When I started this insane journey of using my 52 vintage camera and living the ultimate hipster dream, I never thought I would attempt something this hipstery and roll film (slide plate?) through a 127 year old camera.
The Primo series of cameras hold a sacred place in the pantheon of photographic history. They are, for the most part, the first collection of consumer grade photographic equipment that helped photography get a stronghold on mass population. Capitalizing on their mystery, ease of use, and general wow factor, the Primo line captivated a burgeoning group of O.G. hipsters: The photobugs.
You may never heard of the Rochester Optical Photographic Company (which actually still exists in some form as a manufacturer of reading glasses), but you probably heard of Kodak which eventually bought this innovative powerhouse at the turn of the last century. The history of which is crazy and convoluted, but the bottom line is that they made a killer product, and Eastman-Kodak new it, and in glorious American fashion they devoured it. Originally produced in 1893, they ended up producing this line of glorified suitcases that take pictures for over 30 years which is insane to me.
This camera, and this particular model, was one of the most popular, and was branded as a “Bicycle Camera” because you could adapt two wheels on it and ride it to market. No, that’s not true, in fact, it was only called a Bicycle Camera because it came out the same time the new invention of the Bicycle became popular, so obviously these two things were marketed together. I mean honestly, fixies and cameras: is there nothing more hipster or what?
It’s original price was $18.00 bucks (520.00 USD today) which is on par for a decent digital camera today. Also like today, all accessories were sold separately: 1.00 for the plate, .25 for the shoulder strap, and additional lenses could be purchase for around 12.00 bucks, proving once again to always invest in glass.
Made of solid wood and wrapped in leather, this camera is better appointed then anything in my apartment. The description of it in the catalogue reads like something out of a J. Peterman: “Forests of gigantic mahogany in Honduras, skins gathered from far-off Australia and Africa, combine with brass of finest manufacture and glass of the most accurate grinding to produce the camera.”
In fact, the most interesting thing about this camera may be the marketing. The catalogue itself is absolutely remarkable and reads like a great 18c novel. The opening line alone is biblical in nature. Take a peek:
“All great things have small beginnings. the infinitesimal drop of water combining with its fellows produces the irresistible flood which lays waste vast districts. the tiny grain of sand, having in itself no power, becomes a part of the support of a mighty wall which holds in safety life and property of great moment. the genius and skill of man have wrought marvelous things with the elements of nature about him, but none is more wonderful in its manufacture or uses then the camera.”
I mean, am I buying a camera or have I found a new religion? I honestly couldn’t stop reading this 100 page massive tome, which puts B&H’s garbage catalogue to shame. This isn’t a catalogue, it’s a manual for fine living, for philosophical exploration, and a guide to finding meaning in life. Listen to the way they describe their manufacturing process:
“We began their manufacture in a modest way nearly a quarter of a century ago. To-day they are made in the largest plate camera factory in existence. From the beginning Premos have embodied all that is good in camera construction. Whatever theory could suggest, science supply, and experience furnish, in a field of effort that attracted the master minds of the age, has been incorporated in the Premo. “
REMEMBER IT’S JUST A WOOD BOX WITH A HOLE. I mean this thing sounds like it could cure cancer.
Reading the catalogue brought to heart the feeling I got when I first picked up my grandfathers camera. The exhilaration I felt as I watched a sheet of paper develop. The pride I felt getting into Brooks to study something I was in love with. Years later the things we do can sometimes loose their original sex appeal. This ridiculous catalogue with its Penthouse Letters-esque poetry to photography got my juices flowing again. It embodies the magic that comes with photography, and really let me imagine what it must of been like back then, before we all had cameras in our pockets and took it for granted.
“Realizing fully that success is a battle and not a dream, we have followed assiduously each detail of manufacture with constancy of purpose and persistency of effort until perfection was attained.”
A battle, not a dream. Holy shit am I woke! Spit Rochester Primo! Spit!
Putting film in it is actually not tricky at all. A recessed button pops open a side door that reveals a space for a plate. One of the innovations that made this model so popular with everyone is that it could take wet or dry film, meaning, glass plates, negative, or celluloid which we can use today. There are lots of adapters out there, or, you can use one of the original film holders. When your technology is composed of wood, there is never a risk of a firmware update bricking it.
Finding film can be trickier. For me I tried the Rockland Tintype kit, which I have to say, was pretty sweet. It comes with everything you need; developer, emulsion to pour on the plates, and tin plates. The process of making the plates is a little technical; you have to heat the waxy emulsion and then pour a thin coat onto the plates, pretty much in complete darkness. Your skill in pouring a perfect plate will give you better results. For me, with a small apartment, and no darkroom, this meant doing it in my closet, and letting the plates dry in a changing bag, which, wasn’t optimal to say the least.
The lens is exchangeable, so it could come with a single achromatic, a Victor rapid rectilinear or a iris diaphragm with pneumatic release. They even made stereoscopic lenses you could slap on it. My iPhone doesn’t even do that. Suck it Apple.
In the end going back to the beginning really invigorated me to do more with this wacky project. It’s the first post of 2021 and last year was anything but normal, so I wanted to highlight something special. I really didn’t realize how special this camera is, and the culture behind it, including its amazing catalogue book. I mean look at that logo, it’s like a work of art.
They don’t make them like these anymore, but the real magic is the feeling you get when you bring them back to life. It’s like losing your photographic virginity all over again. The time and effort to just get an image is so great, that you really focus on every aspect of photography as an art and science. It was a surprising discovery using this camera, and the fact that it was a gift from my father, who bought me my first camera ever, made it even more special. Thanks Pop, she’s beautiful.