One of the very first of the 250 or so published articles I wrote for various photography magazines was about enlargers. I got into a rather bitter fight with a manufacturer, which had a salutary side effect: very early in my career, it taught me to go ahead and say what I meant and to pay no attention to pressure. Ever since then my priorities have been ordered: readers first, employer second, manufacturers third. I didn't go to the mat with employers very often, but I did so when I thought it necessary to look after the readers' interests. I lost at least a couple of those fights. But I won some, too.
That early disputation over enlargers had another happy result: it introduced me to the Saunders/LPL 4500II 4x5 enlarger. At the time, the enlarger of choice for large-format and Zone System photographers was the Beseler 45MXT, which is still available new, equipped with an aftermarket cold-light head of the type manufactured by Aristo. (The cold light head was what caused all the ruckus, mainly because it was not manufactured by Aristo. I'll tell the story someday.)
The Saunders, which I will henceforth refer to as the LPL—Saunders was the then-importer, LPL Co. of Tokyo the manufacturer—was a whole 'nuther animal. It was based on dichroic color enlarger technology, and seemed to me clearly to be built to an altogether higher standard than the American enlargers of the day. It was slick and very convenient to use, and technically very competent.
Fast-forward to 1994. I lived in a very beautiful loft apartment in Chicago, with 14-foot ceilings, exposed brick walls, giant wooden beams, naked ductwork, and panoramic rooftop views. The only place for a darkroom was a converted powder room or half-bath. There was no room for the big Saunders, which therefore had to be de-accessioned. To replace it, because I had been so happy with the larger one, I bought the smaller, medium-format Saunders/LPL 670 VCCE (670 refers to the largest format the enlarger handle—6x7cm—and VCCE stands for "variable contrast constant exposure").
I quite honestly didn't think a lot about it one way or the other. It wasn't terribly fancy and it did what I expected it to do. Nothing to get excited about—it was clearly a step down from its big brother.
Fast forward to today. I've been happily puttering in the new darkroom—which I find relaxing. The aging LPL has been sitting, neglected, in a corner, for almost a decade. So I had to take it entirely apart.
As you can see, spiders had set up house in the bellows! The whole thing needed a thorough clean-and-check.
Having it all apart gave me a renewed appreciation for the thought and care that went into making this thing. I know it's not rocket science, but the engineering problems aren't trivial, either—not when they're solved to this degree of elegance—and there are a number of them that all have to be satisfied equally well. For instance, the light source must be perfectly even and bright; no light can come out of the device except where it's supposed to; many different parts need to move and adjust relative to each other yet still remain rigidly positioned with a really pretty high degree of precision; the color of the light has to change without changing the intensity; and the whole thing must be easy and intuitive to use.
From what I hear, LPL's engineers derived a number of their solutions from earlier Durst enlargers, Durst (1936–2006) being the longtime European leader in enlargers. But wherever the "prior art" came from, this is clearly a refined design with a long engineering evolution behind it, cleverly and thoroughly thought through.
This is the enlarger head, removed from the chassis, upright, and with its top off and the light mixing box removed. The three small glass filters you can see—one yellow, one magenta, and one neutral density (ND)—slide up and and down in varying ratios as a single knob on the side of the side of the head—the big black one visible in the first picture—is turned. The effect is to change the color of the light without varying its intensity. The bulb itself, a regular 12V, 100-watt halogen projector bulb like the one pictured here, is hidden in the chamber behind the filters.
Here's a detail. As usual, you can click on any of these pictures to make them larger.
The three filters do an independently-variable little up-and-down dance when you turn the contrast-control knob. The weird color and the apparent green bar are caused by reflections from the optical coatings.
After passing through the filters, the light enters the light-mixing box through a hole. This is what sits directly above the negative carrier. (And this whole arrangement raises and lowers with a lever, too, to allow easy insertion and removal of the negative carrier.)
The core of the mixing box—and thus, in essence, the core of the enlarger—is made of styrofoam! Not fancy, but ideal from a functional standpoint. I've heard that these styrofoam mixing boxes were known to yellow over time in early 4x5 models, but this one is still bright white after 16 years or so (the yellowish-greenish tint comes from my horrid mixed lighting). The last piece—what the negative sees—is a diffuser made of translucent plastic that comprises the bottom of the box. You can see a bit of it there to the right of the mixing box.
I wonder if the engineers who designed the 670 VCCE are still active and working for LPL? Wherever they may be now, they have my respect, admiration, and regards. For all its modesty, this is a well-made, high-value product.
My enlarger seems to have held up well over time, for the most part, despite the spiders. The big question for me is whether the contrast filters have held their values over the years. If they've faded, either the parts or the whole head will have to be replaced.
LPL enlargers are now distributed in the U.S. by former competitor Omega. The 670 VCCE now costs $1,295, which isn't much of an increase from the ~$895 I paid in '94, especially when you factor in today's considerably reduced demand. Used ones, of course, are not difficult to find.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
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