Home Cameras/Lenses Leica Looking back with a 1926 Leica and a 1930s Super Baldina

Looking back with a 1926 Leica and a 1930s Super Baldina

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  This image taken by a very early Leica I Model A, SN (serial number) 1661, from 1926, which forms part of my collection. It is my earliest Leica and is still able to take good pictures
This image taken by a very early Leica I Model A, SN (serial number) 1661, from 1926, which forms part of my collection. It is my earliest Leica and is still able to take good pictures

There is a degree of looking back in this article which relates not only to my camera collection but also to my father’s camera, a Super Baldina, which was the basis for my first article for Macfilos in February 2015.

Here is the camera, along with the original bill of sale from 1940. (Çlick on images to see full size)

The Super Baldina is the first camera which I ever remembered, and it accompanied us on trips to the seaside and family holidays. Even before I was born, the camera was used by my father to take photos on trips to the West of Ireland where he took pictures of Galway Hookers (sailing boats) and Currachs (rowing boats). (Çlick on images to see full size)

The first photo shows the Bishop of Galway blessing a Hooker. My father, then in his mid-twenties, appears on the left in the middle picture. The photo on the right shows that my father had good darkroom skills. Thanks to the earlier Macfilos article some of my father’s pictures of Galway Hookers have appeared on the website of the Galway Hookers’ Association

The camera had issues which I had not attended to since I acquired the camera more than 15 years ago. The rangefinder was not working, and it contained a large amount of seaside sand and, as well, the shutter was sticking. Also, there were many minor issues including a sticking back door and wind on problems. I recently gave it to my friend and expert camera repairman Noel Young (noelpyoung@gmail.com) who said that the camera would need a pretty complete re-build, including the making of a new tiny mirror for the rangefinder as the surface had gone off the existing mirror. The repair would cost at least twice what the camera was worth, but, in this case, the value of the camera was priceless to me.

I recently received the camera back from Noel and tried it out in St Enda’s in Rathfarnham near my home. The area now contains a park and a museum, but in the early 1900s, it was a school established by Patrick Pearse one of the main leaders of the 1916 Uprising in Ireland. Pearse was executed in May 1916, for his part in the Rising, when my father was just four months old.

Here are some of the photos which I obtained from the camera.(Çlick on images to see full size)

I took these photos on Kodak Portra 160, but I thought that they looked better in black and white and, so, I converted them in post-processing. The rangefinder is now very clear but still took some getting used to as it is entirely different to that on most other rangefinder cameras that I have used, such as Leicas. There is also a routine to be gone through of (1) releasing the wind on knob, (2) winding on, (3) setting the shutter speed, (4) setting the aperture, (5) cocking the shutter, (6) focusing and (7) taking the photo, before starting at (1) again to avoid a double exposure. My admiration for my father as a photographer grew as I went through this process every time.

As for the results, I think that they are fine, but the Meyer Gorlitz Trioplan f/2.9 5cm lens is a bit soft on one side. I have recently acquired another example of a Super Baldina with a Schneider Kreuznach Xenon f/2 5cm lens which should be superior. I can swap the lenses around, but then the camera will not be entirely my father’s camera, even as a repaired version.

On the day that I used the Super Baldina, I brought with me my oldest Leica, a I Model A with serial number 1661 from 1926. It is one of the earliest Leicas with the famous Elmar f/3.5 50mm lens, which is the lens which established Leica’s reputation. The camera, shown below, has lost all of its paint, but the lens is still in excellent condition. Also, the mechanical parts, such as the mushroom-shaped shutter, and the low profile wind knob, are still in working condition.

There were many variations (generally cosmetic, although optical improvements were also made) in the Elmar lens. Van Hasbroeck lists more than 20 in his book, but after doing an exercise with a fellow collector some years ago, I feel that there are probably more than 30 variations. The very earliest ones have no 7-metre mark, and there are other differences around the front ring. I mentioned earlier that this camera had lost its paint and because of a marking, inside the very early ETRIN case that came with the camera, I thought that the camera might have spent its life in the tropics, possibly in India. Also, the eagle-eyed will have spotted that the infinity knob has been replaced at some stage. According to the Leica Archives, my camera was sent to Foto Magasinet in Copenhagen in July 1926, but what happened to it after that remains a mystery. I don’t intend to give up on this search for the rest of the long history of this camera.

