Thursday, 31 July 2014

Restoring a Vintage Lens

As well as the usual souvenirs and peppermint rock, a recent trip to the seaside yielded something much more worthwhile. While frittering away the dog-end of the afternoon browsing in a back-street junk shop, I came across a battered old brass lens.


Here it is, screwed onto a home-made lens board. I did it so my students could use it to experiment with paper negatives in a 5"x4" camera. I thought it might be from an old projector or magic lantern, given that it had a fixed aperture, no shutter mechanism and was focused by a rack-and-pinion. The only thing that made me doubt this assumption was that it had a lens hood (removed in the above photo) – not something you would expect on a lens where the light comes out of the lens, rather than going in.


The main problem with the lens was that the focusing spindle was badly bent so that the pinion teeth didn't properly mate with the teeth on the rack, which meant that it couldn't be reliably focused. Given it was in such poor condition and had cost me next to nothing, it seemed like it might be fun to try and get it back into better order.


Needless to say, the lens came apart pretty easily. A lens like this is a classic example of form and function co-existing in simple harmony, the function of each part being evident by its appearance. There are only six screws in all, four holding the pinion against the rack with two more keeping the rack in place. Other than that, the individual components go together by screwing one into another.


The first task was to clean off the accumulated grime and corrosion. While serious collectors have strong views on what should or shouldn't be done, my interest is in the lens's functionality rather than its collect-ability. Vinegar seemed to do a good job of tackling corrosion, while regular paint stripper brought off dirty and discoloured lacquer.

The most interesting discovery at this point, which ultimately led me to identifying the lens's provenance, was finding some crudely stamped letters on the inside of the lens hood.


Before cleaning, the corroded interior of the lens hood was coated with remnants of  black paint, but when this was cleared away the roughly-stamped word DARLOT and the number 12 were revealed. I suspect that originally, they would have been hidden by a felt or velvet lining and were not intended to be seen. The only other clues I had to go on were the letters AG and number 6680 engraved on the lens barrel.

As the word Darlot meant nothing to me, I thought it might be worth doing a web search. I'm glad I did; it set me off on a hyperlinked journey from which I learned an enormous amount about lens history and design.

The first thing I discovered, showing my ignorance, was that Alphonse Darlot of Paris was a major maker of photographic lenses in the second half of the nineteenth century.

This pdf of a lens catalogue from 1890 shows a range of Darlot lenses.


 Interestingly, the catalogue warns that, "there are many spurious Darlot lenses and worthless imitations in the market". Certainly, my lens lacks the usual ornate engraving and is somewhat flimsy compared to other old lenses I've handled. Anyway, to cut a long story short, my web searches soon revealed that the letters AG might refer to Alexis Gaudin, a Parisian lens maker who had a London shop in the 1850s-60s.

This was confirmed later when I dismantled the rear lens element to clean the inside faces. Written around the thick rim of one glass was a pencilled inscription, Gaudin et Frère 1855 Paris (word illegible) No. 1

Discoveries like this are always quite exciting. To find something as fragile as pencil marks still surviving after being hidden for almost 160 years is like unexpectedly opening a time capsule. I felt like Thoreau when he wrote of finding an arrowhead, "I come closer to the maker of it than if I found his bones. His bones would not prove any wit that wielded them, such as this work of his bones does."

Having dismantled the lens, and before reassembling it, I decided to measure the individual parts and make a scale drawing.


The line drawing was made at twice actual size, comfortably fitting on an A3 sheet of paper. It was then scanned, cleaned up, coloured and annotated in Photoshop.

Technical specifications of the lens, such as focal length, were determined through experimentation. I intend to write about this in a future post. Going back to my original thoughts about it being a projector lens, I now realise that the absence of Waterhouse stops is because they had not yet been introduced. As I said earlier, I've learned an awful lot with this little lens.


Friday, 28 March 2014

Restoring a Mamiyaflex C2

Some ten years or more ago, I bought a plastic carrier bag of scruffy bits that included an old twin lens reflex camera and assorted lenses. Though I thought I could get it back into good order one day, the bag of bits has kicked around, from shed to loft and back again, ever since.

However, having had to move it yet again to get at something behind it, I finally decided I would have to do something with it or consign it to history. Having seen so many students struggle with their Lubitel and Lomo cameras, I thought it would be a suitably philantropic gesture if I gave them something a bit more sophisticated to play with. After a bit of web-browsing I found a source of leather for the body and decided to give it a bit of a make-over.

The last bits of old leather had become very brittle and flaky, so careful poking with a pointy kitchen knife and a small palette knife fetched them off quite easily. Some fittings, such as the flash attachment were screwed on over the old covering and had to be removed first. I took the precaution of making drawings so that I understood details of shape and knew where the screw holes would be when covered with new leather.

