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Monday, August 22, 2016

Kodak No.2 Folding Autographic Brownie

There are several cameras in my collection that I like very much, but none have taught me more about the art and craft of photography than this modest little Kodak No.2 Folding Autographic Brownie. I acquired two of them some years ago. Up until that time, I had very little interest in the old Kodak folders that seemed rather awkward looking and unpromising in terms of capacities. The first one I got was a gift from a friend who had lost his home, most of his cameras and his life's work in photography in a fire. The Brownie survived the fire in a shed, but only barely; when I got it, the outer case was falling apart, and the insides were covered with rust.

Oddly enough, the Brownie's lens, shutter and bellows seemed fine. I cleaned up the thing as best I could and put a roll of 120 film through it. I had little expectation of getting interesting photos from it, but I thought my friend might like to see something come from one of the few surviving cameras. To my surprise, the images were quite sharp and had a great depth of tonality. A close examination of the outer rim of the lens showed it to be a Rapid Rectilinear. That was a lens popular early in the Twentieth Century with the f64 Group, and used by people like Adams and Weston. While the uncoated lens does impart a particular character to the tonal quality of images, I decided that the large 6x9 negatives were probably the main influence on the richness of the tonality that came from the camera. I had seen something approaching that from some of my previous box camera images, but the combination of tonal range and sharpness from the Brownie was a real eye opener.


One thing that took me a while to understand was that the aperture values on the shutter were not what they seemed. It is a rather odd progression: "U.S. 4 8 16 32 64". It turns out that is the Uniform System used on some of the early Kodaks. The present-day standard for aperture stops expresses them as a ratio of aperture to focal length; so we get something like 8, 11, 16, 22, 32 with each increment indicating half or twice the exposure. In the Uniform System, the "16" expresses the same exposure value as the "16" in the current f-stop system, but the numerals above and below are simply doubled or halved to indicate the corresponding exposure change, rather than the proportional or ratio expression of the current system. The relationship between the two systems is perhaps most easily understood by looking at a comparison table like the one available on the Kodak Classics site.

Another oddity of the exposure values on the shutter's face is the wording attached to the numeric values, terms like "Clear", "Brilliant", "Distant View", "Marine", "Clouds". This was Kodak's Autotime Scale, an exposure system intended to assist the amateur photographer in choosing the proper time and aperture settings based on lighting conditions and subject matter. The system depended on the fact that film speed choices were very limited in those days, and it seems now to be more quaint than practical. In any case, once you understand the relationship of the Uniform System exposure values to present-day usage, it is possible to ignore the wordy jumble and proceed as you might with any camera.

Since the top shutter speed on the Brownie is 1/50th of a second, a tripod is good insurance, though not absolutely necessary if you are careful not to jiggle the camera during the exposure. Even when hand-holding the camera, I have found it useful to use a cable release in order to avoid the need to manipulate the release lever out on the end of the long bellows. Given the large negative format, there is no real penalty in terms of grain in using 400-speed film which permits small f-stops and good depth of field, along with superior tonal rendition.

My friend's Brownie wasn't really a very practical shooter because of the damage it had sustained, but I decided I needed to do something to to further explore its capabilities. I therefore purchased a nearly identical camera on line for about five bucks that had a simple meniscus lens. It was no great feat to transplant the Rapid Rectilinear and its ballbearing shutter to the newly acquired camera body. It took me a few rolls to sort out the best ways of using the Brownie, but in the end I got photos from it which I think are among the very best I have made over the years.

I have since acquired a fair number of Kodak and other folders with more advanced capabilities and more complex lenses than that on the Brownie, but I don't honestly think they have made better pictures for me.

Some sample images from the Kodak No.2 Folding Autographic Brownie:






1 comment:

JR Smith said...

Impressive shots from this old camera!