One way or another a small hoard of old cameras has come into my posession. There's assorted box cameras, a few pseudo-TLRs, some musty old folders and one or two I'm not even sure how to classify. I lack the soul of a true collector though. While I like to look at old cameras on the display shelf as much as the next person I suppose, my thought has always been that any functioning photographic instrumentis are there to be used.
That's how it is in theory at least. To say to oneself "what an interesting old clunker, I really ought to do some shooting with that" is one thing, but to actually choose to devote the time and the film to doing so when it's easier still to grab the backpack of Hasselblad gear on the way out the door is quite another. There is one little gem of a camera that seems to have offered enough of the right combination of useability and retro charm to have made it into semi-regular use, a fun and rather unusual Graflex Graphic 35.
The name Graflex probably conjurs images of classic large format folders like the iconic Speed Graphic and along with it flash guns with reflectors like small satalite dishes and fedora's with the word "press" stuffed into the band. But in the 1950's they also produced a line of 35mm cameras as well as medium format TLR's. According to Camerapedia the Graphic 35 was produced between 1955 and 1958.
In essence the Graphic 35 is just a 35mm rangefinder like so many others, but as its appearance might suggest, it's a quirkly little thing to use. If you're looking for a traditional shutter button on top of the camera, there is none. Instead you have a shutter lever on the front of the camera. In the photo above, that's it on the left just above the "Graphic 35" name plate. You pull it away from the lens to trip the shutter in a motion that might feel natural with a good amount of practice. I have not yet had that much practice, it still feels awkward to me.
Equally strange is the focus mechanism. Focus is achieved not with the twist of a helicoid mechanism or even the turn of the focus wheel, but with a sort of see-saw lever system accomplished by depressing buttons located on either side of the lens. The button above the shutter lever (on the photographer's right) moves focus further out while the one on the opposite side brings it in to a minimum distance of 3ft. The rangefinder window is separate from the framing window and is split top and bottom. The mirror in my unit is a bit misaligned so the two images are slightly off kilter with respect to one another but not enough to throw things into too much doubt. I seem to nail the focus the vast majority of the time.
The lens itself is a 50mm f/3.5. It is stamped "G. Rodenstock" on the outer rim of the barrel. This portion easily screws off by the way to expose the shutter blades and, when these are opened, the aperture blades just beneath. I been able to find any reference to suggest the optical design but if I had to guess I'd say it's some variant of a Tessar. This would be about right for a camera of this age and price range, and as can be seen when the front elements are removed the rear of the first group is nicely concave as would be expected with a Tessar design. Just my speculation. As a side note my inspection of the front elements revealed that my copy is suffering from minor fungal growth. I will probably let this be and chalk up any effect on the optics to vintage character.
The Graphic 35 features a hot shoe. At least it appears to be hot. The trouble is that the shoe seems a bit shy of the standard width. I was unable to get any of my flash units to slide on, at least not without the use of more force than seemed wise. If it were that important I suppose a few minutes with a small file or a bit of sandpaper on the foot of a small cheap flash unit might get it to fit but this isn't something that seems worth while in my case.
Changing film is not too unlike most 35mm cameras you might be used to although rather than the standard hinged door the back/bottom cover of the camera comes right off to allow access. A lever switch on the bottom is used to unlock it for removal revealing a fairly standard left to right film transport system with sprocket wheel and built in take-up spool that shouldn't be any mystery to anyone familiar with loading just about any mainstream manual wind 35mm camera from more recent decades. Rather than counting up the frame counter dial can be set to the number of exposures on the roll you just loaded and it will count down to zero as you go through the roll. There is no rewind release button. Instead pulling up on the winding knob and giving it a small twist to keep it from falling back into working position will releast the film to be wound back into the cassette.
The top front of the camera above the lens is the real control centre of the Graphic 35. It's unusual arrangement seems to bring thought back to things that might be a bit routine on cameras with a more standard layout of shutter speed dials and aperture rings. The focus distance is displayed via a rotating dial similar to a mechanical bathroom scale. Moving away from the body from there we come to the aperture slider. It's continuously adjustable from f/3.5 to 22 with colour coded zones for each stop. These zones get narrower at the smaller apertures and there is only a few millimetres separating f/16 from f/22 so a little care may be required. Next is the shutter cocking lever because, yes, there is no automatic cocking mechanism. This is the hardest part about using this camera because you don't expect to need to cock the shutter on a small handheld camera like this.
Finally there's the speed dial for the between the lens Prontor shutter. Unlike the other dials that can be read and set from the top, setting the shutter speeds requires the photographer to view the camera face on. The dial itself is on a ring surrounding the lens in a manner will be familiar to large format photographers. Available shutter speeds are 1/300th, 1/100th, 1/50th, 1/25th, 1/10th, 1/5th, 1/2 and 1 second plus "B". Not surprisingly for a leaf shutter camera of the slower shutter speeds in my copy stick as you go down and at a full second it needs to be coaxed along to close at all. This isn't so bothersome for me as it might be on a larger format camera as the Graphic 35 is really made to be hand held and I will probably only ever use it set to one of the top three speeds where it's fine.
The first few rolls I put through the camera were hand rolled from a bulk spool of Kodak Plus-X that expired since the late 70's. Interesting but needless to say not a good indicator of what the camera itself might be capable of. I had the notion that this could be a viable take-along, sort of a side-arm camera on photo treks for those more off the cuff shots I wouldn't want to drag a larger camera out for. Loaded up with a fresh roll of Kentmere 100 it was there for the grabbing when it was decided one brilliant one brilliant Saturday that I would lead a small party of bored teenagers on a fun little jaunt down the Niagara Glen.
Though it was the kind of day I spoke about in the previous episode, better suited for barbecue, I couldn't quite tear myself away from the idea of taking along the Hasselblad outfit. I didn't anticipate using in much, and on that count I was not wrong, but you never do know when you might regret not having it. The Graflex saw much more use on this day, in part because it was a little handier, and in part because using it didn't entail burning through a little more of my precious supply of endangered (though not yet extinct) Fuji Acros.
When I say it was a bit handier than the 'Blad, I do mean a very little bit handier. In fact if I wasn't so careful about keeping the larger camera coddled in a padded backpack I might have found it a somewhat easier to use. That's probably largely a matter of familiarity. The Graphic 35 takes some getting used to. Much of this is simply getting used to the notion of a compact 35mm rangefinder that needs to have the shutter cocked for every exposure. Time and again there was that first false start then ended with the realization that, oop, I forgot to do it again. As the day wore on I got a little better with this. If it were my only camera I'm sure this would become habit and I'd never need to think of it.
As it is though, while I'm sure my little Graphic 35 will see continued use as a fun little take-along or perhaps a functional novelty at gatherings, its practical limitations will likely mean it will never be much more than that. This means I'll probably just go on eternally forgetting to cock the shutter on the first go.