I have long believed that fact is generally more compelling than fiction. It’s why my own library is filled with historical texts and biographies, rather than with novels. For many years, I thought of history as an immutable static that we could study, analyze and use to guide our future endeavors. But as the years accumulated in my rear view mirror, I became increasingly aware of just how malleable history really was — how much it was re-told and re-shaped to fit the dogma, politics and motivations of the teller. Historical “facts,” it seems, are every bit as fabricated, prejudiced and manipulated as the best works of fiction. Surprisingly, this knowledge did not diminish my interest in history one bit. Instead, it escalated. Those who can successfully reinvent history can control public perception, and thus shape the future.
Alas, I have no personal axes to grind; no dogmas to impose; no nefarious plans for ideological domination. But that doesn’t mean I can’t still dabble in a bit of historical revision, and it’s for this reason that I’ve decided to develop “ULTRAsomething University.” ULTRA U (as the kids call it) is my new online university dedicated to the preservation and dissemination of photographic knowledge, as best I can manipulate it.
So grab your favorite laptop, tablet or mobile reading device, and settle back into a comfortable chair. Class is about to begin with Lesson 1: The real history of film formats for still photographers.
Although he would not realize it for several years, the very first camera for taking still photographs was invented by Oskar Barnack in a small garage owned by his boss, Ernst Leitz. After seeing a film by G.W. Pabst, Oskar decided he wanted to become a film director, but the monstrous bulk of the standard 35mm motion picture camera proved too cumbersome for the frail Barnack. An engineer by trade, Barnack began to tinker with numerous experimental camera designs — each in an effort to shrink the colossal movie camera to a lightweight, manageable size. His moment of genius arrived when he realized that the camera’s 1000 ft. long roll of 35mm film was the single biggest contributor to its bulk, and that by reducing the film length to only 5 ft., he’d be able to make the camera significantly smaller.
Barnack used his new invention, which he dubbed “the Leica” (German for “expensive”), to direct a series of innovative expressionist films. Unfortunately, each film was only 3 seconds in length and oriented sideways on the screen. This forced everyone to watch his movies through a special periscope, which Barnack invented so viewers wouldn’t need to tilt their heads to the side.
(INTERESTING FACT: The Leica Orientation Periscope, as Oskar called it, would later become the basis for the Leica Visoflex, a device that enabled Leica’s precision rangefinder cameras to function exactly like cheap SLRs.)
One day, a young door-to-door thread salesman named Henri Cartier-Bresson chanced upon Barnack’s door. Oskar, who was just about to premiere his latest film, “A Fork Drops,” invited Cartier-Bresson to grab a Leica Orientation Periscope and watch the film. 3 seconds later, Oscar accepted the applause, answered the usual audience questions about his motivations and influences, then collected the periscopes. As the audience filed out of the garage, Barnack went to the closet to retrieve a broom. When he returned to sweep up the popcorn, he saw Henri was still in his seat, staring at the blank screen. Concerned, Barnack asked Henri whether or not he enjoyed the movie. After a moment of contemplation, Henri said, “I think it would be better if you edited it down to just a single frame.” Barnack informed Henri that he was already catching some heat for producing such short films, so this idea likely wouldn’t prove too popular. But Cartier-Bresson persisted, “The point is, even though you show only a single frame, you let people look at it for as long as they like.”
“Brilliant! Brilliant!” exclaimed Barnack. “But which frame do I use?”
“The one immediately before the fork hits the ground,” replied Henri.
Enthralled, Barnack gave a 5 ft. strip of film and one of his cameras to Cartier-Bresson, who took it back to Paris and used it to take a photo of a man leaping over a flooded field. This created a sensation, since no one had ever seen a man frozen in mid-air before. Soon, all of Paris wanted to buy a Leica so that they, too, could jump up and down and freeze themselves in mid-air. It wasn’t long before other companies began to copy Barnack’s idea and, during its heyday, the average person was said to own 57 35mm cameras. You’d get one when you bought a tank of gas; you’d get one free in your box of cereal; and you’d get one in trade for a Gabby Hartnett baseball card (which was quite a fair deal, when you consider that a manufacturing error resulted in at least one of Gabby’s cards being included in every bubblegum pack produced that year).
