By Jim Hughes
This past winter, having finally settled into our new home, a 1920 Arts and Crafts bungalow, I became obsessed with finding an appropriately mature clock. It had to be wind-up, of course, and melodious chimes were a prerequisite. We needed something antique but gracefully simple, large enough to be seen from a distance but small enough to fit the space I envisioned for it atop one of the many mission-style bookshelves I had erected to hold our newly moved collection of books. There is no room in this small house for towering Grandfathers!
After considerable searching, I found what I was looking for in a sprawling barn of an antiques mall a couple towns away from ours. The clock, hiding in a dark corner, was a traditional mantel model. It was named the "Magic 7" on the still intact instruction label glued inside the hinged rear panel. Made by E. Ingraham of Bristol, Connecticut, the clock had evidently survived nearly a century of loyal family timekeeping until it was picked up at an estate sale and made available for sale, and rebirth.
I was told the clock was in working condition, but when I got it home and wound it up with a misfitting key, it tick-tocked for a few seconds at most and promptly stopped dead. After much fiddling with the intricate maze of brass gears and wheels, conveniently accessible though the back panel, I got it running again—but only temporarily. I tried again and again. Each time it would run a bit longer, but ultimately go silent. Finally, well into the night, I fashioned a long, tapered stick, found my wife’s sewing machine oil, and, by alternately dipping and dabbing a tiny bit at a time, proceeded to carefully lubricate every bearing point I could reach. Then, using constant pressure from a finger, I forced the most recalcitrant (and slowest moving) gear forward. My finger went numb eventually, but the improvised encouragement, to my surprise, had the desired result.
This time around, to paraphrase John Cameron Swayze, the old clock, having taken its licking, just kept on ticking as its miniature pendulum finally began to swing rhythmically and relentlessly. It was music to my ears. All that was left for me was to visit a local old-clock repairer a friend recommended and rummage through his winding-key drawer to find a match—one that included the required second tiny socket for making fast-slow adjustments. That trial and error process took another month, but the old Ingraham now keeps perfect time—almost as good as any modern quartz movement—as long as I remember to wind it every seventh day (I know, the clock’s face says "eight day," but there seems to be no manufacturer’s 800 number that I can call for an explanation).
What does this Luddite’s clock have to do with photography, you may well ask? Think about it. Aside from a certain aesthetic appeal, its design is such that, with no clock-repair experience whatsoever (aside from having dismantled my grandfather’s pocket watch when I was seven, after which it ran at triple speed!), I was able to get the Ingraham running properly using my own two hands and a little logical ingenuity. In other words, this clock, being analog and mechanical, was designed and manufactured in a completely transparent manner.
There was a time when I intuitively understood the way cars worked, as well, and would not hesitate to undertake most engine repairs myself. I remember tuning the twin carburetors on a 1956 Mercedes 190 SL by putting an inverted funnel to my ear and listening to the sounds their various needles and orifices made. Try that with today’s electronic computerized beasts. I couldn’t afford the tools required, let alone the schooling needed to use them.
I'm afraid I feel the same way about cameras. The more mechanical, from my perspective, the better. I don't want to think about Modes and Histograms (although I do understand the latter's value, just as I do regularly apply Curves when I scan my transparencies and print Dye-Subs via Photoshop), and I certainly don’t want a bunch of tiny buttons and wheels, not to mention menus and submenus, getting between me and a picture when I'm shooting. Call me old-fashioned.
A few months before purchasing the clock, I happened upon a small cardboard box full of photo stuff at a yard sale. Even folded closed, I recognized the camera: a 6.5x9-cm Kodak Recomar 18, the smaller brother of the 9x12-cm Recomar 33 that had been my first serious camera back when I was 12 or so and the local camera-store proprietor in Connecticut convinced me "the lens alone is worth the price." For $25, the camera’s fixed 135mm ƒ/4.5 Kodak Anastigmat—in truth, I learned much later, a rebranded Schneider optic—was indeed worth that, and considerably more.
Recomars weren’t really your typical Kodaks. They were precision instruments made at the Dr. Nagel-Werk in Stuttgart, Germany, the same factory that designed and produced the superb Retina line (one of which, the IIa, I still regularly use). Recomars were made from 1932 to 1940, and the original list price in this country for the Model 18, with its sharp if uncoated 105mm ƒ/4.5 lens, was $40.
