Past to Present is a series of articles by PCCGB member Roger Bradley. They are a mixture of anecdotes and recent adventures with classic cameras, old processes, pinhole photography and much more.
As will be revealed, this article, has proved to be the most expensive and frustrating of any I ever previously completed for Tailboard. It’s the story of my acquisition of two Mamiya 6 cameras, totally different in design and made about 40 years apart.
I was attracted to the nineties vintage Mamiya 6MF (pictured, above) because of its square format, eye level viewfinder and modest weight compared to all metal cameras. MF stands for multi format, a concept derided by the American reviewer Ken Rockwell. Different formats are achieved by the insertion of masks which need to stay in place for the whole film. Rockwell asserts that most photographers are capable of cropping their images after processing and don’t need these accessories, Mine didn’t come with masks although the viewfinder displays various reminders of them.
This camera was used professionally by my friend, the photojournalist Barry Lewis, whose work is well worth looking up online. I’ve bought several cameras from Barry who always says, “take it away and try it out.” I followed his advice and my first task was to download the camera’s instruction book. This showed me how to use the mechanism which opens and closes a light shield curtain which protects the film when changing lenses. An incentive for me to buy this particular camera was that it came with the superb 50mm wide angle lens in addition to the standard 75mm.
A collapsible lens mount reduces the camera’s bulk when not in use. Like its older namesake, 120 film is used although a 35mm adaptor was produced. Exposure is determined via aperture priority or manually with the correct speed being indicated by a flashing red LED in the viewfinder.
Making a rare trip away from our Covid isolation we visited a park which has a small wood yard for children to choose their materials to construct a den. The light was excellent and I returned home satisfied and was further heartened when my film loaded quite smoothly into the developing tank. All went well with the processing until I poured the stop bath back into its container and was alarmed by the film reel emerging from the tank only to disappear under the work top. I threw myself towards the light switch before spending quite a few minutes looking for the errant reel. After fixing, I was partially relieved that the film wasn’t totally fogged and I chose a frame that seemed to have almost escaped unscathed.
My articles reflect the theme, Past to Present, so I decided to buy an example of the earlier Mamiya-6 enlisting friend and fellow member Andrzej Jablonski with the task of choosing an example in good cosmetic condition on Ebay. This was sourced from Premium Camera Store in Tokyo and arrived in less than a week, followed by a demand for £32 duty plus charges from Fedex who have compounded the issue by claiming I haven’t paid their bill. In this climate people seem to refuse to answer phones or any other form of communication whilst retaining the ability to up their hostile demands or court action will ensue. Fortunately my bank statement can be used in evidence.
Two features on my new camera immediately stood out – The lens is an Olympus D. Zuiko. The ‘D’ stands for 4 elements. Mamiya bought lenses from various companies and even invited customers to provide their own, a far cry from the superb Mamiya-made lenses the new Mamiya 6.
The other feature was the wheel on the rear of the camera which moves the focal plane to focus the picture. Our editor, David, points out that Ensign Commando has a similar arrangement but was there a licensing arrangement between the two companies? YouTube has been useful to identify the exact model of my camera – IVB c1955 – and also provided a demonstration of the film loading procedure. It became apparent that the camera had a few mechanical issues but by trial and error I managed to obtain 10, 6X6cm images. I did contact the company in Tokyo and was told that I could return the camera for a refund. Perhaps unwisely I didn’t, on the grounds that it would mainly be a display camera and that my article deadline was imminent. Unfortunately after processing a film showing the new old people’s home across the road from our house, I discovered that most of the developed negatives were showing a patch of fogging, confirmed by the classic test of looking through the bellows towards a bright light.
An arrangement was made to have the old bellows removed by repairer Miles and a replacement made by Custom Bellows in Birmingham, and posted back to Miles for installation. Just before posting the camera to start this process I set up my Manfrotto tripod in the garden and put the camera in place. Alarmingly, for the first time in at least thirty years I failed to lock the plate onto the tripod correctly and the camera fell onto our garden path (see front cover of this Tailboard). Fortunately, the impact missed the lens but slightly distorted the folding linkage. I asked Miles to assess the damage before going ahead with the new bellows. He seemed quite relaxed about this and he should now have received a quite expensive piece of folded material.
Back in May 1940, Tsunejiro Sugawara and Seichi Mamiya, businessman and engineer respectively, launched their first camera, which in its various forms was in production for 18 years. Later in the 1980s in response to a difficult financial climate
the new Mamiya 6 and 7 were introduced – ground breaking cameras albeit with shorter production lifespans.
I feel pleased to have acquired two important cameras in the history of Mamiya and suspect that they will not be the last Mamiya cameras to join my collection.
A Pair of My Favourite Folders
Some of you might remember my passion for Agfa cameras a few years back. Before I called a halt there were 140 plus Agfa’s lined up in my office. Now I’m down to 10 including the impressive Super Isolette.
Giving a talk sometimes has unexpected results: during a presentation to a local camera club I mentioned my Agfa interest and the result was a telephone call from a member of the audience. His neighbour had offered him an Agfa Super Isolette which he asserted didn’t work and was destined for the rubbish bin. Would I like it? I gratefully accepted this queen of the Agfa’s 1950’s fleet.