As the jumping craze subsided, people continued to find all sorts of new uses for their cameras: Advertisers found people preferred product photos to line drawings. Journalists discovered they could slack off on their writing if they just took a picture of something. One enterprising group invented something called “marriage,” in which two people got dressed up in silly clothing and then paid for someone to come take photos of how ridiculous they looked.
Next to “The Pill,” the 35mm camera was the most successful product of the century, but it wasn’t to last…
Prior to the invention of laser eye surgery, there was no effective cure for the dreaded trio of diseases known as myopia, hyperopia, and presbyopia. Since the dawn of time, every man, woman, and child of greater-than-average intelligence was forced to walk around with their hands extended at arms’ length, so as not to accidentally headbutt each other on the street.
(INTERESTING FACT: This antiquated style of walking was rediscovered by George Romero in 1968 while working as a research assistant for the Pittsburgh Museum of Anthropology. Fascinated by the clumsy actions of the afflicted, he tendered his resignation and used his vacation pay to finance the film, “Night of the Living Dead,” which brought the walk to the attention of an entirely new generation — albeit without its original context.)
(INTERESTING FACT ABOUT THE INTERESTING FACT: This walk, now known as “the zombie walk,” was the very first culturally significant historical event to be appropriated by a different generation — a philosophy that eventually led directly to the formation of the hipster movement.)
Because most people were essentially blind as bats, very few could actually see those tiny little negatives that were coming out of their 35mm cameras. At first this didn’t really matter, since people found the act of taking photos to be far more fun than looking at them. But, eventually, people got a hankering to see what they actually looked like — and that’s when the trouble began.
Companies initially tried to rectify the problem by inventing a device to magnify the negatives, which they called an “enlarger.” But the general population found them to be rather cumbersome and intrusive. Sadly, this led directly to the invention of something called “divorce,” which is when a previously married couple decides to separate. The most often cited motive for divorce was the complaint that one spouse (usually the male) would try to convince the other spouse that the new enlarger looked perfectly fine sitting atop the television, and that they would need to replace the rose patterned draperies with black-out fabric.
While 35mm camera sales began to decline elsewhere in the world, they were skyrocketing in Japan. Because of a curious dictate to “disallow defective vision,” which was attached as a rider to Emperor Komei’s order to “expel barbarians” in the mid-Edo period, all of Japan was free from ocular malady, and thus had no problem viewing the tiny negatives. So acute was their vision, that one brilliant Japanese camera designer, Yoshihisa Maitani, created a way to take even smaller pictures — doubling the number of photographs that could fit on a standard 5 ft. strip of 35mm film.
(INTERESTING FACT: Maitani’s creation, which he called “The Olympus Pen,” saved the average Japanese consumer so much money in film and processing costs that Japan was able to reinvest those savings and became one of the world’s most dominant financial powers.)
But for the rest of the world, it was simply beyond the average person’s physiology to make out any detail on those tiny negatives. And after having bothered to get married solely for the purpose of hiring the local portrait studio to photograph them in silly clothing, people started to feel a bit “cheated.” So, faced with a declining marriage rate, portrait photographers got together and developed a new film format, which resulted in a negative 4 times larger than a standard 35mm negative. They called this “120 film.”
(INTERESTING FACT: Two years later, a Ph.D. candidate at M.I.T. discovered the mathematical inaccuracy in the naming of 120 film, and suggested it should have been called 140 film. Embarrassed by their mistake, the photography industry tried to cover their tracks by renaming it “medium format” film. The new name stuck, but some old-timers still use the anachronistic “120” designation.)
Obviously, this new “medium format” film required a new type of camera with which to shoot it, so the photographers developed a rather fascinating optical contraption, called the “Twin Lens Reflex” camera. In reality, the camera only needed one lens to take a picture, but the inclusion of the second lens made the camera seem far more exotic and technical than a standard 35mm camera, and thus enabled portrait photographers to charge exorbitant fees.