There's plenty of online tutorial advice on how to make a template for the new cover. The recommended method is the cover the panel with low-tack masking tape, trimming round the edges with a craft knife to get the exact shape. In the photograph above, I have already made a template for the other side of the camera and have stuck it to the piece of leather, ready to be cut out.
In this photo, the camera back has been detached and is at the top of the picture. The leather covering was still intact, though very scuffed and worn, like the leather panel on the viewfinder in the top picture. Several applications of black shoe polish brought it to a more presentable state.

The new leather covering was soft and easy to cut, being quite thin. The intricate shapes and circular holes needed particular care, so I used the discarded polystyrene backing sheet from a supermarket pizza under the leather so that I could push the knife well through when cutting curves.

To avoid mistakes, I kept testing the piece of cut leather against the camera as cutting proceeded. This way, I was able to make any tiny adjustments to ensure it was a good fit. Once it was cut to shape, I was able to peel off the masking tape and the self-adhesive backing sheet and carefully lay the leather in place, smoothing it out as I did so that no air bubbles were trapped underneath. The self-adhesive backing seemed very tenacious and wouldn't be easy to remove once stuck down.

The finished camera. To give the camera a bit of personal style, I cut small circles of red leather for the centres of the various knobs. They're not authentic, but I like the look.
Milly's Cameras were also able to supply a black camera paint pen to retouch the paintwork here and there.

It appears that the Mamiyaflex C2 was in production for a relatively short time, from 1958 to 1962, at a time when Mamiya's camera designs were evolving rapidly. Later designs ranged from more advanced Twin Lens Reflexes such as the C330 to sophisticated  medium-format SLR workhorses such as the RB67.

Operation of the camera is not immediately intuitive. A strict routine must be followed to avoid blank shots or double exposures. After cocking and releasing the shutter, the film winder should be unlocked with a small lever and the film wound to the next frame. Mamiya recommended that this sequence of actions should be followed as a matter of routine. Luckily, pdf manuals for old cameras such as this can be found online, sometimes for a small optional donation.

As I hoped, the revitalised camera has created a fair amount of interest among my students, some of whom are doing project work that requires working with film. It was used the other day by a student who was researching historical photographs of soldiers and recreating them in the form of an hommage.

From a photo contact sheet by Molly H, Lincoln College

Saturday, 4 January 2014

New Year, New Thoughts

The New Bike: Portobello, Edinburgh; Christmas Day 2013
A new year is always a good time to talk about resolutions – and as always, there are many things I wish I did differently.

One challenge I'd really like to set myself this year is to get this blog back on track. No matter that it remains unread (as far as I can tell) by anyone but myself. The very act of trying to express the incoherent buzz of random thoughts with a few structured sentences is a good discipline. It also doesn't matter that these thoughts are tipped back into the seething pool of the web; the process is more significant than the outcome.

So here I am, on the fourth day of the new year, re-staking my claim on this bit of blogspace in the hope that it will become more productive in 2014.

A major reason why this blog declined over the last year was that posting here and on Flickr became too time-consuming. I have to confess that I dislike my own voice – the sound of it and the way I  express my thoughts. I find it difficult to be satisfied, and would revise and rewrite my blogposts in an attempt to express my thoughts more exactly. Thus a fairly short post could take me the greater part of a day to write.

My resolution then is to be more contented with expressing my thoughts in rough outline and not to spend time labouring to refine my language. If I can do that in 2014, I'm sure that this tiny corner of the web that I call mine will be a far happier place to spend some time!

PS: Writing this has taken me about thirty minutes, based on a twenty minute scribbled outline earlier today.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Satie: A Man of Many Letters

Barter Books in Alnwick, Northumberland, is always worth a visit and provides a convenient place to take a break when travelling the Great North Road (A1). It recently provided me with the most entertaining read of the Summer, a second-hand copy of Satie Seen Through His Letters, by Ornella Volta. Published in 1989, it's a comprehensive selection of annotated correspondence from, to and about Erik Satie, edited and arranged thematically, with lots of marginal illustrations.




We all know Satie's work – mostly as the musical background to a thousand TV documentaries. As a composer of Furniture Music (…'not to be listened to') Satie would surely have approved of its widespread use as incidental music today, and could have done with the royalties generated. He died in poverty in Arceuil, a suburb of Paris, in 1925.



This is not to imply he was unpopular in his own time. Right up to his death, he was a leading figure in the Parisian avant-garde and was a significant influence on the development of modern music. He collaborated with many of the most important artistic figures un Paris and was part of a creative network that included Apollinaire, Brancusi, Breton, Cocteau, Debussy, Diaghilev, Leger, Matisse, Picasso, Ravel. The list goes on …



The collaboration he is best remembered for was the ballet Parade, with Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso, premièred by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1917. The intrigues and rivalries that beset its development are set out entertainingly in the book under the heading of Wars  (referring to conflicting egos as well as the contemporary political context of the First World War). The poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who was also involved in the production, coined a new word, 'Surrealism', when describing it. Here are some scans of the marginalia in that part of the book.



