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Just like Mathew Brady

 

Prologue:

Photography can be an amazing adventure, especially if you try to resurrect some pre-historic camera that used to belong to your Grandpa. I can´t put an old camera on a shelf simply for display like many other collectors do - I like to use them and often the results are surprising. For example, my Leica III(1934) takes better photos than my Minolta Dynax 700si(1995).This is a story about going back to another time - to a century in which photography was truly an art form... the "art of painting with sunlight". Let's step approximately 120 years back into the past...
 

The idea

The concept of actually using an old dryplate camera began to stir within me in the year 1995. Another hobby of mine is to go on Western-councils and while on one of my trips, I realized that while the period clothing worn by people at these locations can be very authentic, all photos of them are taken with modern cameras. Why not use an authentic, antique camera instead? A wooden camera with glass plates...and magnesium flash! The photos taken during the American Civil War have a special kind of magic -  a spirit that no modern camera can ever convey in the prints that it can produce. Only an authentic camera made during that same century could possibly bring these magic moments back!

Only a camera like Mathew Brady had used!

 

The idea begins to grow

 The idea remained vague until July, 2000- I won an auction at eBay and bought a wooden camera that uses 13x18 cm (approx. 4,5 x 6") glass plates. The camera was in a very good condition - a little cleanup and it was like new. It was a surprise, but the camera was made in1969 and built in Russia!The functions were the same as her old predecessors of the 19th Century, but the knobs and front plate were made of plastic.
But why would the Russians build this old fashioned camera in 1969? Was it a special-effects device used by some photographer? A fully functional prop used on a motion picture set? Perhaps I'll never know the answers to those questions...

The first step was to replace the plastic front plate with an authentic wooden plate for the lens. Then, I fitted the unstable wooden tripod with new screws and washers for a better and safer stand. The first test under the famous 'black curtain' looked good: The image was projected upside down on the ground glass!


 The camera in it's "original" condition
( Raiders of the Lost Photo plates?)


Where to get the plates from? 

The camera seemed ready to fire :-) But the next problem was to get some real photoplates. My first idea was to make myself a few collodion-wet plates,like some "old style photographers" in the USA do even to this day. But some of the needed chemicals - especially the ether and the gun cotton for the collodion coating - was hard to find and if that was not enough, using guncotton requires a special licence for explosives in Germany..
These problems prompted me to find information about the dryplate process, which was invented in the year1871 by Richard Leech Maddox.This process, based on a gelatine coating instead of collodion was another old fashioned method that pre-dates the use of modern film.

Amazingly, I searched for only30 minutes before finding a source for brand new glass plates on the Internet!  ( http://www.photo-grande.de
The plates were very expensive; a package of 12 cost 198 DM (approximately 100 US dollars). They are handcrafted and manufactured by Wephotain Wernigerode.

Dr. Richard Leach Maddox

Houston, we have a problem...

The next problem quickly made itself known....the plates were only available in 100 ASA speed and my camera had no shutter ( there was an aperature within the lens, but no shutter mechanism at all ).  In the 19th Century, the plates used an exposure time of around 2 to 5 seconds ( or more ) and the "shutter" was the cap of the lens. A plate rated at 100 ASA seemed impossible to expose with this old method. Even at F/32, the plate would become hopelessly overexposed.

Hunting for a shutter

Wasn´t there an old pneumatic shutter oneBay? Too late! The auction was over and another collector beat me to it. Using the search word "verschluss" (shutter) got no useful hits oneBay, so I began to search the Photographica section item by item and eventually I found an old Kodak camera in a very dilapidated state: the complete film-back was missing, the bellows contained big holes and cracks and the lens was missing... but the starting price was only 30 DM and the camera had a shutter. This was my big chance...

 

Resurrecting the shutter 

There were no other bids for this camera and the seller must have felt very lucky to have found a sucker like me, who would pay 30 DM for a totally wrecked camera...but I got my shutter! The next disappointment was that the shutter was defective too. It opened... but stayed open regardless of the chosen time - or it closed... and stayed closed in spite of pulling the release-trigger. A bath in methylated spirit solved the problem,  but only for the time that the shutter remained in the cleaning solution. After it had dried, the same sticky problems started again. I had no choice - I had to disassemble the shutter to see what was wrong.

The first step was to unscrew the backplate and make a scan of the interior mechanism, which would serve as a guide during the reassembly process. Then, I dismantled the old Kodexs hutter completely....I collected all screws,washers, levers, springs etc. and stored them in labeled tin boxes. After the shutter was almost completely taken apart, I found the source of my problem: The shutter blades consisted of 5 segments. At one axis, one of the segments was lying over another. This "double-blade" was simply too thick to provide clear movement.... and it had been this way since1908!

I removed the offending blade and reassambled the shutter. Now it worked fine for the first time - all functions were operating properly

Two scans of the KODEX shutter 
(open and closed) just before the repair

 

A new housing for the shutter

The next job was to build a housing for the shutter. I set it between the lens board and the lens in a little wooden box. The box was made light-tight with some black velvet and the release was extended with a wire that continued out of the box. The maximum aperature of the shutter was F/11 with my lens because the shutter came from a camera with a smaller negative format...but now I have the ability to use F-stops 11 to 32 at 1/25 sec, 1/50 sec....also B and T.