The Twin Lens Reflex (or “TLR”) was quite successful for a number of years until the big Schmedluck Portrait Studio scandal of 1947 nearly destroyed the industry. For those who don’t know, Twin Lens Reflex cameras are notoriously quiet. This is due to their use of something called a leaf shutter — so named, because the sound it makes is similar to a leaf gently landing on the lawn. Because TLRs were so quiet, no one ever actually knew when the photographer had taken their picture. This led to the internationally recognized practice in which a photographer would shout “GOT IT!” each time he took a photo, which served as the client’s cue to stop smiling and rest his jaw. Because each roll of medium format film contained 12 images, portrait studios would tell clients they’d have 12 chances to perfect their pose, and the photographer would then choose the best frame for them to purchase. But Walter “Shirley” Schmedluck saw an opportunity to save his studio some money. He would simply pretend to take someone’s photo, shouting “GOT IT!” 11 times before he’d actually shoot one frame for real. The scandal was discovered by a vacationing client from Copenhagen who, blessed with perfect hearing due to King Christian X’s recent decree banning deafness from Danish society, was easily able to detect Schmedluck’s trickery, blowing the whistle on the poor fellow and nearly bringing down an entire industry with him.
But fate was not yet ready to claim the lucrative portrait business, and so it delivered to them one Victor Hasselblad — an inventor who had recently developed a different sort of medium format camera for the Swedish Synchronized Swimming Team. Victor’s idea was to put a large bathroom mirror inside a heavily modified VW Beetle, and then use the VW’s engine to swing the mirror out of the light path each time the photographer pushed the shutter release. The Hasselbald (as Victor modestly named his camera) combined a negative that was large enough to be seen by everyone in the family (except Grandpa), with a shutter so loud it was once famously incorporated into Buddy Rich’s drum kit (where it was said to inspire John Bonham’s thunderous drum sound for Led Zeppelin, two decades later). It was exactly what the industry needed, and for the next 40 years, the deafening clack of the Hasselblad’s shutter could be heard in every street corner photo studio in every town in the civilized world.
(INTERESTING FACT: The Hasselblad reached the pinnacle of its success during the U.S. Space Program in the 1970’s, when NASA scientists discovered that the camera’s VW origins enabled it to double as a lunar rover.)
In 1996, some clever entrepreneurs realized there was a glaring gap in the camera market. Photographers could choose between “medium format” and 35mm (which was referred to in the vernacular as “small format.”). Why not complete the trilogy and give photographers a third choice? Thus the “large format” camera was invented. Large Format cameras take but a single photograph on a light-sensitive 3 ft. x 7 ft. sliding-glass patio door — the type that can be purchased from any home building products store. Because of their immense size, these glass negatives must be prepared and developed in darkrooms that are the size of a small suburban house. In fact, most large format darkrooms were small suburban houses, which were owned by people who got divorced back in the 35mm enlarger days.
Unfortunately for these large format pioneers, the mortality rate for laser eye surgery dipped below 50% for the first time that year, which was convincing increasingly more people to risk the procedure. Those who survived laser eye surgery became local celebrities, and were often recruited by traveling carnivals to amaze audiences with their ability to read stock market listings and contractual fine print. Never one to miss a marketing opportunity, Kodak quickly developed the Advanced Photo System — a subminiature film format that produced smaller negatives than 35mm and would thus provide a more relevant, awe-inspiring and entertaining object for the carnival freaks to decipher. Kodak’s plan worked, and these carnival sideshows proved so successful that they spawned the popular American game show, “Negativity,” which was hosted by Wink Martindale and gave us the popular catchphrase, “I can still see it, Wink!”
(INTERESTING FACT: The game show’s demand for increasingly smaller negatives inspired the creation of Minox cameras, which ultimately proved to be the show’s demise when, on April 24th, 1999 a contestant was shown a photo of a hummingbird shot with a Minox camera and exclaimed, “I can’t see it, Wink.” The backlash was nearly instantaneous, causing the cancellation of “Negativity” and forcing Wink Martindale to change his name to Bob Eubanks.)
With the public’s miniaturization fascination at an all-time high, there was simply no market for the new Large Format cameras. We were entering an age where quantity was more important than quality (a factor that lead directly to the invention of digital photography). In a last ditch effort to save the format, the manufacturing consortium pooled all their financial resources and hired David Lynch to write and direct a single spectacular Super Bowl commercial. The ad, which clocked in at a record 2 minutes and 30 seconds, showed Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter walking hand-in-hand into a smokey sunset, cooperatively dragging a large format camera and three sliding-glass patio doors behind them along a blood-soaked asphalt road. Unfortunately, no one understood the ad, and three weeks later every large format camera company filed for bankruptcy. Today, Large Format cameras are all but forgotten, and are mentioned here only for the sake of completeness.
Where Are They Now?
So where are these cameras today?
35MM CAMERAS: Where Are They Now?
