The Frankencamera Mark 2: Converting a 1920s generic folding camera to take Instax Wide instant film, 12 December 2023
The Frankencamera Mark 2: Converting a 1920s generic folding camera to take Instax Wide instant film, 12 December 2023.
Early on in the year I took possession of a broken Ihagee Viktor V folding camera. The idea was to use it with Instax Wide film, and although it was partially successful I never quite managed to get the results I was looking for. I created a hybrid Frankencamera with a defunct 1980s Polaroid back and could load a single frame of Instax Wide film, but all of the work had to be done in the dark bag, from loading the film to unloading and developing it, and the whole setup wasn't really portable in any way.
Wind on a few months, and a generic 9x12 folding camera appears on the Kamerastore website. At first I was a little reluctant to move forward with this, I'm in the middle of trying to get a Kodak 1A Autographic Jr camera back in working order, and that's quite a long-term project. However, the work on the shutter of the Autographic was going really well, and although I wasn't sure that I could (or should) take on another project, there were a few factors about this camera that appealed to me.
For a start, it was cheap and the lenses were described as 'full of haze and fungus'. Perhaps I had been burned a little with the Autographic, yet still turned it into a near success (and once I have addressed the bellows issue properly, I hope a complete success) and also I took on an Agfa Billy-Clack, cleaned it up and it has so far worked like a dream, with a now clean lens and light tight bellows. Similarly, a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye Flash from my store in Porto was in terrible condition, but I restored that to near pristine condition. So I wasn't put off by its description.
This one was described as a 9x12 folding plate camera and it included three film holders. This was good because I calculated that a piece of Instax Wide film would fit nicely inside a 9x12 film holder and I could travel with three exposures rather than just one. Lastly, I really liked the idea that I could have a properly working Frankencamera.
So I built up the courage and ordered the generic camera on the Thursday and it arrived this morning, the following Monday. My first impression was of surprise, it came in a lovely brown leather bag and was so big. I shouldn't really have been surprised, 9x12 film is very close to 5x4 film in size and that is classed as large format. Inside the bag was a folded camera and the three film cameras. I was a little disappointed to see that these were very thin, not the double-sided 5x4 film holders I was used to. Would one of these actually hold a piece of Instax Wide film? Rummaging around in a box I found a piece of Instax Wide film and fitted it into one of the holders. Sliding the dark slide closed I was delighted that it fit perfectly, although it would need a plastic insert to hold it securely in place. No worries, I have made these for the Frankencamera Mark 1 and the Kodak Handle with reasonable success.
I turned my attention to the camera itself. It was a little difficult to open (and later was a nightmare to close) but instantly I found the aperture and shutter running smoothly. There are five shutter speeds; 1/25s, 1/50s, 1/100s, B (bulb) and T (presumably, time) on a self-cocking shutter. Below the Astigmatar 'Brilliantar' f6.3, 13.5cm lens is a lever for the aperture settings, from f6.3 to f36. There are also screws to move the front plate up and down and another on the lid to move the rail. This screw was jammed and was the source of all of the problems closing the camera properly.
Turning to the back of the camera, there's a removable ground glass screen, which fits snugly in place although the little metal lever that stops the back sliding out is loose. The back opens up to give a black 'hood' that you can view the image through the ground glass screen. If you slide out the back you can slide in the film holders to take a photograph.
One good thing I did find was that the bellows are still light tight. I've bought myself a little LED light, and if you put that inside the bellows and close the back there are no tiny little pinholes of light suggesting that the bellows are old and worn (unlike the Autographic).
The three film holders are thin metal devices with a space underneath where the film slots in. There are four metal tabs in the base, which I assume are springs to push the film out slightly and stop it being a scratched by the metalwork. At the top of the film holder is a piece of purple velvet which acts as a light seal. On each film back/dark slide something has been written in cursive script and the numbers '1', '2', and '3' so that the dark slide can be matched to its respective film holder. Also stamped into each dark slide is 'AP PARIS' the only identifiers as to the brand of the camera, although I actually think this is the brand of the film holder as during my online search I found other references to 'AP Paris' branded film holders.
Reading around, I discovered that during the 1920s and 30s a lot of these 'generic' unbranded cameras were made so there is no real way to identify which company produced the camera or when. Like many companies today small factories would take cheap shutters, like the German Vario shutter in this camera, and lenses, like the 'Brilliantar', and knock out hundreds of these cameras. So my best guesstimate is that this camera was probably made in the pre-war period and will be a contemporary of the Autographic. You can still get 9x12 format film, which is the European version of 5x4, and I understand that it was known as 'postcard' size as you could go to a shop and get a contact print made of the negative straight onto card with a post card backing.
Of course, the camera is a little grubby, so the first thing I did was clean the leatherette. This was not too bad, although there was nearly 100 years of accumulated grime. Then I took the back off the camera and jetted air inside the bellows to clean away any loose debris. At this stage I didn't take the rear lens off just in case this blew something into the shutter. A sticky shutter in one old camera was enough. I didn't want to go through the Autographic palaver again.
Then I closed the bellows again and removed the front and rear lenses. These were a little stiff, especially the rear lens, but they came off nicely and I set to cleaning them up with methanol. Again they cleaned nicely so I put them aside to dry thoroughly and turned my attention to the camera back and film holders.
I wiped down the film back and ground glass, and also the film holders. I also cleaned debris out of the velvet light seals with an old toothbrush. I tried to avoid cleaning over the writing on the dark slides, I wanted to keep that bit of history intact. Finally I cleaned the inside and outside of the leather bag. At this stage I left the camera open and disassembled to air and dry thoroughly.
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