The camera was now fitted with the wooden box between the lens board and the lens. It contained the old Kodex shutter.

The camera after the reconstruction

On we go...

The next problem: Just who will develop the exposed plates?
In the meantime, the question about the developing of the exposed plates came up. Which modern lab can manage to imitate a process from the 19th Century? I asked some photo dealers and druggists, but the most common answer was, "No chance! This may be a job that only my grandpa's grandpa could do!".
The only remaining possibility was to do the job for myself.
The main problem was that I don't know much about photographic chemistry. My oldest book that contained some information about building a darkroom was a children's book - one that I had purchased when I was 9 years old. This old book proved to be the first stepping stone to building my own darkroom.
At eBay( a good place for finding used darkroom equipment ),  I won an auction for a complete darkroom: enlarger, color processor,measuring tools, bottles and nearly everything I needed to process many types of film. I built up a darkroom in the cellar, but I still had to learn about using darkroom equipment and chemicals...
 

Yet another problem: Where can I find camera plate cassettes?

Meanwhile, I began a new search on the Internet to find wooden plate cassettes for my camera. Only one cassette was included when I purchased the camera and I needed a few more. At http:///www.photographica-world.de I found some 13x18cm cassettes that would probably fit into my camera. After some work - grinding down some big cassettes, adding some wood shims to some cassettes that were too small and screwing on brass edges for the holding mechanism, I ended up with 6 double-cassettes, which would be good for 12 photo plates on each outing with the camera.


Out of the Dark and Into the Light: First successes in the darkroom

In the meantime, I learned to develop film. I used two old Leica-III cameras for my test and the first results looks very good.  I learned how to use the enlarger, too. Much of the photographic paper ended up in the trash can, but I did manage to learn how to make a
nice print!
 

Planning the first "sharp shots"

In October, 2000 the photoplates arrived in the mail and I got all of my equipment together for the first test-shots. Meanwhile, in the darkroom I had learned to develop B/W and color too. So I thought,"It must be easy to develop a simple 100 ASA B/W photo plate...", but at this point I was very naive - and this was very far from the truth!
 


October 7, 2000: First tests on photographic pape
r

 
So that I would not ruin too many of the expensive photo plates during my experiments, I made my first exposures directly on photographic paper. I used Tetenal Work Baryt and I got negatives on positive paper. The exposure times averaged around 45 to 60 seconds at F/32. I simply reversed the negatives on my computer to get a positive image. The results looked quite good - the image-circle was a bit small, but at other apertures, i.e. F/22 or F/11, the focus became soft at the edges ( the cause of these two problems was found much later).

The day was rainy and dull, so I stood under a balcony on the terrace totake the pictures. The last remaining problems were the small image-circle and the lack of sharp focus on the edges. At this time, I still thought that many older lenses cause these problems and this might even be the reason for the oval frames seen on so many old photos.

 

exposure directly on photgraphic paper-
exposed for 60 seconds at F/22 

The same picture, scanned and reversed on my computer


November 8, 2000: The first plate was destroyed by using the wrong developing process :-(

The time had finally come for the first shot on one of the expensive photoplates. My parents kindly agreed to model for my first classic photo. I set up the shot and made one exposure for one half-second at F/32. With the exposed plate in hand, I ran into my darkroom. Unfortunately, I had no data sheet for my plates, but after inquiring at Photo Grandé, I was told that I could use the developing data sheet from other classic B/W film like the "Ilford FP4" or "Orwo NP20".I found the data sheet for the FP4 and started the developing procedure in total darkness.
First, I put the plate in the developer -Tetenal Ultrafin Liquid( 1:20 ratio ) for 12 minutes. Then, I placed the plate in the stopping bath for 5 minutes and after this I fixed it for 7 minutes in Tetenal Superfixand then directly in the rinsing bath..
Lights on!
WOW!The picture was on the plate! A little bit underexposed, but it was a success...at least for approximately 30 seconds! Huh??What the hell was going on? The emulsion on the plate began to dissolve in the water!Small bubbles started to destroy the picture!
"This can't be happening....."
I grabbed the plate on the edges, and nearly the complete photographic emulsion on it dropped as a dark solution into the water. Only a small strip emulsion on the edges remained...!
"F...!....Shit!....(etc..)
Something was obviously not right... I must be doing something wrong during the developing process. Was the rinsing bath too warm? Is it possible that I didn´t fix it enough? Was the light the source of the destruction? I had no idea...but I knew that I needed the correct data before I could try again.
I wrote a e-mail toWephotain Wernigerode and asked for the specific data sheet for my plates
 

November 11, 2000 : The Second Trial...

After a few days, Wephotasent me the requested data sheet for
developing the plates and the information on it looked quite a bit different than the data that I used for my first unsuccessful try.

