I picked up this old camera and I want to make it work. It’s hidden inside a nondescript, beat-up box, which happens to be made of mahogany and covered with cowhide. But after 115 years, it looks like this:
When you open it up, there’s this magnificent specimen of 1902 technology, brass and red leather, polished mahogany, and a little knurled knob that operates a pinion to telescope the camera’s triple bed out to its full length (dog bowl left in the background for scale):
This is a Century Grand. Or maybe a Century Grand Special – it’s hard to know for sure, since the two cameras were very similar, and this one is missing the viewfinder, and its lens and shutter have been replaced with a 7.5 inch, Ilex f/4.5 Paragon Anastigmat, which appears to have been manufactured from the 19-teens for several decades following.
The Century Camera Company was started in 1900 (gee, I wonder how they came up with the name) and acquired by Eastman in 1903. It appears that they manufactured these grands for a number of years, but by 1904, the sides of the bed were lined with brass plates, rather than the scalloped wood edge you see above – so that puts this one around somewhere at 1902-1903. I also found a 1904 Century catalog that talks about “an entirely new feature for hand cameras” – a rotating back – i.e. the part where you put the 5-by-7 inch sheet film can be rotated from portrait to landscape, and the addition of a mirror so the image on the ground glass (where you focus) is right side up. My camera has a back that pops off and can be snapped back in a different orientation, and no mirror.
I’m disappointed by the missing viewfinder, but I’m amazed that, as much leather as is involved, the bellows are still intact. It’s possible the bellows are not original either – the brass loops about 2/3 back connect to metal hooks screwed into the side of the lens holder, instead of pegs at the top and bottom like in the photos I’ve seen. Still, it would be great to make it work again!
So here’s the problem. The guy who sold it to me (it was a Facebook post on a film camera group) implied he had taken pictures with it, and suggested ISO 400 Bergger 5×7 sheet film, which is nearly 60 bucks for a box of 25. So I order that, and I wait for the camera to arrive. I’m ecstatic when it does, and everything seems to be intact, but I notice the lens has aperture markings, but hey – wait – where are the shutter speed indicators? Hey, there’s no shutter!
So I contact the guy on Facebook and he’s all, “Yeah, barrel lenses don’t come with shutters. Back then, film speeds were slow, and you just take a picture by taking the lens cap off for like a second.” But I’m like, “So WHY would you suggest 400 speed film??” Back in the day you could get super slow film and this method would work. He suggests an ND filter, and I ask to see some specific photos he’s taken with this camera (all he did was point me to his website), and then radio silence.
Fortunately there’s Google, however. I discover that barrel lenses, in fact, DO go into shutters. A bit of research looking at Ilex lenses and I conclude that I need a Universal or Acme No. 3 made by the same company – and I score one on eBay for $38. It works like a charm and I show my colleagues at work what a wonderful clicking sound it makes every time I operate the shutter. It’s exactly the same diameter as my lens.
So now for my problem. Both the shutter and the lens are made of pieces that seem to unscrew from each other – I’ve not managed to decode everything (the aperture parts, for instance). It should be possible to unscrew everything and then put the lens into the shutter – but I’m not clear where everything should go. I think the shutter leaves should stay behind the aperture parts and it ought to be very simple – but it would be helpful if I could find someone who has done this before.
There’s a guy, SK Grimes, who would do it for money, but I’m not quite there yet (even if I could find a dependable way to ship the parts from Madagascar. And a great blog post that describes similar situations also offers suggestions (especially if I hadn’t already bought the 400-speed film!). But I’d really like to make this work! Any help appreciated.