Retro Speculation – Or How To Make Today’s Mistakes Yesterday

Do we all remember line from ” The Graduate ” where the obnoxious party guest advises Dustin Hoffman to think about plastics? Well, I’ve been thinking…

Plastics got going in the period of time leading up to WWII. You can follow the progress of bakelite and all the other sorts of material from earlier than that, but the nylons and other useful ones are far later than the early days of photography…and that is a pity, because I suspect that the shape of cameras would have been far different had there been a plastic revolution at the turn of the twentieth century.

Cameras then were cumbersome things of wood, metal, cloth, and leather. The basic structure of a camera – a big, hollow, dark box – could be made of wood as it had been in the daguerreotype era, but it would have been too heavy to carry very far. So the makers devised ever more complex ways to enclose the dark space with folding bellows and metal struts and sliding tracks and what have you. Lightness at the expense of complexity. Small camera could be made of cardboard, as were the famous Kodak Brownies – but at the expense of crude construction and unsharp results. It was all compromise until the introduction of the 35mm camera and the precise metal body.

But what if there had been some of the wonderful nylon-filled plastics in 1900? Camera makers could have eschewed the bellows and struts for a simple larger box camera. The Kodak 116 and 616 films could have been spooled for everything…as it was, they were still available new in shops in 1966. I know because I bought rolls of film in Nelson, BC then and it worked fine in a 1909 camera. For all we know, the design of cameras might not have gone down the miniature road at all if a large light box design had been made.

It is too late now, as the basic sensor of the art has progressed from a chemical film to an electric plate…and they cannot make a large electric plate. But cheer up – whenever I write that I always mentally add the word…yet…and every so often a yet disappears. I was always saddened that the time of the 4 x 5 monorail camera passed before the large sensor came along because I loved having multi-plane movements. I would be delighted if we could have a 2 1/4 x 3 1/4 sensor that was coupled to bellows and movements – I would desert my rfdr-style cameras for it instantly in my tabletop studio. But I do not see it on any of the horizons about me.

Yet.

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