Friday, February 27, 2015

Shedding some light on photo paper

This is just a quick note for the unaware about photo paper and photo paper. Yes, there are two kinds, some from the same brand, and they are distinctly different from another.

I have this local thrift store that provides me with an occasional amazing vintage photo treasure. Not long ago, I sauntered over to the particular gondola where the electronic gadgets and old cameras are to be found.

I could tell, even from a great distance, that there was a 100-sheet box of Kodak Polycontrast Rapid-RC photo paper up for sale. That shade of yellow on the box is burned into my head.

Before I reached it, a young man picked up and examined the box; he noted the label on top and then pop-opened the box to view the paper. He took out a white stack and fanned it, looking at the condition of the glossy surfaces as they flitted by.

I stopped and actually gasped. He turned and looked at me quizzically.

"That's photo paper!" I blurted out. A blank stare was returned. "No, REAL photo paper, the kind that was used in darkrooms back in the day," I tried to explain. The stare became a decidedly confused one, the once crisp white paper, still partially removed from the box, was now gently graying as we looked at each other.

The young man turned his head, read the box top again and looked back to reply, "Yes, says here photo paper."

"No, not the computer photo paper you use with an inkjet printer on your desk, the kind of photo paper that's extremely light-sensitive and only to be used in an old photographic darkroom - a DARK ROOM," I offered as I pointed to the forest of fluorescent lights overhead. He quickly realized what he had done and closed the box with a start.

"Too, late, the paper has been ruined," I signed. "All of it."

We chatted for a few moments. Good kid. He didn't know if he should apologize for his unknowing mistake or tell the management of the store. I told him to forget about it, what he did was an honest, innocent mistake. Besides, anyone who knew anything about this sort of paper would never buy an opened box. Too chancy.

I told him what I was concerned about that there is so little photographic darkroom paper left since Kodak's exit from the market that hobbyists would have clamored for some fresh sheets of darkroom paper. And, with a little research, the thrift store could have made much more cash than the paltry $2 they marked on the box.

Anyway, not a big deal but it's helpful for me to remember how quickly the knowledge of chemical photography, of darkrooms and film and print-making, has faded from the collective memory.

So, young folks and others, know that there are two kinds of photo paper; the current type used for printing digital photos in bright light, the other older type - outdated and becoming quite scarce - is photo paper that was/can be used under the red lights of a chemical darkroom.


Saturday, January 10, 2015

Graflex Ciro 35: One Camera, Three Manufacturers

Just before this last Christmas I found a remarkably unblemished American-made camera, a Graflex Ciro 35, on eBay for 20USD. I had seen many of these cameras over the years and had always passed on acquiring one for one reason or another. I took a chance on this one due to the thrifty price. 

The Graflex Ciro 35 arrived complete with its case and a bulb flash unit. Cosmetically, it's in great shape. Mechanically . . . . well, there are a few small problems. No matter. The Ciro is going on display and was never intended to be a "shooter" anyway.

Graflex Ciro 35 - "S" verion, circa 1952

Every camera has a back-story and the Ciro 35 has one that's really more about who made the cameras than about the features or performance of the units themselves. As I've said, this is a GRAFLEX Ciro 35. There were several manufacturers that birthed this particular camera model, ending with the folks at Graflex, Inc. in Rochester, NY. Though this camera's story ends with Graflex, I'll start out explaining its origins there. 

Graflex at one time was a very famous builder of large-format bellows cameras for news photographers. Graflex was the fairly secret professional camera division of Kodak. At least they downplayed their lineage. Their manufacturing facilities went out from underneath their corporate master's control in the mid-1920's when they emerged as a separate company called Graflex, Inc. The new company was the result of the loss of a monopoly lawsuit against Eastman Kodak. 

Graflex cameras were always big, big rigs. Huge things. Their mainstay model for decades was the Speed Graphic that shot sheet film one exposure at a time. Pros in those days would not accept that good images could be made with any film under 4 x 5 inches in size. Speed Graphics defined the genre of cameras called "press cameras". You've seen them in movies from the 1930's. Huge squarish black hulks of cameras equipped with big silver cylindrical bulb flash units hanging off their sides like small stove pipes (the flash handles made the ideal base form for Obi Wan Kenobe's light-sabre prop in the original Star Wars movie). 

Anyway, when WWII ended, lots of GIs returned home with high-quality Leica 35mm and Rolleiflex 6x6 cameras stuffed into their duffel bags. Younger pro photographers quickly began turning away from exclusively using those monstrous Graflexes as civilians. Those fickle Philistines. 

So - I imagine - Graflex must have recognized a growing problem on their hands as the 1940's drew to an end. Should they spend engineering effort to design smaller format cameras, something they clearly knew nothing about, or (in true-blue corporate American fashion) should they simply buy someone who did. You can already guess the answer. But we have a couple diversions first before we get there.


At about the same time, the Candid Camera Corporation of Chicago, Illinois was retooling to fill the bursting American consumer's post-war drive for new and different photo products. You may know CCC for their late 1940's Perfex 35mm camera line. 

