It all started with me admiring a photo on Flickr. It ended with me taking my first shots on an old view camera.
A chance comment on Andreina’s photostream got her thinking that she had one too many cameras – and that extra one was the one I admired. It is gorgeous, made of old dark wood with burnished brass fittings and a tilt and swivel bellows. There is a ground glass focussing screen and a film holder complete with wooden dark slide. I told her it was beautiful and I never imagined she’d offer it to me, but that’s exactly what she did.
After a series of emails we agreed that even if I couldn’t get it to work and kept it as a fancy paperweight it would be better than where it was gathering dust in her attic and she kindly – oh so kindly – offered to send it to me.
When the parcel arrived the postman checked the customs label and questioned me. “Is it a camera made of wood or made for photographing wood?” Wood camera, the label said, so he had a point.
“You could use it to photograph wood,” I told him, “but I doubt I will.” But I was wrong.
There are almost no markings on the camera to lend a clue to when or where it was made. I suspect it took old glass plates of a quarter plate size (if you’re feeling geeky you’ll need to know this!) but I didn’t bother the postman with that level of detail.
In any case, there is no film made today that would fit, and if it did it would be so hard to load and use I doubt I’d have given it a try. But paper is much slower to react to light which makes it easier to load and expose, so one Sunday when I had some time to spare I gave it a try.
I set the camera up in a window, where there was plenty of light and an ancient oak tree (see how wrong I was about the wood). I cut up some photographic paper and, feeling like an old-school photographer from the 19th century, I draped a black jacket over my head to compose and focus the shot and remove the dark slide. I wish I’d had a top hat to cover the lens and remove it with a flourish to make the exposure but I’m not that old school. Instead I flipped the hood of my jacket away from the lens and back again to make the exposure.
It wasn’t a perfect result by any means – the camera won’t fit on a modern tripod and the dark slide is stiff and it was a performance to remove it (which I why I used the hood and not the darkslide to control the exposure). But it was immense fun to take the shot and run to the darkroom to develop it straight away.
There are no light leaks, there is a heavy vignetting and a magical quality to the paper negative. I love it. And though I don’t expect I’ll use it often, I will try again. Until then, it sits happily beneath an Ansel Adams print, which is one step up from a fancy paperweight.