Monday, April 7, 2014

WHY 35mm?

Why not 36mm or 40 or 50 or even 57 like Heinz?

Photo by Sara

Well, believe it or not, for an answer we have to go back to Thomas A. Edison (1847-1931), American inventor and a national icon of the 20th century. Edison, as many scientists and other learned individuals since the 18th century, knew about the physiological phenomenon known by the theory of persistence of vision, i.e., the ability of human vision to retain for an instant the image of a moving object or scene looked upon. After inventing the repeating telegraph, the incandescent light, and the talking machine, as his early ‘cylinder record player’ was called, Edison is reported to have declared, “I will do for the eye, what I have done for the ear!..." Having at his disposal the resources of the Edison Laboratory, he assigned the task of creating a moving picture machine to a laboratory mechanic and amateur photographer, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson (1860-1936), recently arrived from England. Edison of course knew about the 1878 sequential image photography of the trotting horse photographed in California by Eadweard Muybridge, the Englishman (1830-1904). He was also aware of the sequential imaging of bird flight by the Frenchman, Etienne Jules Marey (1830-1904). Perhaps these pre-existing procedures among other such cinematographic developments in England, Germany and America are probably what led the US Supreme Court to issue a statement in 1902 that the Edison claim of inventing motion pictures was not valid.

Dickson worked diligently but was initially unsuccessful with his design concepts. One of which was the application of tiny photographic images or ‘microdots’ to use a latter day designation, upon the curved surface of the Edison phonograph wax cylinders. Not only did this prove difficult to accomplish coincident to the cylinder grooves, but also its proposed use required a microscopic viewing device to be employed while the phonograph played, let alone the fact that the Edison talking machines then in use at public venues used earphones for each customer.

At about this time an individual in another burgeoning industry was thinking of ways to improve his product. George Eastman (1854-1932), after placing on the market in 1885 his “American Film” in a roll holder adaptable to the then common glass plate cameras, thus eliminating the need of glass photographic plates, had in 1888 brought forth the KODAK. This unique 6 ½”X 3 ¼”X 3 ¾” box-shaped camera reduced the photographic process as far as the amateur was concerned, to Eastman’s slogan, “You Press the Button. We do the Rest!” Each camera when purchased, came loaded with a roll of film, 2 ¾” (70mm) wide and about 23 feet long, enough for 100 pictures. The owner, after taking all the pictures, returned the KODAK in its leather case back to the factory. The film was developed, producing 2 ½” circular pictures; each mounted on card stock and together with the KODAK, now reloaded with film, were sent back to the customer. Initially the silver gelatin photographic emulsion had a paper base and the images were stripped off the paper during development, preparatory to mounting. But soon Eastman came upon a superior cellulose base and from 1889 with the introduction of the KODAK No.1 camera, the Eastman film, which was similar to today’s roll films for black & white photography, became a big seller.

Photo by Lala Qurra H

The KODAK revolutionized the field of photography both technically and financially by providing the public a camera easy to operate and an ensuing large consumer base whose dollars, companies would attempt to win. The word Kodak soon entered the English vernacular of the day as a verb, “going kodaking”, “I’ve been kodaked”, “Don’t kodak me!” and even an Eastman publication named “Kodakery“, referred to “the Kodaker”. Some contemporary publications can be found using the word Kodak to refer to any small, portable camera.

At the Edison Laboratory, it was soon realized that a flexible strip of images, not unlike that which Marey was using in his rifle-like camera for shooting bird flight, could be made to move past a light source and projected on to a viewing surface. Dickson also understood that the new Eastman film with its cellulose base would better sustain the rapid movements necessary for the persistence of vision in a viewing machine. He acquired some of the bulk film being produced by the Eastman Company, slit the standard 70mm wide film strip in half lengthwise and punching regularly spaced perforations along the edge for traction and image registration, devised 35mm wide strips of film of about 50 feet long, carrying images 18mm X 24mm in size on the film strip. The rest as they say, is history.

The Edison Laboratory developed a moving picture viewing machine, a four foot high, and about two by three foot square wood cabinet, named the Kinetoscope and an immobile, electrically powered motion picture camera, the Kinetograph. The moving images inside the “peep show” contrivance were viewed by one person at a time, from a viewing ocular on the cabinet top after electric direct current was turned on by the Kinetoscope attendant, and later as an improvement, by the customer inserting a coin in a slot. At once,“Kinetoscope Parlors” proved very popular as a public entertainment venue, although they soon lost favor to the idea of picture projection on to a wall or screen, to which Edison did not choose to invest his inventive talents. Edison also neglected to patent the Kinetoscope outside the United States, which permitted others overseas like the Lumiere Brothers in France to quickly copy the machine and together with other American inventors and entrepreneurs hasten the development of motion picture technology. Various motion picture film formats were in use during the early cinema days, but by 1909 the Edison 35mm film format with 18mm X 24mm images was adopted as an industry standard.

