Now to the Ansco Universal 5X7:
My Ansco Universal 5X7 is a recent acquisition. Several of my former students have remained friends 20 years after taking classes from me in either photography or religion. One of them sent a note a few months back saying that he and his wife were “downsizing” and wondered if we knew someone or if we would be interested in his 5X7 camera. He had, I think, never used it. 20 some years ago he had brought it to my office, an eBay purchase. Some “yahoo” who had it before had mounted a Wollensak barrel lens on a homemade lens board and attached a Packard shutter behind it, and instead of drilling a hole in the lensboard found it easier to cut a hole through the bellows for the pneumatic tube! We tried patching it at the time with some bellows tape but it was not going to work very well. I gave my student a Wollensak shutter mounted Rapax and forgot about it. So when he delivered it to us 20 some years later there was the Wollensak Rapax mounted on the camera, so dusty and filthy it had the aroma of old barbecue sauce! The hole in the bellows remained and now the corners were also pinholed to death. I set the camera outside and used a brush to sweep away as much of the dirt as I could onto the front porch. My wife and I discovered that this was the 5X7 version of her 8X10 Universal, down to the grey green paint on the wood. There were knobs missing and a ruined bellows, but she was excited to see this smaller version of the camera she loved, so I began dissasembling and cleaning, found a bellows replacement online and ordered it and began searching around through my non-organized stash of photo hardware for knobs. Meanwhile, a friend of ours was in the process of trying to sell off camera equipment and she had a similar camera that she brought by to our house with some other cameras for a third party to look at. She had a 4X5 reducing back that I enquired about for the Ansco, and she brought that in an Ansco case with an incomplete Ansco 5X7 Universal! When Kathy saw that my interest in buying the 4X5 reducing back got expanded t0 buying the whole kit, which had missing knobs but included the knobs missing on my project camera.
The completed Ansco Universal 5X7 includes the base from the second camera, the body from the first, knobs from the second for the front tilt and front slide, and a new bellows from Hong Kong that I installed. Flaws in the first, like the fact that the rear focusing standard would not tighten down sufficiently were eliminated by using the base and some hardware from the second camera. And now I have 2 5X7 backs, one with lines drawn for architectural correctness, and a 4X5 reducing back. The new bellows, as it turns out, has an additional 4 inches from the original which is a nice bonus. This camera is the new home for the Protar VIIa lens in the Compound shutter, mounted on a new lensboard made by Zbima 1 , an ebay seller.
My first 8X10 camera was an Eastman 2D from the 1930’s which had a 5X7 reducing back along with the 8X10 back but which was old and rickety when I got it, and got worse through the years. The front standard flopped around because the wood rails were so w0rn and sloppy and I had many bellows patches. Still, some of my best negatives were made with that camera. It had no extension rail. Most of these were lost over the years since they were only attached when needed. These common issues with the Eastman cameras were partly what made the Ansco so appealing. On the Universal, the rear extension track is permanently attached with a piano hinge and the camera folds up very neatly.
The tracking of the front and rear standards is metal to metal, nickel plated steel and the tendency to sloppiness of the Eastmans is eliminated. The camera folds up a lot like the Calumet C-2 all metal 8X10 camera, but unlike the C-2, it will focus both at the front and the back. It has front rise, front tilt, front shift. rear swing and rear tilt, while the 2D had only front rise and rear tilt and swing. The nickel hardware seems to have held up very nicely over the decades.
The back standard moves on double tracks, is fixed by a horizontal knob that, in the case of my camera, is reliable at even an extreme camera tilt, and the track itself is fixed by a vertical tightening knob that when loosened allows the track itself to slide smoothly, wood against wood and extend far to the back to make the most of the bellows draw.
Because my lens of choice for this camera is the Protar VIIa, these features make the most of the lens’s front element, 16+ inches.
In cleaning up this camera one of the things I did was to spend time cleaning all the surfaces of greasy dirt and then waxing the wood against wood surfaces with paraffin, like the front shift, and polishing the metal surfaces with Renaissance wax. The advantage of having to change the bellows was that I could get at the normally hidden inner surfaces with the bellows removed.
There are always some issues with older equipment. This camera could have been made from thee late 1930’s on through I think the 1960s. My wife’s 8X10 version, in fact, on our first trip with it started to come apart on the tripod, wood pieces becoming unglued on the base. She was a bit panicked. We took it home and I took it apart, camera from base, and found that a lot of glue was failing, so I got out the wood glue and renewed the wood connections. There is also a sort of dowel that runs at the seam where the rear rack fits into the base when brought down, and I did some repairs there as well. Even on my 5X7 there is some evidence that this dowel could be a problem in the future as the greyish paint has chipped off, showing that this point is a stressful one. Nevertheless, the Ansco Universal is all in all a very robust camera with a lot of nice features that make it stand apart from the contemporary Eastman and Folmer Graflex wooden cameras.
When I featured the Protar VIIa lens and Compound shutter I neglected to note the following word of caution. Convertible lenses were very popular for their economy of both cost and weight and they are capable of making fine images even a hundred years old. Edward Weston, in fact, used a Turner Reich Convertible for his Guggenheim trips in the late 1930’s. The word of caution is this: many of the lens components exhibit a focus shift when used singly, rather than in combination. Weston, it is said, used them singly almost exclusively. One of his elements gave him a lot of blurry negatives and I suspect he was not seeing the focus shift when he, as was his habit, closed down the aperture to extremes, thinking as others did in his day that the smaller the aperture the better the sharpness. Refraction, unfortunately, kicks in at some point on any lens, and sharpness declines. Focus shift occurs when you focus the single lens wide open, and then stop it down to gain sharpness and depth of field. Neglecting to check the focus again with a loupe after stopping down could produce a definite unsharpness in the negative. A good loupe and a good darkcloth will go a long way to returning the lens to its absolute sharpness.
Next time I am going to look at the Eastman Commercial 8X10 Model B, their all metal camera which was produced from the late 1930’s into the first year of American participation in WWII.