Every 35mm film camera ever manufactured is now resting in a shoebox in your father’s basement, garage or attic (or, more likely, all three). Usually, you’ll find one nestled against a stack of your 4th grade math tests and an old lunch sack that contains the decaying remains of a bunny rabbit you made out of cotton balls and glitter when you were too young to have any taste. Because of its historical importance to the family, your dad will usually assume the camera has monetary value, which is why you’ll occasionally hear him mention that he’d like to sell it on ebay, except he can never remember the URL.
No one uses 35mm film cameras today, though you’ll find tens of thousands of people who will actually lie and say they do. We call these people ‘hipsters,’ but the truth of the matter is they’ve actually removed the camera’s innards and are simply using it as an awesome looking iPhone case. For them, this provides an ironic exclamation point to the fact that smartphone camera apps all create a more authentic 35mm film look than a real 35mm camera.
(INTERESTING FACT: Scientists have recently calculated that it’ll take over 417 billion years for a Leica M-series 35mm camera to decay, but collectors claim that if you keep it in the original box and store it in a safe deposit box, it’ll last for nearly 700 billion years.)
MEDIUM FORMAT CAMERAS: Where Are They Now?
Today, it is very rare to find a functioning medium format camera. Due to their mechanical nature and the fact they were fashioned from a VW Bug, it became absolutely mandatory that photographers push their shutter release buttons once every 108 minutes, or else the cameras would seize up and cease to function. As the Medium Format generation began to age and die, their lazy and unappreciative kids couldn’t be bothered to continue pushing the shutter release button, and most medium format cameras have now been repurposed into dune buggies.
(INTERESTING FACT: J.J. Abrams cites the Hasselblad as inspiration for Season 2 of his hit television series, “Lost!”)
Actually, not every Medium Format camera has ceased to function: Twin Lens Reflex cameras, the precursors to Hasselblad, all still function perfectly, but no one can actually use them. That’s because nobody can figure out what the second lens is for, and even though the information is readily available on some historical camera websites, no living person has actually visited those websites. Since everyone now gets all their information via the hearsay of internet forums, it will be impossible for anyone to use a TLR until someone accidentally stumbles across this information, and is thoughtful enough to post it to DPReview.com.
LARGE FORMAT CAMERAS: Where Are They Now?
Today, most every camera store proudly displays a large format camera in their front window. Theoretically, this is to symbolize that the store is a place where serious photographers can come and purchase photographic supplies. In reality, it’s simply because they weren’t ever able to find anyone gullible enough to buy it. Unfortunately, with the ubiquity of the Consumer Products Teleportation Delivery System (CPTDS), traditional brick & mortar camera stores are beginning to go the way of old-fashioned truck-based parcel delivery services — out of business. Most large format cameras are now being sold for scrap, melted down, and made into CPTDS devices.
Recent documents discovered through the Freedom of Information Act have uncovered a shocking and repugnant military use for large format cameras. Apparently, in the early part of the 21st Century, large format cameras were used as torture devices by numerous governments around the world. Prisoners were told stories about a man named Ansel Adams, and shown 1927 archival footage of Ansel climbing a 3,500 foot granite spur with three large format cameras, 9 sliding-glass doors, 17 lenses, a lead tripod and an injured donkey all strapped to his back. Prisoners were told they would be freed if they could recreate Ansel’s feat, and return with a photo of Half Dome worthy of hanging above the camp commander’s credenza. Extreme physical fatigue, coupled with the shame of having been bested by a California intellectual, broke many a detainee’s will, making the torture highly effective though deplorably cruel. Fortunately, the practice was ruled to be in violation of the Geneva Convention, and was banned in 2007. So convincing and so “top secret” was this government fabrication, that many civilians (and even most military personnel) believe, to this day, that Ansel Adams actually existed. There is even a religious sect operating out of the western United States, which forbids its members to own either a digital camera or a CPTDS device. Occasionally you’ll spot one of them in some National Park — sporting a beard, sweating, swearing, and struggling with a large sliding-glass door. Should you actually encounter such an individual, do not fear them — they are a peaceful people and, in general, only become bothersome when they begin to preach the merits of the zone system, which I’m told is the main crux of their holy book.