The illustrations, mostly caricatures and doodles, are an important part of the book's charm. They remind us that it was not only a pre-digital age but also a time when photographs were still relatively uncommon. Messages and letters would still be written in longhand and an idea, character or event described in words might easily be illustrated with a thumbnail drawing.

These sometimes slight sketches or marginalia provide us with a playful glimpse of the personalities of the Parisian art world and capture the spirit as well as the style of early modernist drawing. I particularly like this elegant drawing by Picasso of Countess Edith de Beaumont.



 The de Beaumonts were members of a Parisian social elite whose patronage, via Salons and other cultural events, provided vital financial support to the avant-garde. The book evokes the colourful milieu in which they circulated, where aristocrats and arrivistes appear as fascinating as the artists they encouraged. One particularly notable character was Misia Edwards. Originally Misia Godebska, Madame Alfred Edwards had previously been Madame Thadée Natanson and would later become Madame José-Maria Sert. She was " a key figure in Parisian society, whose fashions she created and destroyed for half a century. Gifted with unfailing taste and a definite charm, as well as a noteworthy capacity for intrigue, she treated the numerous geniuses she came across with great nonchalance.  …Diaghilev, despite being a confirmed misogynist, never made an important decision without consulting her."

To his credit, Satie negotiated this social minefield with intelligence, tact and what has become his defining characteristic, endearing eccentricity. Behind this public persona, the book reveals him as a hard-working musician and enthusiastic collaborator. While clearly enjoying the social round, he needed a private space in which to develop his work. For most of the second half of his life, that space was a cramped room without any facilities in the industrial suburb of Arcueil.



In trying to come to some conclusions about his personality, I was intrigued by this drawing, made by Satie, of a fantastical castle. I read it as signifying his yearning for authority and a status in society he never achieved. It's a yearning that may also account for the grandiose titles he awarded himself in the eccentric religious order he invented, in which he was the only member. This heretical religiosity provided him with a convenient alter-ego he could use to set out his views on art and music and to retaliate against any unfavourable criticism of his work.

In summary, it's a book I would recommend to anyone interested in the history of the origins of Modernist art. A review on the Good Reads website describes it as a book that "will entrance and delight those interested in Parisian cultural life in the early 20th century".

Ornella Volta (1989) Satie Seen Through His Letters
translated by Michael Bullock, introduced by John Cage
London, Marion Boyars

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Life on the Move Again

Whatever the calendar says, today, Easter Sunday – the last day of March and the first day of British Summer Time, was the first true day of Spring. Despite small pocket of snow still lying in the shadiest parts of my garden, the day has been bright and sunny, with some genuine warmth in the air.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Six Degrees of Jean-Paul Marat

The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David
 How did I come to be looking at this painting when all was interested in was doing some high-speed flash photography, using my new Camera Axe? The answer is a good example of the interconnectedness of things, especially in the world of Google and hyperlinks.

Monday, 31 December 2012

Thoughts on the Year's End

I'm writing this is the dying minutes of 2012. Countries to the East of the U.K. have already welcomed in the New Year, but here there is lttle more than fifteen minutes to go.
For me, it has been seemed like a year of incident - eventful, that is, without an overriding sense of things moving either forward or back.We are far enough into the new century perhaps for it to have reached a point where it distinctive character to have started to form.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Dark Days in Deed


The end of another busy month is here. I need to claim this space for a more notes to be added over the weekend. Meanwhile,  a pictorial reminder of the transitory nature of many of the things we create: a scattering of sandcastles made by art students on the beach at Mablethorpe.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Busy Days


Another month comes to an end, bringing with it Halloween and the short days of Winter. The weather has been largely kind to us here in the UK, though across the Atlantic the East Coast of the USA has been battered by Hurricane Sandy. The devastation seen in yesterday's TV reports was truly awful, with certain images immediately becoming emblematic of the catastrophe. Cars floating in a submerged underpass, and most terrifying, CCTV footage of floodwater bursting through the closed doors of an elevator. It will be some time before we learn the true extent and effect of the devastation.

Meanwhile, I'm a man on a mission, pausing for a short break in North Queensferry, near Edinburgh, en route for Skye and the ferry out to the Western Isles. I've been booked to run a week of workshops  in alternative photographic processes for UHI Fine Art students. We will be using the art studios at Taigh Chearsabhagh Arts Centre in Lochmaddy. Having worked with these processes for years when they have been a minority interest, I've been surprised to see what seems to be a new level of interest in them in the higher education sector.

