Recently a friend offered us some old cameras because she knew that we appreciated such things. We have had several contacts in the last months from people we didn’t know who heard we might be interested in film equipment they wanted to have a home for. It’s a sign of the times and the cameras almost always come with family stories related to them, so it has been a worthwhile experience meeting people and talking with them.
This last was pretty out of the ordinary as our friends Dad had been a physicist working in the Eastman Research laboratories in Rochester. She said many of their family photos were made on experimental films that staff would shoot in the R&D process and her Dad also brought home new cameras to use. Her cameras came in a big cardboard box, as most do, but in this case the box held treasures for which it was unworthy to carry. First off, and the oldest, was a Premo D, a 4X5 folding camera with a red bellows. Premo was from the Rochester Camera Company that was bought up by George Eastman early in the 20thcentury, a common practice of his. It is a cherry wood box camera that opens front and back, has three shutter speeds plus B, and a meniscus lens enclosed in brass. With the camera came one plate holder, as the camera was designed for dry plates, and one plate holder altered to hold sheet film, the alteration done by sliding in glass plates so that sheets of film would tuck in above them. The camera was from about 1896, before the company was acquired by Eastman. It came in its own case with an instruction manual for “manipulating the Premo D” and an 1896 publication on the basics of photography. The lens was full of fungus but I carefully got access to it and cleaned it. The ground glass image looked sharp so I loaded a couple of my holders, found that the Premo accepted them perfectly and shot an image , a time exposure at the smallest aperture. The camera was intended to be a hand camera, meaning to be used without a tripod. I used a tripod. Using this Premo increased my respect for early photographers even more. I have a 4X5 Graflex D SLR from the 1940’s and its weight and bulk make hand held work doable, especially with its focal plane shutter. The Premo is very light and I doubt I would ever try to handhold it for a shot. The negative, shot on a light table with a cell phone, is surprisingly good. This is a camera worth using.
The second camera of note is a Kodak Recomar 33, a 9 by 12cm. folder from 1935. It was manufactured by Nagel Kamera Werke in Germany. Nagel designed the Recomar in 1928 and Eastman bought the company in the 1930s, and it was Nagel who designed and built the Kodak Retina, the nice little 35mm folder. This model of the Recomar is marked Kodak and has a Kodak Anastigmant 4.5 135mm lens in a Compur shutter.
It came with a single sheet film holder and I already had a plate holder and a pack film holder that fit the sliding mount of the Recomar. The ground glass screen slides up and off the camera and the film holder slides into its place. Not very convenient for a hand camera, but the body has a nice focusing scale and a triple extension bellows. The camera is in excellent shape but where would I get 9X12cm. film? In our camera case I have had a couple packs of Agfa pack film that came with a collection, both films expiring in the 1940s. Pack film holders are dime a dozen and mostly useless these days. When I realized these old Agfa packs were 9X12cm. I thought I’d give it a shot. I had never used pack film. It was before my time but it seemed easy enough. I loaded up the Super Pan and tried it. It was difficult to process, being thin and curly, let alone being 70 years old. Originally rated at 200, I tried ASA 50 and then exposed very generously. The one negative that sort of turned out from the half pack I shot was fogged of course, but also showed some mottling and flaking. But still, I had an image.
About 20 years ago a woman I knew asked me to make copies of some old small prints she had. They were very interesting. Her Dad, who had just died, was captured by the Japanese on Bataan in 1942 and survived the Bataan Death March. The photos were taken inside a POW camp! The story is that one GI smuggled in a small 35mm camera but had no film. Another GI had smuggled in a roll of film, probably 620 or 120, and together they managed to secretly get into a dark place, slice the roll film down to size and get it to work in the 35mm camera and then secretly, and very dangerously take pictures in the camp. The photos were not the best but they were there! Whenever I think of that effort and ingenuity it makes me feel rather humble and lucky that I can take photos so easily. So every time I work with one of these old cameras and get a picture I feel excited and gratified.
A third camera I tried out was a little Kodak Bantam, again from the 1930s, with a Kodak Anastigmat Special lens. The pop up viewfinder was broken and had black tape on it, but I had another Bantam with a bad lens and I switched out the viewfinders. The complication here is that the Bantams were made for 828 film, a paper backed roll film made on 35mm stock without the sprocket holes, which of course no one makes anymore. Because I had a couple 828 spools I was able to spool some 35mm TMAX in the darkroom onto the paper backing from a Kodacolor roll and get my 8 shots. These were surprisingly good considering the guess focusing. This turns out to be a fun camera, slipping into my pocket, easily opened and ready to go. A drawback is the 7 or 8 shots per roll and of course the image area bleeds deeply into the sprocket holes of 35mm. It’s a nice special effect but I wouldn’t want it on every photo and the advantage of the 828 was its larger image area.
We are just back from a one week trip to the Olympic Peninsula where we used 2 1953 Linhof Technikas IIIs and a 1939 Eastman Commercial 8X10 equipped with a 5X7 film back.
Our newest lenses were from the early 1960s. After 3 days in the darkroom we have all the sheet film processed with happy results. So using older equipment is not a hobby with us but our “sitz im leben”, and our normal working procedure.
Try it, and good shooting.