Back in 1949, I used film packs with my "new" Model 33. Pull a paper tab, "advance" the film. I scale focused or squinted at the groundglass back, which provided a dim and grainy upside down image, of course. Not only was using the camera real work, but I couldn't afford the luxury of bracketing single sheets of film. So I quickly learned how to properly expose and compose with some sort of precision. In fact, I used that camera through high school, even taking our Yearbook "candids" with it. Just imagine running up and down the sidelines at football games with your bellows camera on a tripod! Talk about visualization.
These days, little computers buried inside plastic cameras do much of the grunt work, focus included, but I find myself unwilling to relinquish any sort of control over my pictures. It was with the Recomar, after all, that I learned how to see photographically. I still have that camera, but I now shoot mostly color, and 9x12 color is not a specialty film even Freestyle carries.
But back to the yard sale. In that box was not only a pristine "baby" Recomar, looking for all the world like a miniaturized view camera, but a batch of accessories: a six-inch cable release apparently sold with the camera originally, a groundglass back with a nice folding leather hood, a film-pack adapter loaded with still unexposed film, two unopened boxes of Kodak Super-XX (expiration date, October 1943) pack film, and six single-sheet plate holders bearing handwritten tape labels such as "Panatomic-X, Loaded 2/24/41" and "Super Ortho Press 100, Loaded 2/24/41." On one of the latter labels the word "Posed" was overwritten.
Unfortunately, all of the holders were now empty. I would have loved to have seen pictures, but none were included in the box, which apparently came from a house on the Maine coast, perhaps a fishing village, that had recently been emptied out in an estate sale. The photographer whose equipment this was evidently had been at the very least a serious hobbyist. He or she took meticulous care of everything, which was in perfect working order. Even the Compur shutter, which sounded pretty accurate to my ear. Mint, as they say. And all for $8 (I checked Ebay and found a Model 18, sans holders, for $328). At least in my instance, the gear found a good home.
One day, I will see what I can do with the unexposed pack film. In the meantime, I went on Ebay to see if I could find a roll film adapter. For $40 (not quite the bargain that the camera "kit" was!), I was able to buy a Rada 120, also, it turned out, in near-perfect condition. I loaded it with Fuji Velvia 50, then waited for an opportunity to use the set up. Time passed. Finally, the day came when the Ingraham "Magic 7" clock was up and running.
So what could be more appropriate, I thought, than one antique (me) photographing a second antique (the Ingraham) using a third antique (the Recomar)? So that’s what I did. The result appears at the top of this post.
But wait, there’s more in this particular time capsule. Last September, a photographer friend here in Maine, knowing my preference for rangefinders (my primary shooters since 1968 have been a pair of Canon 7s), asked if I’d be interested in one of her old cameras. She had transitioned completely to digital, and this medium format RF camera had been just sitting in a drawer for several years. Last she remembered, it had had a film transport problem, which was why she stopped using it in the first place. That, and the fact that in her recent work, she was more interested in macro and longer lens work, and this camera, a 6x4.5, had a fixed "normal" length lens.
Of course, I said yes. So one day she and her husband met my wife and I for breakfast, and she handed me the camera: a Fuji GS 645, a model introduced in 1983 (I remember that Bob Schwalberg had raved about it in the penultimate issue of the original Camera Arts). Over the next few years, it was supplanted by newer versions, but this one, a true clamshell folder with a bright-frame, parallax-corrected viewfinder, had always been the most compact. And its 75mm ƒ/3.4 Fujinon lens had been widely praised.
A quick inspection showed that the years, and the owner, had been kind to this camera. But when I ran a dummy roll of film through it, I realized that there was indeed a serious disconnect between the very smooth and convenient (for a street shooter) thumb advance, and the frame-counting and shutter-cocking mechanism. The counter needed five or more frames for the shutter to begin firing. Unacceptable, obviously. So I opened the back, turned on a desk lamp, and stared. Eventually, I saw what might be causing the problem. The narrow band of foam in the body’s light-trap channel had begun to disintegrate, turning into a gooey mess. It had fouled a little spring-loaded lever that protrudes from a small opening in the channel and in essence tells the camera when the back is closed.
With needles, dental picks (I use them for woodworking!) and some rubber-cement thinner, I managed to remove all the foam, including a few gobs that had worked their way into the camera’s innards.