By 1949 CCC had designed and released a new 35mm rangefinder camera they called, no let's say dubbed, the "Cee-Ay 35". Where they got that clunky name is anybody's guess. As opposed to the hefty bulk of the previous Perfex models (heavier than an Argus C3s for God's sake), the Cee-Ay was a smaller, sleeker and, um, almost handsome improvement. Outfitted with a fine Wollensak Anastigmat 50mm f/4.5 lens, it was poised to be a winner.

Unfortunately, they didn't get too far with production run. Only a few months after introducing the Cee-Ay, CCC sold the all tools, dies, drawings and parts to the Ciro Company. Why? Unknown, but CCC vanished soon afterward. So, we could guess financial problems, eh?

So who the heck is Ciro? First located in Detroit, Michigan, Ciro made a very well-constructed series of Twin Lens Reflexes called (wait for it) Ciro-flexes starting about 1941. Not so great timing to sell an expensive medium-format TLR. Post-war, Ciro moved to Delaware Ohio and, like Graflex, must have decided to hitch their sales future to the ascending "miniature" 35mm camera market. Same problem as Graflex, make or buy. They chose buy, too. Someone in sales or marketing was introduced to the CCC Cee-Ay 35 and, boom, problem solved. Someone went home with a nice bank check.

So by 1950, Ciro retooled and re-introduced the previous design as the Ciro 35. The engineers smoothed some lines and changed the faceplates. Wham-bam market 'em ma'am. All went well, a stronger business fish had swallowed a weaker business fish and America had a bright, new 35mm rangefinder camera to buy. Yay!

Then the big Graflex Grouper swooped in from the north and swallowed the smaller Ciro business fish with the CCC fish still fresh inside it. Boo!

The Ciro 35 became the Graflex Ciro 35 in 1950. All Graflex did was to modify some engravings on the top plate and pump-out the units into their much larger and much more professional sales distribution channel. 

Graflex Ciro 35's were available with the same Ciro-chosen Wollensak 50mm lens design (now called a Graftar) in three different lens speeds/designs: f/4.5 (the "R" model, not so common, found on the sexy black painted models); f/3.5 (the "S" model, most common); and f/2.8 (the "T" model, would buy one if I could find one). 

After all this rework and corporate takeovers, the Graflex Ciro 35 lasted only until about 1955, which isn't a bad run for a camera, I guess. Graflex retooled the Ciro 35 platform and beefed it up into being the quite popular Graphic 35. By the end of the decade, Graflex was having new models made in Japan. The then typical last stop before oblivion for an American brand.

I happen to like this camera for its build and its back-story. There is a black painted version out there that is absolutely a gorgeous piece of industrial engineering. Though the same camera, it looks dramatically better.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Is "Freelensing" Trend the Death of Vintage Equipment?

Once my youngest son graduates from high school this spring, my wife and I plan to move to a smaller home in another town. As such, some downsizing of our household items will need to happen. This included editing my large camera collection down to size. So I've set about selling the less-desirable bodies, lenses and other stuff through Craigslist.

I recently sold a nice couple of lenses to a young local photographer. She specializes in portraits of pets. Very nice person with a good eye for making images. I extolled in excited tones how sharp the Canon 200mm f4 FD telephoto was and how she could detach the Tamron Adapatall 2 interchangeable mount on the 28mm f/2.5. I thought she was after crisp images with old equipment. Nope.

She gently and politely informed me that for her personal shooting she likes to disassemble (permanently) old film lenses and hold them with one hand in front of her lens-less DSLR for what she termed "freelensing". Said the out-of-focus effects were outstanding. I had not heard of that. A quick Google search revealed that, indeed, many new folks are attracted to this style of shooting as they can produce interesting and very pronounced selective focus this way.

A part of me was happy with the idea that old optics were soldiering on with new uses, and a large part of me (maybe larger) was horrified that to do that my precious top-brand stuff was about to be, well, forever mutilated. The optics these folks perform surgery on are absolutely irreplaceable. At least to me. Severing the mount from the body just to take a few mostly blurry photos seemed too drastic a course to achieve a simple effect; a mechanic hack job done out of not knowing any other alternative, or out of a lack of respect for the amazing skills of the lens designers and manufacturers. And hey, why not try Photoshop first, people!

Then I took a deep breath.

Gotta let it go. Vintage camera collecting is a dying hobby as most of us collectors are "aging out" at a corresponding rate. In a few decades the actions of corrosion, gravity, metal fatigue, mold and moisture will have pretty much ravaged all those film cameras and their lenses either now proudly displayed on shelves, still forgotten and stuffed in closets. Why not get those lenses out in the sunshine again, even to make decidedly fuzzy images? Let the kids freelens all they want. Better that an old lens gets used for the what is was made to do than to ride the pine on some dusty shelf.

It's a new year. So, OK, out with the old and in with the new. I'll hold on to a few Nikkors and such out of my own nostalgia and sell the rest to people who are unencumbered with perhaps an outdated loyalty to dead brands and a forgotten medium. It's all good. I guess I now know how the old photographers in my day viewed my generation's experimentation with photo gear. What goes around . . .