Christmas in February

Finding unexpected treasure is always an exciting experience. Mine came in the form of a very nice old lens and shutter that was sitting under my nose all along.


"Empire State" Variant #2, ca 1896-1902
"Empire State" Variant #2, ca 1896-1902

Several years ago my wife’s father Dan gave me an old 8×10 inch wooden flatbed camera that had been sitting in his living room for decades as a decorative object. His father Thomas had been a photographer—among other things—in the rural Kentucky town where Dan grew up, but I’m not sure who actually owned it before Dan. Along with it came a couple of wooden plateholders and a groundglass back, all made of the same beautiful wood as the camera. I recall looking it all over, but giving little serious thought to actually using it myself. The camera promptly went into a closet and was forgotten, until my wife rescued it a few months ago, again for use as a decorative object. Something about feng shui.

Probably out of sheer boredom as winter drags on like a dose of the clap, I decided to post some photos and a description online at APUG, one of my favorite stopping places on the web, dedicated to old-school film photography. True to form, the members there were quick to post information about the camera, and more importantly, about its shutter and lens—for its optical components are the true treasure. More on that in a moment.

The camera is the “Empire State” model, made by Rochester Optical Company, of Rochester, New York. It was made in a number of sizes, including 8×10 like this one; and in several variants, all made between about 1893 and 1909, possibly later. I’m pretty sure mine is the Empire State, Variation #2, produced until about 1902. Someone along the way built a plywood “reducing” back for this camera, which slips onto the back like its original groundglass would. This removeable modification mounts a 4×5″ Graflok groundglass back, permitting the camera to use 4×5 sheet film in modern holders; from the construction of its original wooden holders, I suspect the camera was meant to use glass plates rather than film. Evidently, then, someone along the way actually used this camera in the modern era, or intended to try.

I think glass plates are still used for astronomical photography, but I’m not sure where I’d get any even if I wanted to go there; and I already have a fine 4×5″ film camera. Therefore, for all practical purposes, the camera itself is a nonfunctional antique, nice to look at but completely obsolete for making images, unless I was willing to extensively modify it. I don’t have the requisite woodworking skills, and having it done would be pricey.

The lens and shutter are a different story altogether. The shutter is a German-made “Compound” mechanical shutter with a pneumatic piston that I gather helps regulate the shutter speeds. Its top speed is 1/75th second; with this lens, its maximum aperture is f/4.5, but it stops down all the way to f/64, a range typical of shutters of that era. I am not sure when the shutter was made, but it may not be the original shutter used with this camera. Luckily, and surprisingly, SK Grimes can service these shutters, so in all likelihood a CLA (“clean, lube, adjust”) will have it back in working order.

The real piece de resistance, however, is the lens. It’s a Goerz Dogmar 10-3/4 inch (270mm) anastigmat. I really knew nothing about this lens until a fellow APUG-er pointed out to me that it is a highly-sought-after gem, Goerz’s top of the line at the time of its manufacture. Patented (according to the engraving on the lens front) in 1914, it’s listed in Goerz’s catalog at least as recently as 1940, so the exact age of this one is unknown. (Someone out there could likely supply this information from its serial number, which is 396881). It is especially prized as a portrait lens; while the Goerz catalog lists it as a “normal” lens for a 6-1/2 x 8-1/2 (“whole plate”) camera, its 270mm focal length is moderately “long” for the 4×5″ format, and would be nearly ideal for portraiture in that size. It is also listed as a “convertible” lens, which means that it has components that unscrew in various combinations to produce several different focal lengths from the same lens.

Looking it over, I noted a few blemishes and spots—oil? fungus?—on the glass that partially disappeared with a light surface cleaning. I was also able to unscrew the front lens assembly from the shutter, but could not budge the rear assembly, nor the retaining ring holding the shutter to the lensboard. Furthermore, I was unable to tell whether this particular lens is indeed a convertible model.  I’ve never seen a convertible lens “in the flesh”, so I’m not really sure what to look for. I was unable to unscrew anything in places where it looked as if that might be intended, so it’s either stuck, or a non-convertible version.

I packed the whole thing up and sent it off to SK Grimes this afternoon. Their mission is to get everything cleaned and repaired and into working order, and to figure out if the lens + shutter can be successfully mounted to a lensboard that will fit my modern view camera; or if not, whether the lens alone can be remounted into a modern shutter that will fit my camera’s lensboards. I should know in a week or so, so stay tuned.

It’s amazing to recall that the US once had a thriving camera and optical industry, centered around Rochester NY. Makes sense, since that’s also the home of Eastman Kodak. All gone now, and Kodak a shrunken remnant of its former glory.


3 thoughts on “Christmas in February

  1. Michael
    Read your comment on Bill’s blog today, so I thought I’d mosey over and check you out. I looked at Book One. I’m very partial to B&W – I looove images 18 and 21. Are they your two kids?


  2. Jen, thank you for taking the time to visit the site. Yes, they are indeed my spawn. They are so used to having a camera in their faces that they usually just go about their business. They’re 12 and 10 now, though, so they are getting rather tired of it.

    In case you are curious—the first was taken with a Contax 645, 140mm lens, and Ilford Pan F (I think.) The second (boy), also the contax/140 but with Delta 3200 at 1600.

    Glad to hear from you. Now I’m gonna go look at your site, if you have one linked!



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