What was not replaced during the life of the camera was the film retaining clip shown on the left below, which is the long version for the Leica FILCA re-loadable film cassette. While I have quite a few FILCA cassettes, life is too short to be loading cassettes from bulk film in the dark, so I did the next best thing and swapped the long clip for the shorter clip to accommodate modern cassettes. The shorter clip is shown on the right below. This clip came off another 4-digit I Model A , SN 1783, which was also the subject of a previous article on Macfilos

Having managed to swap the clips, I loaded the camera with a roll of Kodak Portra 160 and headed off to St Endas. When I had finished the roll of film in the Super Baldina, I took up the I Model A and the lens promptly fell off onto the ground. What appears to have happened is that the five or six shims (thin rings of metal inserted behind the lens flange to give the correct distance for accurate focus from the non-standardised lens to the film plane) appear to have expanded with age. One of the retaining screws fell off and went onto a gravel path where I couldn’t find it. I took the camera home, with the film still inside, and I did a repair job using lens retaining screws from other I Model As of a similar vintage in my collection.

I went out with my ‘repaired’ camera a few days later to a local park and got the following pictures and the one at the top of this article. (Çlick on images to see full size)

The most remarkable thing is that there was no sign of a light leak despite the ‘little accident’ and the ‘running repairs’ which happened while the roll of film was inside the camera. Also, the shutter was in good order as all frames were correctly exposed. Finally, the quality of the very early Elmar lens shines through. It is no wonder that Leica built its reputation on this lens.

The final part of this article is about another Leica which relates to a camera which was sold in my native city 86 years ago. I had seen a camera in the late Denis Laney’s book ‘Leica Collector’s Guide’ some years ago which featured a camera with an engraving from a Dublin dealer. I had always hoped that I would come across one and I was delighted earlier this year when a Leica Forum friend pointed out that one had come available through London dealer Peter Loy who I know quite well. It did not take us long to do a deal, and the camera was on its way back to Dublin. According to the Leica Archives, this camera was sent to the Dublin dealer via London in April 1932. 

The Dublin dealer, Pollock, was a firm of opticians but their shop and business closed many years ago. I have some photos of the shop, including one from around 1932, but the clearest one is this image from the late 1940s which clearly shows the shop at 50 Grafton Street in the late 1940s, on the left-hand side of the street. Today that address is occupied by a shop selling cheap cosmetics, called, appropriately enough, ‘Urban Decay.’

I do plan to take a shot of the current establishment with the camera in the not too distant future, and a further article will ensue. I also intend to try to find out who made the engraving/stamping and will make further enquiries about this and the other Leica cameras, mentioned in this article, when I am in Wetzlar this week.

In those days Britain and Ireland had currencies linked on a one to one basis, and one must assume that in 1932 the price of the camera plus Elmar lens was the same as in London, £22. I have a copy of a Leica 1938 catalogue which was used by Pollocks both before and after World War II. The grandfather of a friend of mine had bought it from them along with other material when the shop was closing down. By 1938 the Leica II plus Elmar was retailing for £27.17s, almost three times the amount that my father paid for his Super Baldina in 1940. After the war, the II Model D had disappeared, and the price of Leicas had doubled. In 1938 a Leica IIIa plus 5cm Summar cost £43, whereas in 1949 a IIIc plus Summar cost £86, a doubling in price.

There is one final twist in this story. Whereas Ireland continued to have the currency link with Sterling up to 1979, after Pollocks had closed, and it seems that Pollocks always dealt via Leitz in London, there was a practice, particularly in the 1950s, of British photographers coming to Dublin to buy cameras here to avoid UK sales tax. The same applied in Shannon Airport when the duty-free shop opened, and there is a report of one American photographer finding that it was worth his while to cross the Atlantic to pick up a pair of Leica M4s in Shannon. One must assume that declaring the cameras for tax/duty purposes on return home was a matter for the photographers’ consciences. More in a future article.

