In finally picking up my blog after a long pandemic absence, I thought I’d talk about Adventure: the adventure of working with the old, the outdated, and the obsolete. The challenge is to make something good out of the employment of a collection of “past its prime stuff.” This is a meaningful challenge for me in that I can identify in some ways with these tools and materials.
The plan is this: over the course of several entries I will first deal with cameras and lenses and then turn to the use of the perishables, namely film and paper.
I will talk a little bit about the history of three cameras, the Graflex RB Series D, the Eastman Commercial 8x10Model B, and the Ansco Universal 5X7, which I use regularly. There are two histories to these cameras, the commercial history as a product, and the personal history, who owned and used them and how I came to them. So today I am going to focus on the Graflex RB Series D 4X5.
You probably know that the Graflex camera history includes the transitions of business partnerships, acquisitions and so on that led the Folmer Schwing operation to acquire the Century Camera company in Rochester, design a single lens reflex large format camera, the Graflex, and the venerable press camera, the Speed Graphic, get bought out By George Eastman and continue in producing cameras for Eastman Kodak until the courts rule against Eastman for monopolizing the camera market. Thus the camera company became Folmer Graflex in the late 1920’s and continued making cameras. The RB Series D was designed in the late 1930’s and RB stands for revolving back, which was great for the photographer who didn’t have to turn the camera sideways to change from horizontal to vertical shot. As historical context, Dorothea Lange used a 4×5 RB Series D to do a lot of her work in the late years of the Depression, including photographing her iconic Migrant Mother. According to a dating code I tracked down on the internet, my camera was manufactured in 1939 but was probably sold in 1940 some time.
I worked for a couple decades at a Jesuit University. The Jesuits, a Catholic religious order served in the Pacific Northwest as missionaries to various indigenous peoples, including in Alaska. While working at the University I became well acquainted with the Jesuit Oregon Province Archives which housed more than a hundred years of the photographic output of these Jesuit priests and brothers. Photography was, apparently an enormously important and popular way of cataloging the mission work of the Jesuit endeavors and there were many very talented and creative photographers in that history of the Catholic church in the Northwest.
Being a religious order, there were certain traditions for the passing on of one’s possessions when one passed on. A Jesuit photographer could not take his cameras with him, so they would usually go to other Jesuits who were interested in or working in photography. At my university, photography classes had a long history, and half of that history they were taught by Jesuits. My particular Graflex RB 4X5 went through such a passing on until a friend of mine who was a still active photographer decided he wanted to get a brand new digital Nikon! To finance it he had to raise cash and so he called me up, as I was the photography teacher of the film classes at the university. Thus I acquired a Speed Graphic kit with flashes, case, film holders, and thrown in an old dirty RB Graflex with a couple big clunky lenses not attached. The Graflex’ shutter curtain was torn in a couple of places but I was intrigued by this ugly camera box and so did some research and found a guy on the internet named Bert Saunders who sometimes made new curtains. I sent him the camera and he reattached the curtain but did not make one, instead sending me detailed instructions on dissasembly and repair. I think he was not feeling healthy enough to take on a big project. So my wife and I took the camera apart, stretched out the curtain along the dining room table, used lemon pledge and rubber cement and rejuvenated the curtain, reassembled, adjusted the tension and in fact we had a useable camera for several years before the curtain tore again and then again. Meanwhile I learned more about the Graflex, got a handle from the hardware store, began applying Neat’s Foot oil to the leather at infrequent intervals until the camera began to look nicer and nicer. The RB back started leaking light and ruining negatives and so I took that apart, replaced the felt and got it back together successfully. The viewing hood was in awful shape and after many homemade attempts to get it useable I found a place in Hong Kong to make a new one. I used acetone to take worn black paint off of some of the metal parts and polished up the brass underneath, and finally, Jerry Gordon of the Graflex Garage offered a NOS shutter curtain, new in name only. probably 70 years old, and he installed it. So at this point, this old Jesuit Graflex is in as close to new shape as it has been since 1940.
