Wednesday, 15 March 2017

When 35 mm film photography was novel…and involved a steep learning curve

On my other website which deals with daylight-loading developing tanks, I recently described how Lancelot Vining (1880-1968)—a user of the Rondinax 35—became involved with 35 mm photography and how his career as a press photographer, picture editor and then lecturer for Ilford developed. Photography with a 35 mm camera was frowned upon by both professionals and the old-guard of amateur photographers well into the 1950s. There were all sorts of reasons given from their being just a toy through limited capacity for enlargement to pure luddism. Yes, Leicas were sneered at.

Lancelot Vining found himself at the vanguard of getting 35 mm cameras recognised as serious photographic tools and in pointing out their great advantages for ‘action’ photography. There was a certain irony. Vining was 61 when he started writing about photography with a 35 mm in his book My Way with the Miniature and in his columns in the magazine, Amateur Photographer. His followers, the people who saw the future for amateur photography as 35 mm, were the young.

For those of us who in the 1950s and 60s flitted between rollfilm (‘medium format’) and 35 mm, there seemed little difference in terms of technique. However, it became clear to me that earlier some people really did have difficulty in coming to practical terms with 35 mm photography when they shifted from plates or rollfilm.

About 20 years ago I was looking for something in an old filing cabinet when I found an old envelope marked ‘Secret’. It had brown sticky paper across every join with sealing wax melted on all points of access. I of course opened it. It contained a memorandum written by one of my predecessors on a novel method for preserving food that had been described to him during a wartime mission for the then Ministry of Food. In finding out what he had done about following up what had been divulged to him, I came across his correspondence with an old friend. He wrote to Professor Cyril Tyler* of the University of Reading in 1947 congratulating him on his promotion to a chair and saying that he would address him as ‘Professor’ but only once. Tyler replied, giving as good as he got by way of ribbing. But then he asked how my predecessor was getting on with his new Leica since he [Tyler] really could not get used to using his and much preferred his old camera. The letters to and fro suggested that both got better results with their old cameras, of unknown format and vintage.

So I can only infer from the letters that there may well have been a steep learning curve in moving to 35 mm photography in the 1940s even for two scientists accustomed to handling and using the instrumentation of their day. But what was more difficult? Focussing? Exposure? Processing? I wonder if they both bought Vining’s book?

Oh, you may ask, what happened to the method of preserving food that was divulged by its inventor in great secrecy? Nothing, it was toxic.

*Cyril Tyler (1911-1996) worked on the structure and mechanical strength of avian eggshells; he was a pioneer in the field of biomineralisation. At the University of Reading he was Professor of Agricultural Chemistry (1947-58) and then of Physiology and Biochemistry (1958-76). In 1936-38 when he was a lecturer at the Royal Agricultural College, he played first-class cricket for Gloucestershire as a medium-pace off-break and occasional leg-spin bowler; he took 5 for 116 against Middlesex at Lord’s.