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13 COMMENTS

  1. Another most interesting article William. I cannot see any softness in the Baldina’s images and the Meyer Gorlitz Trioplan lens’ rendering of the músaem building’s stonework shows no distortion. The camera’s restoration cost was money well spent. Furthermore, Trioplan lenses seem to be gaining popularity for full aperture portraiture.

    • Thanks Dunk. These were possibly the best shots with the Trioplan. I will try out the Schneider lens on the Super Baldina when I get back from Wetzlar. The money spent on repairing my father’s camera cannot really be valued, as it is a precious heirloom as well as being a fine camera.

      William

  2. I think photos of working boats and people beat all other forms of street photography, wonderful job on camera restoration and new photos are stunning! Thank you

    • Thanks John

      My father was a great photographer who could get excellent results from a humble camera, which was not that easy to use. Ireland was a lot more photogenic in the 1930s and 1940s, but life was a lot harder then.

      William

  3. Nice images William, and a wonderful article – I love these old camera’s, and their heritage, and it is excellent to see these old beasts still doing the do as well as anything the modern era is producing.

    I wonder if we will ever see this type of article with digital cameras in 80 to 90 years time, i suspect not.

    Dave S

    • Thanks Dave and also to my friend and vintage camera user Ira Medcalf in Fort Worth Texas whose kind comments on the article failed to get past the Macfilos ‘object, object’ shield. I enjoy using old cameras as the processes are much more involving than those for modern digital wonders. My shots here were largely test shots to show that the old cameras were still working. I intend to shoot more rolls of film with my father’s camera, perhaps with the Schneider lens and I am going to hold a ‘competition’ to determine which of my early Leicas with no rangefinder should act as a zone focus ‘regular shooter’. There is something very liberating about walking around with a simple camera with no visual focus mechanism and manual exposure.

      It is difficult to predict where digital cameras will be 80+ years from now. Simple film cameras are easy to repair – most of them were designed for that. All you need to use them is a well maintained or repaired camera and some rolls of film. In 80+ years from now some of today’s digital cameras may still be working, but, if they are not, getting replacement parts could be an issue. Today’s digital cameras are intended to become obsolete very quickly. The business model of camera manufacturers is based on that premise.

      William

      • "..Simple film cameras are easy to repair – most of them were designed for that. All you need to use them is a well maintained or repaired camera and some rolls of film.." ..and the chemistry to develop those rolls of film!

        If it’s a roll of Kodachrome, no can do (..except to develop it into black-&-white..) because the chemistry and complex processing are no longer available. If C41 (colour negative) and E6 (colour positive) chemistry’s no longer available in 80+ years, then today’s colour film will become as obsolete as "..Today’s digital cameras".

        The old Polaroid processes are no longer available ..even though the reborn Polaroid company offers a few films ..but none of them as clear and sharp as the old Polaroid.

        And black-&-white? ..That still persists (..and a few people develop b&w in coffee!..) but once the chemistry disappears, so will the capability to develop any images stored on film.

        • Thanks David. Your certainty about such matters is impressive, but neither of us will be around 80+ years from now to confirm the matter. I recently attended a one day Wet Plate Workshop at which we used chemical techniques (not the chemicals), which were 160 years old, to produce images. I suspect that some film chemistry will still be around as long as photographers want it.

          William

  4. A rewarding read William.
    Your father’s skilful b&w image of the reflected boat is special – I trust you have it printed and hanging framed somewhere in your home.
    Wayne Gerlach

  5. Thanks Wayne. That is a great idea. My older brother has most of the photographs, but he gave me a set of them, which included this photo, for a significant birthday some years ago. I have two photos, possibly taken with this camera, on a wall along the stairs, which contains photos of my family and my wife’s family. They are a black and white shot of myself as a baby and a family group in the West of Ireland, including my mother, but not my father. I believe that the original of the latter photo was on a Kodachrome slide. The Super Baldina had no meter and I cannot recall my father using a meter. Perhaps he just guessed or used ‘Sunny 16’.

    William

  6. William,

    Thanks for this and I agree about the photo of the boat with reflection. A beautiful image that transcends the years.

    Kevin

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