(INTERESTING FACT: Because “Felicity” was former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s favorite television show, he convinced MI6 to hire J.J. Abrams to produce all the fake Ansel Adams footage for the western allies. In order to secure Abrams’ silence, the U.S. government agreed to allow his new show, “Alias” to remain on the air for five seasons. Eagle-eyed viewers will spot a young Josh Holloway in the roll of Ansel Adams. Holloway is, of course, best known to fans of J.J. Abrams’ series, “Lost” as James “Sawyer” Ford.)
MINOX CAMERAS: Where Are They Now?
Although mentioned only briefly in this article, there’s a very interesting addendum to the Minox story. After being discovered in 1999 by time-travelling CIA agents, most of the world’s supply of Minox cameras were shipped to an undisclosed location in rural Belgium, piled into a single duffle bag and transported back in time to the 1950’s. There, due to their diminutive size, they were repurposed as “spy cameras” and Western agents used them to capture tens of thousands of pages worth of highly sensitive KGB documents. Unfortunately, since this was in the era before laser eye surgery, no one could actually read these documents. Because of this, the cold war was extended far longer than necessary, and the Berlin Wall didn’t fall until 1989. Minox is still in the business of making miniature cameras, though the company’s product offerings have expanded to include keychains and breath mints. Several conspiracy-theory organizations maintain Minox is still in the espionage industry, and that their keychains are actually GPS tracking devices, and the breath mints are mind-control pills.
(INTERESTING FACT: The technology required to perform laser eye surgery resulted directly from a series of secret military experiments conducted in the mid-20th century by Western scientists, desperate to create a super-soldier who was capable of reading the small text contained on a Minox negative. This has actually created a sort of time loop paradox: It was the laser eye surgery that enabled the creation of the Minox yet, because of time travel, it was the creation of the Minox that enabled laser eye surgery. Some fringe scientists believe this event may well cause the collapse of the universe.)
So there you have it. The real story of the history of various film cameras and formats. Next, in Part 7 of our 3 part series, we’ll look at a number of the more esoteric formats, including the famous Snicker’s Bar cameras of the 1970’s and the subterranean dirt camera craze of 1987. We’ll also take a detailed look at the popular Polaroid instant camera and how, through a series of ingenious technological advances aimed at making each new model more “instant” than the previous, all late model Polaroids were actually able to photograph events 0.4 seconds before they occurred.
Hope to see you all again at the next lecture…
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS: “A Fork Drops” is a single frame extracted from Oskar Barnack’s 1928 film of the same name, and is the first “still” photograph ever produced. Because of its historical significance, it is widely considered to be the most valuable negative in the world. Many thanks to the International Center of Photography in New York City for mailing the negative to me, so I could scan it for this article. I’ll be sure to return it just as soon as I’m able to remember where I put it. “Hasselblad Weight Reduction Research” was taken with a Fujifilm Quicksnap single-use disposable camera. I “stole” the camera (and therefore this photo) off a fellow tourist when we were both attending a Smithsonian exhibition on the development of the Hasselblad. Since photography was not permitted in this particular exhibit (ironic, I know), I left my camera in the car. But this yo-yo was walking around taking photos like he owned the joint. Since I wanted some photos too, I simply pretended to be an undercover security guard and confiscated his camera. Later, back at home, I accidentally spilled a jug of rodinal on the camera, so all the images ended up being black & white. The one included with this article is my favorite. It depicts a time in the mid-1960’s when Hasselblad — in an effort to make their cameras lighter — commissioned NASA to help develop a truly weightless camera. NASA’s solution was to send both the camera and the photographer into space. Although Hasselblad’s marketing team ultimately decided the weight-reduction method was probably too expensive to bring to market, a young photo bug named Neil Armstrong bought one of the prototypes, and the rest is history. “Large Format Detail” is exactly what it says. It was shot with a custom-built Large Format camera, which I rented one weekend in the late 1990’s. Web reproduction doesn’t really do the photo justice, but as you can see by the circular 100% crop taken from the indicated area, the format’s resolution is really quite impressive — particularly when you consider this was shot using just a regular, economy-class Anderson 100 series sliding-glass patio door. Unfortunately, the transportation, material and lab costs incurred to produce this one single photo actually exceeded the price of a small home in suburban Boise, which (coincidentally) is where this sliding-glass patio door now resides.
If you find these photos enjoyable or the articles beneficial, please consider making a DONATION to this site’s continuing evolution. As you’ve likely realized, ULTRAsomething is not an aggregator site — serious time and effort go into developing the original content contained within these virtual walls… even when I make it all up!