The box camera in India

Browsing through old photo magazines, I am amazed to find not so much as a passing reference to the joy of photography using a simple, uncomplicated box camera. The stuff you come across in these magazines is mostly of an “advanced” nature— “exposure f/4 at 1/60 sec on Agfa Isopan using Leica M4… developed in Promicrol with intermittent agitation….”

There is no doubt that the photographer with an interest in darkroom work will benefit a great deal by the hints, tips and suggestions put forward in these magazines, but the accent, I would say, is heavily weighted in favour of top class cameras and darkroom formulas giving magical results. It is maddening to see the humble box camera enthusiast completely left out, ditched and stranded as it were. 

You won’t find a single advertisement telling of a box in these magazine columns. Perhaps the reason is that traditionally, a box camera has been regarded as a toy, something good enough only for children. But there is something more here. Manufacturers have capitalized on the simplicity of toy cameras by showing children holding them to reinforce the feeling that the camera is indeed simple enough to use. And for this reason, you can be sure to find these cameras advertised in children’s magazines and comic books. 

I have preserved with me a few of these old comic books containing camera ads here in India. There is something captivating in these old advertisements. They were never in colour, but they wonderfully bring back the days when enthusiasts worked with roll film, and pictures had to wait for months before the user had his roll developed and his prints made. 

All through the fifties and sixties and even after that, Agfa products ruled the Indian market. The New India Industries Limited, set up in collaboration with Agfa of Germany had two production units : one in Baroda, where simple German cameras were assembled. Many Indians in those days found the joy of photography in these simple inexpensive cameras bearing the hallmark of Agfa. The earliest among these cameras was the Synchro Box, a traditional box camera from the house of Agfa. Simultaneously with the Synchro Box came the 'Gevabox', a unique design that combined the old time tradition of using a film holder within the camera, combined with the luxury of a direct vision optical viewfinder.

Then came along a new generation of cameras. Advertisements for Agfa Click III, Click IV, Isoly I, and later Isoly II began to appear in the Readers' Digest as well as in children's magazines. Each of these was a box camera taking pictures on 120 size roll film. Click III had a simple meniscus lens, but Click IV had a two-element achromat. Both these models took 6 cm x 6 cm pictures, a format large enough so that contact prints could be ordered. 

When the Isoly range of German cameras reached the Baroda factory in the early sixties, users were astounded with a format of 4 cm x 4 cm. Despite the smallness of the size, 4 cm proved to be a size to reckon with. Enlargements made from these negatives show crystal clear clarity, for the Isoly I came with an doublet Achromat lens, and the Isoly II with the 3-element Agfa Color Agnar with a lens opening of f/5.6, and what is more, both models offered lens focussing, clearly the main attraction of these simple instruments. Here is a picture of a hill side scene taken with an Isoly II.

Agfa's second production factory was in Bombay where photopaper was made from ready-made rolls imported from Agfa, Germany. Agfa products were distributed in India by Allied Photographics Limited, which later came to be known as Agfa Gevaert India Limited. 

Early on in the fifties and sixties, Allied Photographics published a very pretty little photo magazine called Agfa Photo Gallery, an eight page glossy leaflet which included pictures sent in by photo enthusiasts, advertisements, besides hints and tips on improving one's photography as well as announcements telling of forthcoming photographic competitions and salons. The magazine, though free, was so much in demand that amateurs often were disappointed to find copies sold out at photodealers. To keep up with the tremendous demand, Agfa India Ltd announced that readers could have all 12 issues each year by sending the publisher an amount of Re. 1 to cover postage charges.

Speaking of box cameras in India, I am reminded of a gentleman here, who, back in the late seventies planned to buy an Agfa Isoly II camera. He was a real technically minded guy who had carefully thought out everything in advance, his knowledge of his subject was far beyond what was needed to work with an Agfa box, and he was thrilled at the time because this was the first time he was getting to handle a camera with a focussing lens (leaving aside Isoly I and Isoly II, all other Agfa boxes here in India had fixed focus lenses). But our man was troubled on one point, and that was the 4 x 4 cm format. Why have a square picture only 4cm wide when the film itself is about 6cm wide? So our man wrote to the Agfa camera factory in Baroda asking for the reason for this. A month later, he received an enthusiastic reply from the production manager of the camera factory. "According to ISO standards," the manager wrote back, "the picture definition in an Isoly II with Agfa Agnatar optics is acceptable only within the diagonal defined by a 4cm square." Our man was satisfied with the answer, feeling great that he had received an answer from one of the technical boffins of the industry, and promptly bought the camera.

