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!
Or perhaps I should ask, does anybody else collect Sinar? I ask because if I look at that corner of the room there do seem to be several boxes of it, but it is not something that you see very often at camera fairs. Admittedly, large format studio cameras are quite bulky and require more storage space than many of the more commonly-collected cameras that we see all the time. On the other hand, we are looking here at a camera system from the classic period of the 1950s onwards, made to fantastically high standards and designed with a remarkable degree of foresight. A camera of this kind is basically a kit of parts which can be combined any way you like to do any kind of job. Well, perhaps not any kind of job, but more or less anything you would do in a studio plus a certain amount of fieldwork such as large-scale architectural photography.
The Sinar product line began with the Norma in the late 1940s. It was designed and built by the Swiss company E. Koch. Even at that stage it emerged as a very adaptable and sophisticated system; the basic camera consists of a round rail with a locating ridge onto which can be slid a front and a rear standard. Bellows, lens boards, backs, all lock into the frames of the standards in the same way, the rail can be extended in both directions, multiple bellows can be fitted in series for long extensions, backs of different sizes can be fitted. The same camera can be set up for any size film between 5 x 4 and 10 x 8 using standard darkslides, and of course will take various rollfilm holders too.
There are all sorts of adaptations for viewing the ground glass screen, light metering, and a system using a shutter panel which allows you to use lenses without shutters, for economy and consistency of handling. Of course we have all the front and rear movements, although probably the only serious weakness of the Norma is that it uses base tilts rather than centre tilts - something that was corrected in later models.
However, from a collector's point of view and perhaps even from a user's point of view, the Norma is still the most desirable of the Sinar range. The build quality of those 1940s to 1960s parts is probably higher than was achieved later, and most of them still work with total smoothness to this day, despite having had a hard life in professional studios. Norma parts are easily identifiable as any paintwork is typically a dull green or khaki crackle finish, whereas later cameras were finished in black. Sinars were very expensive when new, and perhaps could not be called cheap even today, but are certainly far more affordable now than they were in their heyday. Let's hope that this hint will encourage more of you to look out for Sinar cameras and add them to the collection.
An occasional and irregular blog, mostly of photographic experimentation and photographic history.