"So...don't give up. It's a sunny day today", I said to myself and began to prepare myself, my camera, the darkroom and my parents ( they stood for my photo again ). :-)  We were all ready for the next trial
This time, I chose an exposure time of 2 seconds at f / 32.  In accordance with the data sheet from Wephota, instead of A71 or D-19developer, I used Ultrafin Liquidagain. I developed for 8 minutes, tilting the tub of developer around for 15 seconds of each minute.
Then, I used the stopping bath for only 10 seconds and the fixing bath for 4 minutes.

Lights on!

Yes, the picture was good, better than the disastrous first try.I rinsed the plate again in my washing tub, paying close attention to the water temperature....I kept it at 20°C to prevent any dissolving due to hot water temperatures.  I waited for the ugly bubbles to re-appear on the plate... but nothing happened. It seemed then that my second plate would actually survive the first 30 seconds! :-)


My first successful photo on a dry plate!Here's a print on 
Tetenal Work  Baryt Gradiation 3 (normal), toned with sepia-toner
(for that antique looking brown tint)

Pictures for The Eternity...

I know..."for the eternity" is a bit of an exaggeration, :-) but my second plate survived without anynoticeable dissolving for the full 30 minutes during the rinse with water. After the rinse, I added a wetting agent to the water (Agfa Agepon ) and then let the plate dry. This took 4 hours. A little bit dust was found on the emulsion - perhaps dust from the air.  This is a problem that I hope to correct with some improved drying techniques.
The picture had a good exposure, but the image-circle was still too small - only 60-65% of the plate was used. To improve things, I decided to shorten the shutter housing in order to bring the lens and the shutter closer together.
But, even with it's small image circle, my second classic picture was a resounding success.

Just like Mathew Brady!

A few days later, I made a contact print of the plate and toned the print with sepia toner for that antique brownish color.


Appendix - from December 3, 2000:

I have shortened the shutter housing approximately 1,2cm and the image-circle is now bigger. First tests show that at infinity-focus and F/32, only 2cm of the plate-edges are out of the range of the image-circle. New, sharp shots with a plate are unfavorable at this time because Autumn and Winter are rainy, windy and dull seasons.

 

Appendix - from December 27, 2000: Sloppy work on the lens!

The camera is ready now... but is it really 100% ready? The suspicion that all is not OK with the camera is rumbling in my mind.... The image-circle was still too small in spite of my shortened shutter-box. The soft edges...can this really be normal when using older cameras? The lens is not very old...are the Russians really such sloppy lens manufacturers? My other old cameras, a Voigtländer Avus and a Voigtländer Bergheil will project completely sharp images on the ground glass with no black edges outside of the image-circle. These take excellent photos on 9x12cm film. I also have an old 185mmDaguerrotypelens with Waterhouse-stops ( in excellent condition, too ). It must have been built around1860and I installed it temporarily on the lensboard;
it, too, creates a sharp image on the complete ground glass with no soft edges.
The front element of the Russian lens was flat as a plank. I have never seen this on any photographic lens before...was this really normal?
No! Of course not! A sloppy repairman must have reassembled the lens the wrong way -the front element was backwards!A true wonder that the first exposure was usable... I removed the element and placed it back into it's bezel with the convex side out. After a test, the image on the ground glass was clear and sharp within into the edges.

I seems that I could be awarded  the " Sloppy Silver Medal of Honor" too, because I needed six long months to discover the error
;-)

 

What´s next...

...and what will follow next time? The Great Glass Plate Adventure is not over...it's  just begun!
Other experiments ( such as tests with the shortened shutter housing ) will follow. The prints are another chapter too. There are so many old, sometimes nearly forgotten techniques for making a print:Ambrotype, Argentotype, Kallitype, Albumen-Printing and many, many others.
At this time my favorite is the Argyrotype,an improved version of the old Argentotype or Kallitype Process, invented by Mike Ware(GB). An Argyrotype kit is available at http://www.phototec.de
The new Argyrotype is easier to handle than it's predecessor, the Kallitype, but still complicated enough to cause misadventures in the darkroom.

Another project that I'm contemplating is to make my own photo plates. There are some liquid photographic emulsions on the market, such as the "Work photographic Emulsion" from Tetenalor "Black Magic" from MACOin Hamburg. These emulsions are designed to coat ceramics, textiles, etc. You then expose an image onto the coated item under an enlarger.
Why not coat a glass plate, then use it as a negative in my camera as an orthochromatic media? The plates can be cut by my local glazier and the extended exposure times more closely resemble genuine 19th Century plates - potentially  more authentic than the relatively modern 100 ASA plates.

Carsten Corleis für Classic Cameras
(Translation by
Arno; Thanks!!!)

June to December 2000
 
 

Helpful links
 

Online-Auction:

www.ebay.de

Photo plates (Manufacturer):

www.wephota.de

Cassettes:

www.photographica-world.de

Argyrotypie-Set:

www.phototec.de

 

Product names mentioned in the article are protected by the individual companies. They are not recommendations, but just a list of the products I used. Equally or even better results can probably be achieved by using products from other companies as well.


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