Later, when he had taken a few pictures with the Isoly, he felt like working with filters. So off he went to Photographic Stores, the Agfa dealer in town. There he was shown yellow and orange filters specially made for the Isoly camera. These filters were just the size, about 32 mm, and beautifully fitted his camera. The orange filter would beautifully darken the skies, the instruction leaflet said, and what is more, from the information printed on the package, the filters were marketed by Agfa Geveart India Limited. So our man went in for these filters, and did succeed in getting good results. So far so good. About a month later, he again wrote to the Agfa Gevaert office in Calcutta, asking them if they had any more such filters in their range specially made for the Isoly. And to his great consternation, the reply from main office said that they had not heard anything of any such filters. "We are sorry," the regional manager of Agfa wrote, " we have no knowledge of the filters you mention. We do not market any filters as yet." 

The lesson is obvious. Although the man was satisfied with the results of these filters he had acquired, they were perhaps made by some local firm which was audacious enough to label their package with the name of Agfa Gevaert India Limited.

Another firm which had a box camera in its range of optical goods was Patel India Limited. In the sixties and seventies, Patel India Limited was the firm which had made a name for itself with their Viewmaster, a 3-D stereoscopic viewer showing pictures from around the world contained in tiny Kodachrome slides mounted on circular card reels. Later Patel India also brought out the Sure-flex, a reflex type box camera using 120 film. Sadly, the Sure-flex had a fixed focus lens, but it had two features which made it a deluxe camera --- the camera had a yellow filter which could be swung into place, and, more important, a close-up lens, again swinging into position, bringing the range of sharp focus to a much closer distance than was possible with the main camera lens alone. 

Here is an advertisement extolling the virtues of Agfa Photographic Paper from an old magazine.

Is the box camera an unreliable tool, as some people would have us believe?

It is surprising to see what lengths photographic dealers will go to effect a sale that brings in a larger profit. I recollect the time in 1985 when I was hunting a box camera for myself. I had studied the subject from a textbook, but otherwise I was new to the world of cameras. I found a bewildering variety of cameras offered on sale; which one would be best for me?

The only way to overcome an obstacle is to face it head on with your shoulders squared. Following this dictum I embarked on some serious research, all on my own. I began to visit various photo dealers in town, and asked everything I could to gain familiarity with the cameras on sale. I am glad I set myself this task for in the process I made friends with a good natured man named Mr Panna Paul. Paul was nearly 50 years old at the time, a round faced, cheerful man, who along with his brother Abhoy, ran Studio Monalisa in the heart of the city. The Paul brothers had a roaring business---they even owned a colour processing lab for C-41 manual chemistry. Colour photography was quite new here in India at the time, and people thronged Paul’s studio in Shillong in large numbers. Studio Monalisa was known for honest, top quality and customer-friendly service.

Over the next few years, Panna Paul became something like a mentor to me, partly because I showed an eagerness to learn. “Once you develop your film, you have to study your negative closely,” Paul would tell me. He was what you would call an expert in photography; he had trained in Calcutta, and he knew his subject as well as the back of his hand. “For a good B & W picture, your negative must be thin…” he emphasized, and my mind flew back to Michael Langford who had once said that photographers often differ in what they regard as a correctly exposed negative.

In the meantime, I kept busy with my camera hunt. Agfa had three roll film cameras in its range, Click III, Click IV, both fixed focus, and Isoly II. It also marketed a few simple 35mm models, Agfa 200, Niki 1000 and others.

At about the same time, Photophone India Limited made its debut in the camera business. Photophone was long known here in India as manufacturers of 16mm and 35mm motion picture projectors, and this company, having its manufacturing facility in Goa, had introduced a new breed of point-and-shoot cameras. Known under the brand name of ‘Hotshot’, there were a total of six models to choose from: three 35mm, the rest 110 film cameras. There was nothing really remarkable about these cameras; they were all box-type simple instruments, streamlined and modern in appearance. Each came with a fixed focus lens advertised by Photophone as the ‘exclusive universal focus system’.

I had decided on an Agfa Isoly II a long time back, as this was the only model which came with a focusing lens, and variable f-stops and shutter speeds. Even so, on one of my photographic sojourns, I once dropped into a photographic dealer’s in the main market, to double check my findings. The owner was a business minded person, fair in complexion, with a beaked nose and balding head. After a brief chat during which I spelled out my preference for instruments with controls, the man gave me a shrewd look. “Why do you go after these box cameras?” he asked me. “I can see what you are looking for. If you are so keen on a good model, I can give you a focussing model. It has all controls and comes with bellows. You can’t really trust a box camera, you know—there is no certainty you will get your picture with it—it is a hit and miss affair!”

I could at once see through the man. He wants to sell me an old folding camera he’s got, I thought, and if the ancient bellows is cracked, I will spend a lifetime mending those holes…

I wished the man goodbye and walked out of the store. I am glad I did not get taken in by his sales talk. A box is a simple thing, true, but there is never any uncertainty as to the results as this man would have me believe. The secret, as I had learned, was to know the limitations of your box, and work within them.

I am glad I trusted my judgement instead of listening to the advice of this cash-hungry dealer. And I bought myself an Agfa Isoly II. It has given me good service for many years; good, solid, dependable service; not once has it proved to be an unreliable tool.