Time Traveler From the Jazz Age


It’s been a while since my last blog, and even longer since I’ve featured any pictures in this blog, so I thought I’d leave the realm of computers and reminisce about analog photography once more.

You might remember one of my older blogs where I described the operating principles of single-lens-reflex (SLR) cameras. These are cameras that use mirrors to direct the incoming image to a viewing screen for composition and focusing. Just before the exposure is made, the mirror flips out of the way, allowing the image to reach the film or digital sensor. The SLR is still considered to be the most ideal system for photographers wanting the most accurate framing and focusing, although the “mirrorless” digital cameras are getting better all the time.

When most people think of an SLR, they usually picture a 35mm film camera such as a Nikon or one of the popular digital SLRs. What many don’t know is that the SLR concept has been used in film cameras for over 120 years, often in enormous instruments that dwarf anything used today. Recently I got the chance to play around with one such camera, a Graflex RB Series B 2¼×3¼. This model was introduced in 1923 and was made through 1951. Judging by the metalwork and factory-coated lens, my example dates from after World War II. The particular specimen I obtained was purchased on eBay from a person who knew little about it. It came in it’s own custom leather case and looked as though it had hardly seen use.


What is it? Steampunk luggage? Goth music box?

At first glance, a Graflex SLR folded up for transport looks like some sort of steampunk luggage festooned with odd levers and buttons. Opened up for use, it looks like a box with a “church steeple” focusing hood on top and a lens emerging from a trap door at the front. Viewing is done by looking down into the tall leather hood at a ground glass screen. The image is right-side-up, but laterally reversed, which takes some getting used to. Focusing is adjusted via a knurled knob at the side of the camera which moves the lens fore and aft on its track. A bellows connects the lensboard to the rest of the camera, keeping everything light-tight.


Graflex Revolving-Back (RB) Series B camera.

As with other SLRs, there is a large mirror between the lens and the film that “intercepts” the light and sends it to the viewing screen on top for focusing and composition. When the exposure is made by pressing a lever on the side of the camera, the mirror quickly flips out of the way and trips the shutter, exposing the film. This gives the photographer the revolutionary ability to simultaneously track, compose, and focus on his or her subject matter up to the instant of exposure! Think I’ve gone nuts? Well, you have to keep in mind that when this sort of camera appeared at the turn of the 20th century, there were no other cameras that could effectively do that. If you used a traditional “view camera,” one that sat on a tripod, you generally composed and focused on the ground glass at the back of the camera, then closed the lens and inserted a film holder to make the exposure. During this time, your subject matter could move, spoiling your composition and focus. Cameras such as the famous Speed Graphic press camera of the time could be aimed at the subject matter, but models up to 1938 didn’t have coupled rangefinders, so the user had to focus by estimating the distance to the subject and setting the focusing track using scale markings (such cameras were called “guess boxes” by their operators).

The early Graflex cameras also introduced a shutter design that brought new capabilities to photographers of the day. Consisting of a long ribbon of black, light-tight fabric with slit openings of various widths, the Graflex shutter curtain was wound on rollers above and below the film plane of the camera. When triggered, one of the slits would traverse the film plane from top to bottom, exposing the film. By selecting combinations of slit widths and spring tensions, speeds ranging from 1/10 to 1/1000 of a second could be obtained. This made such cameras the first to be able to capture the action of fast-moving subjects. Locomotives, race horses, and early automobiles were captured in motion by early SLRs, along with sporting events such as football and baseball.


Curtain-aperture shutter of the Graflex. Shown partially-wound, you can see the narrow slit that exposes the film.

The way this shutter works at high speed imposes a striking visual effect on moving subjects. At the highest shutter speeds, only a very thin curtain slit moves past the film from top to bottom. Since cameras form their images upside-down at the focal plane, this means that the bottom of the image is exposed before the top (the slit exposes different places of the picture at different times). A well-known example by the French photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue is below.


Motion distortion caused by the high-speed Graflex slit-shutter. Speeding car tires lean one way, stationary spectators lean the other. Photo by Jacques Henri Lartigue.

Here, the photographer was swinging his camera (panning) left to right to attempt to follow the speeding race car, but not quite keeping up. As the shutter slit began to expose the film, the bottom of car’s tire was exposed first. By the time the slit got to the top of the tire, the speeding subject had moved a bit to the right, creating the impression of oval tires leaning forward. Illustrations and cartoons of speeding cars often incorporate this visual flourish, an example of our visual literacy being influenced by the effects of imaging technology. In counterpoint, the stationary figures in the background appear to lean in the opposite direction.

Sports and action weren’t the only things early SLRs were used for. The ability to focus and compose one’s picture up to the moment of exposure made them the choice of early photojournalists. Lewis Hine, who documented child-labor practices in the early 20th century, used a mammoth Graflex that shot 5×7-inch plates.

Portrait photographers and those doing artistic “pictorial” photography also used SLRs like the Graflex. Many of Alfred Stieglitz’ most famous photographs were made with a Graflex, and Edward Weston and his son Brett used them extensively.

By the time my particular example was manufactured, the Graflex design was sixty years old and cameras like the newly-introduced Hasselblad SLR were making them seem somewhat old-fashioned and behind the times. Despite this, models continued to be made until 1963.

For fun, I decided to try some photographs with the old camera. Fortunately, my Graflex came with a rollfilm magazine, allowing me to load it with readily-available “120” film (2¼×3¼ cut film is no longer available, and I don’t have the proper film holders anyway). Here’s a selection of shots.

canoe OP

Overturned canoe in woods


Lazy cat snoozing in windowsill

pond scum OP

Broken reeds and pond scum

Compared to using any modern digital camera, taking pictures with the Graflex is a slower, more contemplative process. You have to keep lots of procedural details straight—Did I reset the mirror? Is the shutter wound to the right slit? Did I remember to wind the film, stop the lens down, and make sure the darkslide is removed? In working with the old camera, I gained lots of respect for the folks who used them years ago and were able to make great pictures.

The actual results are quite good, even by modern standards. The 127mm Kodak Ektar lens is excellent, and the large negatives produce images that can be enlarged to a high degree. It’s a fun camera to shoot, too, producing a klunk-fflak sort of noise as the mirror flips up and the curtain traverses the film. If there are people around, you’re likely to attract attention. And if any of these spectators has a fancy modern digital SLR around their neck, you can point out that, in a lot of ways, they’re really just the same.


One Response to “Time Traveler From the Jazz Age”

  1. 1 Dean severson

    Fun blog post. Never even thought of an early version of an SLR. Nice pictures too. I’ll bet its fun to play with that camera.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: