Week Fifty Two, RB Graflex

October 31, 2017

Week 52 – The RB Graflex Series b

Well here we are, the final week! There is a lot to get through so let’s dive in. It may come across as a bit short hand but I need to squeeze a lot in, stick with it! Back in week 25 I had tried to feature the Graflex but it properly fell apart when the rather important cloth shutter tore in two. I vowed then to rebuild it and bring it back, little did I know what I had let myself in for.

Straight away I will introduce you to Erik Gould, I know him from twitter and he is a Graflex nut! He, from the beginning jumped right in with advice and help that was pivotal to what follows.

Quickly – The RB Graflex is one of the first SLR medium format cameras, made from wood, nickel coated brass, and leather and vulcanised silk. Held together with wood screws and glue. This one dates somewhere from 1910-25, interchangeable lens, waist level finder seen through a long leather hood. Normally a plate film back but this one is setup for 6x9 format on 120 film via a removable cassette back. Apertures are set as normal on a lens ring but the shutter is where it gets a little different and the root of my problems. Simply a pair of rollers top and bottom house a long silk curtain with 4 slots in it, it is wound on to the top one tensioning the 6 step spring on the bottom one so when released it quickly winds back allowing one of the slots to expose pre-determined exposure of the film, it uses the 4 differing slots and 6 tension setting to produce 24 odd shutter speeds. That is the best I can explain!  Used by many famous photographers and the press it has gained a cult following.

Back to week 25! I had a dead camera and no idea about how to fix it. I had to either replace or fix the torn curtain. Curtains are as rare as rocking horse poo so fixing seemed the only option, long story short that man Erik jetted a piece of cloth from the USA followed by a mass of collated info on repairs etc. I patched said curtain and refitted, now to set its pre-tension, I followed the instructions and the bloody spring snapped! Disaster, springs are rarer than the cloth so I was in a real fix! I finally found a company called Springmasters in Birmingham to whom I sent the bottom roller-spring combo to custom make one. In no time I got back a metre length of off the shelf spring they thought might work. I measured cut and shaped it then refitted to the body, blow me down it worked, it worked well. I set about gluing, cleaning and oiling everything else till I thought it was ready.  I videoed the curtain in action and emailed to Erik, He thought it was a tad quick so I ran a test roll of my daughter, sure enough underexposed and I struggled with focusing. I let some tension off and ran a second roll, still too fast and the focus seemed to be the camera at fault so, more tension off till I though it acted exactly like Erik advised and I raised the ground glass until focus matched the film plain using a makeshift ground glass out of tracing paper much as I had done with the Bronica. I decided to leave it at that until this week. I can tell you it took dozens and dozens of hours, sweat and tears! Also many conversations with Erik who was amazing and I cannot thank enough, honestly a complete legend, I must have bored the crap out of him.

Here we are then, a strange camera the likes I have never used before and just a week to get to grips, not helped by the loss of my spot meter, I would have to use my back up incident meter. I had already formed, as you can imagine a firm bond with this camera so I was keen to get it right. We were set for changeable weather in the form of storm Brian so I would shoot whenever I could and just see what came out. First roll Rollei RPX400 B&W. I fumbled around for a day or two finally getting the 8 frames and nervously developed it. It was ok as far as it goes, it proved the camera worked despite my school boy errors. Double exposure, fingers fouling moving parts, accidental misfires, bad focusing etc. There were however some encouraging frames.

Roll 2 was again a 400, JCH Street Pan, more determined to concentrate I set out for Dartmoor in strong winds and changeable light. Several hours were spent around a Bronze Age settlement trying different settings etc. I thought it had all gone much better but once developed I could see not only had I struggled with exposures with this difficult contrasty film but my focusing was off still. I decided to go with a third roll, my favoured Ilford FP4+, I gave it everything! I really knuckled down to get things right. I think I have too, I felt much better with this one and started to understand the working process, it is very different. Having just scanned these before writing I feel real satisfaction, in fact the whole 6 months were worth that mushroom shot! The Kodak lens is really pleasing and sharp enough. When using the camera there is undoubtedly a nostalgic feel, a little bit of folder, a look of a box camera while being a WLF SLR, all my favourites in one vintage package!  The Graflex is staying with me so I have plenty of time to get acquainted further. I hope you see the progress in the images and I hope I can include the phone pics of the build progress. I have however rambled for far too long – 52 weeks too long!

Thanks again Erik! Also Craig for the processing advice this week and many others, and of course Russell without whom none of this would have been possible!

Click below to see lots more photos

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