Friday, 28 September 2012

The Decline of Non-Fiction for Children

The online edition of the Guardian carried an article today noting the decline of childrens' non fiction books.

In an associated open thread on their BooksBlog, it asked for readers to contribute comments on their favourite non-fiction books from childhood. Here's the comment I posted:

Back in the 1950's, my parents bought a 10(?)-volume set of books called 'Pictorial Knowledge' from a door to door salesman for my brother and me. I think they were published by Newnes and had bright red, shiny, leather-like covers. They gave us countless hours of pleasure; they looked, smelled and felt lovely and were full of exciting pictures illustrating factual articles on every topic a child would be interested in: art and literature as well as science and technology. Of all the books I encountered as a child, they had the greatest influence on my intellectual development, fuelling a desire to know more about the subjects they covered.

Available secondhand from Amazon / Abebooks

The best practical book I owned (and still have) was "The Boys' Country Book", edited by John Moore (Collins, 1955). Beautiful illustrations by Shirley Hughes, and full of now very non-pc articles on everything from rock climbing to 'shooting for boys', all written by boyhood heroes of the day. It was a book that opened up a world of possibilities, inspiring you to be better than you were without being competitive or trampling on others.

Title Page Illustration


It's worth remembering that comics and magazines in those days, such as the 'Eagle', 'Boys' Own Paper' and 'The Childrens' Newspaper' contained a lot of fascinating factual content.

After posting my Guardian comment, I looked online and found that the entire run of The Childrens' Newspaper has been archived and is available from Look and Learn in DVD form. Individual issues can be browsed through on the website and downloaded. This was an exciting discovery;  the website is an extraordinarily rich resource for anyone wanting images that have historical and/or educational value.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Building a Wooden Camera

One of the pleasures of living in a state of semi-retirement is having time to indulge in inessential but absorbing activities. This Summer's main time-absorber was building a wooden camera – still not quite complete, but well advanced on the state it was in when this picture was taken.

The project was mostly inspired by my students' enthusiasm for alternative and experimental ways of making photographs. Although they like their digital cameras, they also love doing practical things that involve physically interacting with materials. There is a tangible and tactile satisfaction in making things by hand that isn't gained through working solely with digital processes.

It's a subject that came into focus for me last year after reading Matthew Crawford's The Case for Working with Your Hands, which I blogged about at the time. At around the same time I was asked to teach practical and experimental course units that gave a wide scope for investigating the creative potential of alternative processes. We did a lot of experimental work with large format cameras, using improvised lenses and a variety of negative materials; we also worked with pinhole cameras and alternative print processes, particularly salt printing and cyanotypes. It was during this time I came across, quite by chance – or rather, by Amazon's predictive algorithms – an intriguing-looking book, Primitive Photography: A Guide to Making Cameras, Lenses and Calotypes, by Alan Greene.

 
While Matthew Crawford discusses the value of practical activity, Alan Greene gets straight down into hard-headed practical instruction. It is a book that inspires, but offers no shortcuts to the challenges it sets the reader. The only reward it offers is the opportunity to take photographs as eerily beautiful as those taken by the author himself. It is certainly not a book for a faint-hearted reader, as the densely-expressed instructions require a force of will to follow. The chapter on building a camera makes no allowances for improvisation, error or diversion, it is a matter of following the instructions exactly, step by step, not ever being quite sure which bit of the camera you're making, but with the satisfaction of seeing it gradually take shape in front of you.

Having said that, a UK-based reader like myself has to perform some mental gymnastics to turn the USA-orientated instructions into action. While our two nations are famously divided by a common language, we are also divided by different standard systems of measurement and by a variation in the materials that are readily available. Greene makes extensive use of basswood for example, a scarce and unreasonably expensive material here. Being determined myself to follow the underlying philosophy of the book, which is make the camera out of commonly available materials, I decided to use the nearest equivalents I could find in my local DIY stores, B&Q and Homebase.

The framing is made out of pine stripwood with the nearest metric cross-section measurements. It comes in 2.4m (9ft) lengths and is very cheap. Instead of Luan, I used 6mm exterior-grade plywood. A model aircraft shop was able to supply me with a more expensive 4mm light plywood which I'm using for darkslides.

The cumulative effect of these differences in imperial and metric dimensions has a knock-on effect on later stages of the build. For example, my negative holder, built up out of seven laminated layers of stripwood, is 4mm thicker than the author's example in the book. This necessitated me cutting out and replacing parts of the camera's internal framework that I'd innocently cut to the sizes given in the plans. Suffice to say, my copy of the book has been heavily annotated with points to note for future builds.

This has been a book and a project that I would recommend to anyone. Building the camera has been an instructive and satisfying experience that should provide lots of further fun, building lenses and recreating those early negative processes.