I took it to my excellent camera repairer in Stoke on Trent and quickly emerged with a fully working camera and a bill for £3. What a pity he decided to give up repairing cameras to become a plumber.
Agfa made this camera between 1954 and 1957, naming the identical model for the American market, Ansco Super Speedex (see advert, opposite, from 1954). The film winding window was eliminated because the camera was equipped with a mechanical film sensing mechanism which could detect the start of the film by piercing the backing paper.
The excellent, Tessar pattern, 75mm Solinar lens provides 12 6x6cm negatives on 120 film.
From 1960 for 4 years, the Russian KMZ company based in Krasnogorsk, produced their own version of the Super Isolette, called Iskra, or Spark, in two models. The later second type incorporated a selenium cell light meter.
Iskra was the name of an underground newspaper started by Lenin in 1900. I have read claims that you had to be a photojournalist to be allowed to buy this camera. Perhaps this requirement allowed access to the first cameras produced.
Although the design resemblance between the two cameras is obvious there are some differences: the Iskra has strap lugs, is slightly taller and 51 grams heavier than its German inspiration. The lens and shutter specifications are the same.
My Iskra was bought on Ebay from a Russian dealer in Siberia. He warned me that it would take 5 weeks to reach me. It did, and was well packed in Russian newspapers.
Recently I have used these cameras and both seemed to be suffering from focusing stiffness. I suspect they need a service which I plan to arrange soon.
They have the virtue of being easy to carry around in a large pocket, but compared to a modern roll film camera such as the Mamiya 6, they feel awkward and are slower to use.
They are both currently available, with the Agfa camera fetching nearly £500 for a mint example whilst the Iskra is being offered for less than half as much.
Southwestern Railway train at Weymouth, February 2020. The pictures were taken on Fujicolor Superior 400 ISO film using my my Agfa Super Isolette (above) and KMZ Iskra camera (above centre)
Pilot Super Meets Great Wall
A few years ago I started to collect Chinese cameras, particularly TLRs, but soon found that they were very similar in design despite having different names, albeit some exotic, like the Five Goats. Then I noticed the Great Wall Df4 single lens 120 film reflex made by the Beijing Camera Factory and began my search to buy one. This camera was manufactured between 1981-5 in several slightly different variations, during which period tens of thousands are said to have been made.
About 20 years ago, Club member Gerry Walton revealed to me where I could still buy a new example of this camera, which I was able to do, and found the pictures it made quite acceptable. I did what most owners have tried to do with the Df4 – unscrew its 90mm, M39 threaded lens and replace it with another lens. Apart from one enlarger lens, I soon found the lack of clearance prevents you from attaching alternative lenses.
Recently I have read that the removable camera lens allows its owner to use it on an enlarger.
What you can do is attach close up and similar optics to the front of the camera lens which will give you plenty of possibilities.
The rise of the Japanese mini lab, whose importation led to rapid processing of 35mm colour film in China, killed the interest in this roll film camera and thousands were sold off cheaply.
Nearly all descriptions of the Great Wall SLR models mention that they were inspired by the KW Pilot Super produced in the outskirts of Dresden from 1939 to 1941 (this location enabled them to survive the heavy Allied bombing of central Dresden).
Kamera – Werkstätten Guthe & Thorsch had been established in 1919. The story of this company is complex and dramatic and is well worth investigating further.
John Marriage generously loaned me his Pilot 6, a predecessor of the Super model, and I decided to search for the Super model whose main difference is to have a built in extinction light meter. They were not originally imported into Britain but a surprising number are currently for sale in Europe and the USA. Not all have worn well, something that I can identify with, being about the same age as the camera. I bid for a camera based in France only to be defeated in the last ten seconds by an auto electronic bidder. The owner of the camera mentioned that he had a second example of the same model and would list it tomorrow at 1pm. What he didn’t mention was that this alternative was based in Florida and in a different time zone. Somehow I managed to buy yet another Super from The Hobby Shop in Bakersfield, California.
This duly arrived and is in good condition except for a corroded viewing screen which several club colleagues say could be replaced with a donor mirror from a Polaroid SX70 or similar. In the meantime I’ll use the direct vision finder employing the depth of field table.
After a couple of false starts with out of date film, including a 1984 vintage HP4, I used the annual Vintage Car Show in central Market Harborough as a chance to get serious with recent FP4 film. I also used the cameras separately to avoid confusion. The viewing was much more effective with the Great Wall but the Pilot Super was slightly smoother in its mechanical operation.
The results were vastly improved from my test shots.
Would I use either camera regularly in preference to a Kiev 88 or Pentacon 6 SLR? Definitely not but as the Antiques Roadshow experts often say, the reward for collecting is the pleasure we receive from owning the items.
A Pilot 6 and Pilot Super(1939-41) flanking their imitator, the Chinese Great Wall Df4 (early 1980s)
Taken with Pilot 6
Taken with Great Wall Df4
Taken with Great Wall Df4