Maybe it’s because I’m getting on in years, but I like to surround myself with things that are much older than I am. It sort of makes me feel young when I look at a 1930 Ford Model A, or an early 30’s RB Graphic camera. It also reminds me that we don’t build things like that anymore, but that is a separate rant.
These things have been preserved better than I have been, mind you, and if they suffer from stiff joints or broken down seats, they do so with more dignity than I can usually muster. Of course I don’t have somebody polishing me and spiffing up my upholstery either or at least not as often as I would like (yet another rant coming…don’t get me started).
These machines just seem to exude dignity. They are both stately and sexy at the same time, as only things like old cars, old cameras and wooden boats seem to be. So what better way to spend some time than to follow these guys around for the day and take some pictures?
I thought the camera to take would be one that had some of the same qualities: It should be made in America, well crafted and still working as it did when it was new. It would have to be fun to look at and fun to use. It wouldn’t hurt of it stopped traffic a bit when I used it either. I couldn’t let the car guys get all the stares and questions.
I picked an RB Graphic Camera from the Folmer Schwing division of Eastman Kodak. This camera is part of a storied line of press cameras used by just about every famous photographer of the 20th century, or at least those who used large format and traveled with their gear. Here’s Dorothea Lange using one while traveling for the government in the thirties.and another, in the hands of photographer far more daring than I…
and then there is the pair who seem to be dueling on the rooftopOne man is using the RB Graphic, a single lens reflex camera that uses a mirror to show the image as it will appear on the film, and another holds a Speed Graphic; lighter, smaller when closed, more flexible when it came to changing lenses and stashing the camera in the trunk of a car.
The Speed Graphic is the camera that all but replaced the RB in common use by press men; the camera of Jimmy Olsen (of Superman fame) and the familiar prop for reporters in all the old movies, often accompanied by large flash attachments. I have a couple of them, in various sizes, and love them dearly. Here is a picture of Arthur Fellig himself, better known as Weegee, posing with one. The man often got to crime scenes before the police and, for my money, he is the soul of NY noir after the war.
But for this day, I wanted to stay with the thirties theme, and the Speed Graphic really belongs to the next decade, at least in our imagination. I chose the Model D RB Graphic; big, boxy and perfect for hand-held shooting. Add the 4 x 5 film, a simple wooden tripod and you’re ready for anything, as long as anything isn’t too quick…
As this reference drawing from a Navy training booklet shows, the Model D uses a mirror to allow viewing from the top. This simplifies the use of large apertures, allowing the photographer to focus and fire without having to stop, insert a film holder, hope the subject doesn’t move and then fire. It also establishes a waist-high point of view for the camera, creating a subtle but effective difference in the photo when compared with images that are taken from eye level. Somehow, the photographer seems less threatening when he or she is looking at you with both eyes open and holding a box than when the camera is hiding at least part of his face. It kind of removes the “Gotcha!” quality of the moment. The makers of box cameras in the late nineteenth century called them Detective Cameras for just this reason. It was far easier to sneak up on someone when you didn’t seem to be aiming at them.
Still the need to take more than one photo with sheet film requires some sort of changing, and the apparatus that allows for that most effectively on an RB Graphic is the Film Magazine, known to users as the “Bag-Mag.” This is a wood, leather and metal box attached to the back of the camera that holds a number of metal sheaths, each containing one sheet of film. When the first image has been captured, the photographer replaces the dark slide, pulls up on a sliding rod along the side of the magazine, effectively ejecting the exposed film in its sheath into a leather bag. He then grabs the sheath, tilts the bottom toward the back of the pile and reinserts the sheet. It is easier than it sounds, believe me, but the holder, and especially its leather bag, need to be in good repair. I have had the rod jamb, the sheath bend, the leather rip and the film fall out of its holder. Any of these things stops you dead in your tracks, making excuses for your failure to all of those people you attracted in the first place by using this big, stately, sexy camera. Not a good scene. Take a few trial runs before you do it in public.
Anyway, the group of Model A enthusiasts toured southern RI for a long morning’s ramble and my intrepid digital photographer (my wife Lena) and I went along to see what we could capture of the experience. All of the color images here are from her work, not mine. Mine are still in the darkroom… another one of those old things.