This rapidly developing industry soon found that after filming a movie using thousands of feet of film stock, they had unusable short lengths of film, “short runs” as they were called. Concurrent with these situations was the new interest by camera manufacturers to design cameras to use this new “miniature” film format. Beginning about 1904 some two dozen different American and foreign cameras for 35mm cine film were put on the market or patented, but the German Leitz Leica camera marketed in 1926 proved to be the most commercially successful. Because of the graininess of the emulsion of available cine film stock and a preference for a horizontal orientation of picture view, the Leica designer Oskar Barnack (1879-1936), increased the Leica film format from 18mm X 24mm to 24mm X 36mm, with the film traversing horizontally in the camera, although the Leica was not the first camera to utilize this concept.

By the 1930s this ‘small camera’ idea using 35mm film had caught the imagination of photographers, both amateur and professional worldwide. Pre-eminent were the finely made Leica and Zeiss Ikon Contax cameras from Germany with their extensive array of interchangeable lenses and numerous accessories. However, their high cost (several hundred Dollars in America) prevented the average photo enthusiast from participating in the new “candid camera” idea. In the early 1930s the Eastman Kodak Company had acquired the German camera manufacturing firm, Dr. August Nagel Kamera-Werk Stuttgart, from which in 1934 they placed on the market a superb small folding 35mm camera, the Kodak Retina. Although without interchangeable lenses or a large array of accessories, it was a precisely crafted camera with an excellent f:3.5 50mm lens, a multi-speed shutter and a price in America of $57.50.

Concurrently with the introduction of the Retina Camera, Eastman Kodak Company introduced the Daylight Loading Cartridge, a pre-loaded 35mm film magazine. This quantum step towards a universal film containment and supply cassette for 35mm cameras, fostered by the increasing interest of 35mm photography, caused many low cost 35mm cameras to come forth in increased numbers in the 1930s. In America the International Radio Corporation of Ann Arbor, Michigan, manufacturers of table radios with plastic cases introduced the Argus Model A Candid Camera in 1936. It had a simple optical viewfinder, an f:4.5 50mm lens with a multi-speed shutter housed in a black plastic body with stamped metal back at $12.50, soon reduced to $10. A Candid Camera for Everyman! After two years, and now called International Research Corporation, they introduced the Argus Model C series of which the Argus Model C3, (1939-66) sometimes referred to in the trade as the ‘brick’ because of its shape and durability, held an American camera sales record at almost 2 1/2 million sold.

A radio parts supplier in Chicago, turned camera manufacturer and becoming the Candid Camera Corporation of America, introduced the Bakelite and metal bodied 35mm Perfex “Speed Candid” camera in 1938. It was the first American standard (full frame) 35mm camera with focal plane shutter and was available with f:3.5 or f:2.8 50mm lenses. There soon followed an extensive line of Perfex 35mm cameras ending in 1959. The Universal Camera Corporation of New York had already in 1933, entered the ranks of small format cameras with its tiny plastic UniveX Model A at a price of 39 cents! It used a special imported 35mm roll film that gave 6 exposures of 1 ½ by 1 1/8 inches. In 1938 they introduced the unique 35mm UniveX Mercury camera with leather trimmed, cast aluminum alloy body, fitted with f:3.5, f:2.7 or f:2.0 35mm lenses, a focal plane shutter and using a proprietary spooled 35mm roll film stock as before. The Mercury camera provided 19mm X 24mm images (almost the cine format!) and its successor, the 1946 Universal Mercury II camera gave 65 like exposures on the standard 36-exposure cartridge of 35mm film. In 1938 the Eastman Kodak Company introduced its first American made (full frame) 35mm cameras, the Kodak 35 Camera series - the range finder versions of 1940-51 in particular, being excellent picture takers but often outsold in the marketplace by the contemporary Argus C3. Finally In 1941, Eastman Kodak brought forth America’s finest 35mm camera, the landmark Kodak Ektra with its series of superlative interchangeable Ektar lenses and singular accessories, only too soon to be eclipsed by the consumer production restraints of World War II and finally by postwar economic considerations.

© Kirk Kekatos 2000-2009

For camera references see:
McKeown’s Price Guide to Antique & Classic Cameras, 2005-06, 12th edition

The KODAK – pg. 472
Leitz Leica ca. 1932 - pg. 601
Zeiss Ikon Contax ca. 1932 - pg. 1043
Kodak Retina 1934 – pg. 520
Argus Model A - pg. 72
Argus Model C3 - pg. 74
Perfex “Speed Candid” - pg. 175
UniveX Model A - pg. 940
UniveX Mercury - pg. 938
Universal Mercury II - pg. 938
Kodak 35 - pg. 508
Kodak Ektra - pg. 492

(via Chicago Photographic and Camera Collectors Society)

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