When I reloaded the dummy roll, everything worked perfectly. So in went a fresh roll of Velvia 50, which took me a couple weeks to shoot. I just carried the camera slung under a shoulder, as I would one of my 35mm rangefinders, popping it open and lifting it to my eye when a picture seemed to appear in front of me. I have included three photographs from that first roll. Think of them as finger exercises (a good way for any photographer to stay in shape, by the way).
Unfortunately, it is the only roll I’ve been able to expose with the camera so far, because on one of the frames I noticed what appeared to be a ghost. Not being a believer is astral spirits, I again opened the back. This time, I put my eye right into the film plane and aimed the extended bellows, not the lens, directly at the brightest light in the house. And there was the culprit: not one, but two fairly obvious light leaks.
I Googled internet groups and discovered that the bellows was this camera's weak point. Unlike the rest of the camera, it was cheaply made (actually felt like coated cardboard) and not designed to withstand the twisting motion required each time it was opened and closed. Replacing a bellows in a small camera is not my idea of fun, so back to the internet. Everyone who'd encountered the problem mentioned one repair facility, Camera Wiz in Harrisonburg, Virginia, whose highly regarded proprietor, Frank Marshman, told me over the phone that he had one reliable supplier of quality leather bellows, in London. He had a few other Fujis awaiting repair, and he was about to place an order. He said he’d call and tell me when to send the camera.
That was a few months ago. In the meantime, it seems, the supplier went out of business. But, Frank informed me, two of the craftsmen, the ones who actually did the fabrication, had decided to go into business for themselves. So I waited some more. This week Frank said to send the camera since the bellows was enroute.
I like this camera so much that I have been happy to wait. In the interim, my other, much older bellows cameras, the 75-year old Recomar and the nearly 60-year old Retina IIa and Super Ikonta B (not to mention my bellowsless 42-year old Canons with vintage screw-mount lenses), are holding up just fine, thank you very much. I should fare so well. Even just ten years from now, I doubt if you'd be able to show me a digital camera from today that hasn't made it to the scrapheap.
Okay, so maybe it is time for me to get with the program and go digital. But the only camera I’d consider is the Leica M9, I’d have to relearn a bunch of stuff, and I doubt my pictures would be any better, or even different. Besides, I like holding my slide sheets up to the light. I can see the images directly and immediately, and study my selects in great detail on my lightbox with a loupe. I certainly can’t do that with a CD or DVD (and I know my film will still be readable when said digital files have long since faded into oblivion). Besides, I have the sinking feeling that my digital files will always be obscured by increasing layers of technology.
Of course, I could save a lot of money by not having to purchase film and pay for processing—but at my conservative shooting rate, I’d have to live another 58 years to be paid back the $7,000 I’d be spending for the Leica! That would make me the world's only 131-year old photographer....
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Arne Croell: "The defunct bellows bellows company in England you mention was Camera Bellows, and the active successor is Custom Bellows, if somebody needs bellows for a similar project. I had a new bellows for my Linhof Technikardan made by them and their quality is first rate (I am not affiliated other than being a customer)."
Featured Comment by Paris: "There are lots of reasons to give up photography, but if the last box of film expired in October of 1943, there's a better than even chance that the original owner was called away to someplace like Kwajelein, or Anzio. I've bought these estate-sale boxes, too, and I always wonder a little about the history."
Featured Comment by Dave Jenkins: "Jim, I guess I'm somewhat of an oddball magazine collector, but I still have all the issues of Camera 35 from the late '60s. I'm too lazy to get up and go look, but I seem to remember an article or two about your acquisition of the Canon 7s. I also have a magazine from that period (maybe U.S. Camera—like I said, I'm too lazy to get up and go look) where you shot a photo feature on the doors of Charleston, S.C. with your Canon rangefinders. For the record, and apropos of nothing in particular, I still have all the issues of the original Camera Arts magazine which you edited."
Jim replies: You have a good memory. I photographed Charleston when I was editor of Travel & Camera, 1969-70 (can't be more specific; misplaced that issue long ago). Travel & Camera replaced U.S. Camera when American Express bought the company from Tom Maloney. Soon after, T&C turned into Travel & Leisure, and I resumed editing Camera 35. I did use the same Canon 7s that I use now, and a lot of the pictures were made with the 19mm Canon because of that city's very tight quarters. Still a great lens, although I rarely need its unique properties. My primary wide angle is the 35, and my "telephoto" is the 50. Call it the RF shooter's mentality. Therein may lie another story....