I have owned a few pieces of photography equipment that, at least in retrospect, seem to be incredibly overcomplicated, have bizarre human interfaces, or demand extreme patience from the photographer. I’ve used some processes that meet the same criteria. In this post, I’ll take a trip down memory lane. Do any of you have similar recollections?
The focal plane shutter on the Speed Graphic. You could mount almost any lens on the Speed Graphic, even those without shutters. In that case, or if you wanted a faster shutter speed than could be obtained with a between the lens shutter, you used the built-in focal plane shutter. There were two controls, the spring tension and the shutter slit width. There was a table on the side of the camera that told you what shutter speed you’d get with the various combinations of tension and width. As the springs aged, you applied some windage to the numbers in the table.
Screw-in flash bulbs. In the fifties, if you wanted a lot of light, the conventional solution was flash bulbs. The electronic flashes of the day were relatively wimpy. The standard flash bulbs used a bayonet mount, but if you wanted a ton of light, you used flash bulbs that had a base like a standard incandescent light bulb. If you were in a hurry to get the second shot, you had to change them while they were hot, and it was easy to burn your fingers. The bayonet-mounted bulbs could be twisted and tossed in a single short motion, but the big bulbs needed to be unscrewed, and that’s where your fingers were in danger.
The original Braun Hobby batteries. The first-generation Braun Hobby electronic flashes had many virtues. The heads were light, because the batteries and electronics were all in a shoulder-slung black plastic box. The reflectors were flexible and nearly indestructible; if bashed, they would spring back to their original form. They put out a fair amount of light. However, they used lead-acid wet cells, which were a real pain. There were little plastic balls of various densities that floated or sank depending on the state of charge of the battery. They were hard to see in dim light, which is when you were most likely to be using the flash. The electrolyte dried out over time. Replacements were expensive.
The Kodak E2 process. In the fifties and sixties, you could process Ektachrome at home. Kodak made a kit available to amateur photographers for the purpose. In order to create a positive image, you had to solarize the film during development. You immersed the film in the first developer, then the hardening bath. After it had been in the hardener a while, you took the reel out of the tank and waved it back and forth in front of a photoflood light bulb as it dripped hardener. You can guess what happened if you splashed any of the drippings on the bulb.
The Kodak Rapid Color Processor Model 11. This was a big step forward from the tray processing that home photographers had previously used for color print processing. In 1963, Kodak introduced a new print process that was about as fast as B&W processing. It achieved the speed by taking place at 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The chemicals were one-shot, so using a small amount of them was important. The RCP11 was a horizontally rotating stainless steel drum that you filled with 100 degree water. It was textured on its outer surface so it would pick up chemicals from a tray underneath, and wet a print placed face-down on the top of the drum. To change chemicals, you’d tilt the tray and dump the old chemical in the sink, and then you’d pour in the new one. Washing was done by spraying water over the top of the whole thing. To keep the print on top of the drum, there was a mesh apron that contacted the back of the print and clipped into an assembly on the front of the processor. You’d have to put new water of the right temperature into the processor before each print unless you sprang for an aftermarket thermostatically controlled electric heater. The processor was extremely effective at heating and humidifying a small darkroom, to the point where the dry side wasn’t, and your enlarging lens fogged. Using it provided a steamroom-like experience for the photographer. I am not making this up.
Double-click, and cut the grass. In 1991, digital photo editing was making its break from the proprietary Scitex/Hell/Crossfield/Dainippon world, through the professional open systems from Silicon Graphics and others, to widely available Wintel and Apple personal computers. The state of the art machines were the Apple Quadra 900, and various Intel 486 computers; they weren’t really up to the task of dealing with print-quality images. Many operations took minutes. The mantra of the day was, “Double-click and go get coffee.” One person on the Compuserve photo forum said that, with the images he was working with, it should really be the title of this paragraph.
The Kodak Dye Transfer process. Beautiful, stable results, but, by all reports, unbelievably fiddly, involved, and error-prone. By great good fortune, I have no personal experience with this process.
Fifties tight-deadline photojournalism. Handheld 4×5 rangefinder cameras. Flimsy film from Kodak film packs. Developing film in 90 degree soup. Printing negatives wet. Drying prints by squeegeeing then against 220 degree ferrotype plates. Ugh.
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