serial numbers for their own ends!
I enjoyed Photographica this year. Well, I always do, but this time there seemed to be a lively atmosphere, lots of young people, some sunshine creeping into the hall but we weren’t cooked. And yes, I did buy something - a Pecoflex. A strange camera if you don’t know it, a merger of a studio monorail camera and a box-form SLR. It came with a 6x9 back for 120 film, but I think its native form, 9x9cm with slightly rounded corners on 5x4” sheet film, would be particularly nice to try. So if anyone can spare a 5x4 back for it - it’s the same Plaubel back as for the Makiflex and the larger Peco Jr - please give me a call! I haven’t tried a film it it yet, but it came with a 152mm f/2.9 Pentac and a 210/4.5 Voigtländer Heliar, and I bought a Lomo 300/9 process lens (Apo-Tessar clone, I guess) from Ukraine to go on the spare lens board. Actually 152 - 300mm is more or less the feasible focal length range. The 152mm lens will just focus on infinity with the bellows squashed right up - no movements of course. The 210 and the 300 allow movements, of which there is a comprehensive set on the front standard (none on the back). Even 152mm is rather long as a standard lens for the format; it must mainly have been used for advertising setups - pack shots. It is the only mechanical camera I know with an “odometer" to count shutter releases!
Cameras in Cuba
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!
An occasional and irregular blog, mostly of photographic experimentation and photographic history.
Copyright © 2023 by John Marriage