I did not find out who the original Jesuit owner was, but around the university there had been several photo enthusiasts, and one in particular, Fr, Leo Yeats S.J., figures into the story in another way. While I ran the photo classes and the darkroom, I was continuously trying to improve the equipment, finding better enlargers and enlarging lenses, for example. At one point an enlarger from the Chemistry Department was offered me, and I pulled it out of a closet where it had hid for a couple decades, and hauled it back to my office along with a box of photo junk. When I rummaged through the cardboard box I found an old lens and shutter, unboxed, with one lens cap, covered with dust and dirt. The shutter was a Compound, popular in the 1920’s with a lens labeled Protar VII. The Protar lens was designed by Paul Rudolph who also designed the Tessar, both in the late 19th century for Zeiss. These were anastigmat lenses, the cream of the crop in the day. The Protar VII was referred to as fully corrected and would function on its own as a taking lens, coming in a variety of focal lengths. There was also a Protar V, which was a wide angle lens. The Protar VIIa, on the other hand was a combination of two Protar VII lenses. Using two Protar lenses, one in front of and the other behind the shutter changed the focal length, making it shorter, but also increasing the maximum aperture, letting in more light. Generally, if the two elements were both of the same focal length, the maximum aperture would be 6.3, but if unequal elements were mounted, the aperture would be either f7 or f7.7. If, on the other hand, a Protar element was used by itself, behind the shutter, then the maximum aperture would be f12.5.
This sound horrible today, I suppose. The Protar VIIa was nonetheless a very popular lens and it was marketed by Zeiss and by its American licensee Bausch and Lomb as a tool of great advantage to the working photographer. One could have three focal lengths in one lens, and if another Protar VII element was added to the set then 4 or 5 focal length lenses, all fully corrected. That’s what was laying in the box of photo junk. I mounted it on my old Eastman 8X10 2D and tried it out. I found out that together the protars barely covered 8X10 but singly they were covering with movements. It turns out my set was intended for 5X7, covered 5X8 wide open combined while the 16 in component would handle ultra large format if necessary. The cable release attachment fell off on a photo shoot and I sent the lens and shutter to a repair shop in California. The head guy, Fred, called me up and with his German accent says. “Bill, I vas just showing your lens to my assistant. This is a good one! Let me go over the shutter. It will be worth it. It is a very nice lens.!” So I did and have used it a lot.
Back to Fr. Leo Yeats. There was a plaque on the wall of the darkroom I taught in for 19 years dedicated to Yeats, who taught in the same lab, a “photographer, scientist, explorer, aviator”… etc. When I left the job and cleaned out the filing cabinet I found a list of photo equipment and other things inventoried when Yeats died, including some things not found. On the list of not found was the Protar VIIa which had gotten into a box of photo junk. When they got rid of me they were eliminating photography altogether and told me to take any photo stuff as they would throw out the rest.
Kathy and I were at an outdoor art show one Summer with our booth of black and white prints and a lady stopped by, and seeing photos from the university remarked that her Uncle Leo had taught photography there. Leo Yeats. I told her the story of the lens and shutter, or part of it and she was happy that he was well remembered. It would be nice to find out that the Graflex was also his. It had come with two lenses, the Wollensak 15 inch tele-raptar and the Kodak Aero-Ektar f2.5, which I never tried to use but which has a sort of cult following. Both lenses were very useful for aerial photography and the Wollensak has a lens mount on front that holds two huge filters, a number 12 minus blue and a no. 25 deep red. These are both suggestive of altitude work. I sold the Aero Ektar and got more for it than I paid my Jesuit friend for the whole outfit!
Here are some sample images:
Next time I’ll talk a little bit about the difference between using a Graflex and using a view camera, and some of the mysterious qualities I have found in my images made with the Graflex.
By the way, our name has changed from Cherryststudios. we are now found at https://www.kostelecstudios.com