Camera Antiques from Yorkshire

There are two breeds of camera collectors I know of. There are a good many enthusiasts who find the greatest pleasure in collecting a wide range of cameras, to be carefully put away in glass cases in their homes. Whether the instrument works or not is of no concern to them; the vintage Edixa from Germany is there, and the fact that it is his possession gives him indescribable pleasure. On the other hand, there is the enthusiast who owns a camera and sets out to produce photographs with it. His sole reason for owning a camera is to create images using an antique instrument, making use of an equally antique process. The first is attracted to the instrument, the second is keen on what he can get out of it.

It gives me great pleasure to say that we have Mr. James Mitchell from the UK here with us today. James is a classic camera collector with a difference: he combines the qualities of the ardent collector who is proud of his antiques, and the man who goes on to load his camera with film, all prepared to experiment. James is the collector who likes to put his cameras to use.

I first came to know James after I had registered on an online analogue photographers’ community. When I asked James if he would care to share with me his photographic expertise, he was delighted, but later fell silent owing to various personal issues which kept him occupied for over a year.

I am pleased to say that Mr Mitchell is back again. James is full of enthusiasm, and while he hasn’t accumulated a truckload of vintage stuff, nor yet a sackful, he certainly owns a bagful of antique beauties. And he is here to share pictures of his cameras with us. How delightful, and so very charming !!

James lives in West Yorkshire in the UK. Now that name strikes a familiar chord for me. Yorkshire in England brings up faint recollections of a lady....  a lady named Hazel Sanderson who many years ago created a most stunning portfolio of pictures of the Yorkshire countryside. The Dales of Yorkshire, it was called, put out by that bold venture named Creative Monochrome. I have two of Hazel’s atmospheric pictures with me: undulating hills, tiny farmhouses in the distance, sheep grazing on the pasture, a vast unbroken silence... Or again, a vast open landscape, trees swaying with the breeze, a pathway leading to a farmhouse; I can almost feel the silence of the landscape, hear the toot of a horn far away, the distant cries of a mother calling out to her children...

What has become of Hazel? I have not the slightest idea. I have two of her pictures with me as a memento of my brief encounter with her. And that is all. I have not the faintest notion where the lady might be today. It looks as if she has disappeared --- lost in the mists of the dales she loved.

Getting back to business we have James with us from Castleford in West Yorkshire. For some reason I had thought Mr Mitchell would hate to go out into the countryside with his cameras, but I was proved wrong. James has taken some stunning views in the Wolds of Yorkshire. And while we are not going to reproduce an example of his pictures taken in the Wolds, we do have a charming picture he took in the countryside using an Agfa Synchro Box camera right at the end of this post.

Here is a charming picture of a bandstand James took during one of his rambles:

The bandstand was taken with a Ful-Vue dating back to 1946, a reflex type box camera put out by that revered name, Ensign Limited -- of High Holborn, London. And below is the Ful-Vue James used on the occasion...

Mr Mitchell has interesting bits of information telling us about Ensign and its products. “The only box-type camera I've been out within the last year or so is the Ensign Ful-Vue with which I took the photo of the bandstand above,” says James. “Although this looks nothing like a box camera—or indeed any other camera, for that matter—it is essentially a box camera, albeit with a huge viewfinder such that it's a box camera masquerading as a faux Twin Lens Reflex.”

James also owns an Ensign Ful-Vue Super. “The Ful Vue Super you see below is actually a later model dating to about 1950, despite it's less futuristic styling,” he tells us. “What is better about the Super, though, is that it has a TLR-like hood around the viewfinder making the image easier to see, especially in bright sunlight,” he points out.

What has become of Ensign Limited of London? It appears the company saw dwindling sales and eventually had to wind up business as they did not keep in step with the times. “While the actual styling of the later Ful Vues is very futuristic, they were actually a somewhat out-dated design for the 1940s - 1950s,” James tells us. “It is said that the demise of Ensign was caused in part by the firm refusing to accept the growth of 35mm after the second world war,  when they just kept producing box and folding cameras.”

James has other interests besides the Ful-Vues he owns. He loves to experiment a good deal with folding cameras with bellows. Here he encounters problems peculiar to these tiny bellows-cameras, as polish gives way to rust and fungus with the passing years. To quote James, “I like folding cameras but I've bought a few that have had to have new bellows put in them which can double or triple the overall cost.  Similarly, I've had to have shutters serviced which again costs money. One thing I've found with cheaper folders is that when using faster film, one can run out of exposure speeds in brighter weather, that is, even when stopped right down, you can't set the shutter speed fast enough so as not to over-expose. Consequently, what I try to do on bright days is to use a film that is the reciprocal of the fastest shutter speed on the camera, that is, if the fastest shutter speed is 1/125, then take a film with a maximum ISO rating of 125.”

Stowed away in a loft in his home, James Mitchell has a set of antique cameras that will gladden the heart of any camera enthusiast. To the casual onlooker, they may look like a set of boxes with glass eyes, some rusting away with age. To us they mean a lot more. For the Ensign Ful-Vue we have seen is not the only box James owns. He has several other models, all closely guarded, each a priceless bit of treasure.

Here’s a Kodak Brownie from James’ collection. It has a premium look to it, but I have no idea of the date of manufacture. Whatever it may be, this camera is grand old vintage stuff !!

What does James have to say about his collection of Brownies ? Being a box camera, many of these cameras came with simple uncorrected optics. “The fact is that most lenses on Kodak cameras weren't that great,” points out James. “This was in part based upon the fact that, given the 6x9cm negative size, most amateur negatives weren't enlarged, but merely contact-printed onto photographic paper for snapshots.  Thus, the lenses didn't have to produce a high-quality image given the relatively small size of the final print, as any defects in the camera lens weren't going to be magnified by enlargement.  Also, Kodak were really a film manufacturer, and got into cameras only as a way of creating a market for their film.” 

It has been very kind of James to share his pictures and expertise with us here, and we can never thank him enough. As you go along this website, you are going to find more examples from James' treasure chest. Each is a shiny, sturdy instrument with pretty 'glass eyes' , each a misty reflection of a bygone age -- an age of classic cameras, roll films and developing chemistry.

This lovely view of the English countryside was
captured by James using an Agfa Synchro Box.


Photographs on this post courtesy of Mr James Mitchell.
Text by Ravindra Bhalerao.