Crown of American Cameras

By Mike Roskin

Copyright © 1995, Mike Roskin
Copyright © 1995, Camera Shopper
Reprinted by Graflex.Org with permission from Camera Shopper®, August 1995.

Collectible? Maybe. Classic? Definitely. The Crown Graphic 4x5, an instrument evolved over a century, brought American camera design to a logical high point. Then both it and American professional-level camera design died. The Crown shows both a highly evolved design and hardening of the creative arteries.

The wood-bodied folding plate or cut-film camera had been around since the second half of the nineteenth century. The Graphic stirred to life with the original 1902 Graflex camera of Folmer and Schwing of New York City. This giant-sized single-lens reflex had a spring-wound, cloth focal-plane shutter that tripped just as the mirror flipped up. Graflexes, as big as 5x7, were widely adopted by professionals early in this century.
End of the Line: The 4x5 Crown Graphic, produced until 1973, shows the success and limits of a slowly evolving design. It still delivers the quality of far pricier new field cameras.

Folmer & Schwing moved to Rochester in 1905 to become a division of Eastman Kodak and in 1912 put the same focal-plane (or "back") shutter on a folding camera and called it a Speed Graphic. By 1926 the company was independent again (but remained in Rochester), and by World War II, the Speed had taken over most of the U.S. news photography market. Rugged, dependable, and even repairable in the field, news photogs bashed each other out of the way with their Speeds to get the right shot. Graflexes had rather long lenses, to clear the mirror on its upward rotation, but news photogs discovered the utility of a wider-angle lens, so they could elbow their way to the front of the pack. Accordingly, the standard focal length on the Speed shrank from l52mm (about the diagonal of a 4x5 sheet minus the margins concealed by the film holder) or longer down to a 127mm Kodak Ektar f4.7 or 135mm Wollensak Raptar (also known as Graflex Optar) or Schneider Xenar from Germany. This gave the Speed a moderately wide angle of field, the newsman's favorite.

You focused the Speed either by ground glass or Kalart rangefinder, mounted on the right-hand side. To get adequate depth of field, photographers liked to stop well down. In those days of Super XX, ASA 100, they achieved f11 and f16 by firing huge, household-size flashbulbs, synchronized via a solenoid mounted on the lensboard that tripped the shutter.

The Speed went through several model changes, each slightly evolved from the one before but overall little changed, still a leather-clad, folding mahogany box that came in 2 1/4 x 3 1/4, 3 1/4 x 4 1/4, and 4x5 sizes. In 1940 came the Anniversary Speed Graphic, the WorldWar II standard, and in 1947 the Pacemaker, the last of the Speeds.

In the 1950s, I refined my photographic abilities in high school with a 4x5 Anniversary Speed and later took sports and publicity photos at UCLA with a 4x5 Pacemaker. For learning, there is still nothing quite like sending a young photographer out with one holder and the instructions: "Here, kid, you've got two shots, just in case you need an extra." You soon learned to go through a mental checklist of the many things that could be wrongly set (back shutter open?), to compose carefully, and above all to pull the dark slide. All of this was training in meticulousness, something young people do not get today--anywhere. Accordingly, I am sentimentally attached to the old Graphics and still recommend them for teaching purposes.

With the Pacemaker in 1947, the firm finally notced that many photographers never or rarely used the back shutter. For some $40 less, they offered the new Crown Graphic, exactly like the Speed but minus the bulk and weight of the back shutter. It also made operation simpler, as you didn't have to remember to keep the back shutter open when you were using the front shutter and vice-versa.

In 1955, with the Speeds and Crowns already sporting Ektalite field lenses for much brighter ground-glass focusing, Graflex added a better, top-mounted rangeflnder to replace the Kalart. This new RF automatically corrected parallax in the tubular viewfinder. This was just about it, the end of the evolutionary line.

Rapidly losing its market among professionals to Rolleiflex, in 1958 Graflex tried another 4x5, the all-metal Super Graphic with a built-in RF and no back shutter. But it won few professional adherents.

The camera you see here is near the end of the Graphic line. The Speed was discontinued in 1968; the Crown limped on until 1973, and then only in 4x5. Starting in 1958 with the designation "Special" on the top of the lensboard, the Crown was routinely supplied with Schneider Xenar lenses (because they were cheaper), first in a Compur 11500-second, then in a Japanese-made Copal. The Xenar, as Rollei fans might tell you, can be a fine lens. I picked up my Crown from an ad in the local paper, nearly mint, with the 135mm Xenar f4.7 and Copal. Literature in the box suggested it was produced in 1970.

How does it work? Fine! Some obvious functions--slow shutter speeds and body shutter release--suffered from congealed lubricants after decades of nonuse. Simply using the shutter solved that problem. And shutter trip is vastly softer via your right forefinger on the shutter's release up front. The rangefinder did not quite match the ground glass, but adjustment was easy: a small bracket on the left focusing rail governs how far the cable (from the top rangefinder) extends. Loosen one small screw on the bracket, and nudge it back and forward until the superimposed RF images merge where the ground glass says they should.

I also removed the old standard flash bracket from the right side, as few use these gigantic flashes any more. In its place, I devised a simple right-angled aluminum strip to hold a modern shoe-mounted electronic flash and attached it to the top hole where the old bracket had been. With 400 ASA film, a small flash such as a Vivitar 283 is generally adequate.

Unlike 2 1/4 x 3 1/4 and 3 1/4 x 41/4, 4x5 sheet film is still available, although depending on your location you might have to mail-order it. Cost per shot, less than half a dollar, is not bad. Instead of having to shoot a whole roll, you can develop just one or two sheets, saving both time and film. Tray development in total darkness in D-76 is easy, and because agitation is better, yields full-toned, sparkling negatives. I also found that an old Beseler color drum processor, sitting around unused for years, develops four 4x5 cutfilms in daylight (once it's loaded) using very little developer.

Now, results. As one might expect, among the best obtainable. Of course, a 4x5 needs only about a 3X enlargement to make an 11x14. I consider the Crown--available with lens for $300--essentially the equal of current-production, very expensive field cameras. It even has moderate front movements for architectural photography. Theoretically, a modern Schneider, Rodenstock, or Nikkor might have an edge on the four-element Xenar, but I'm not sure this would be detectable in an I 1x14 enlargement. And you can easily fit a newer lens on the Crown, although I don't think you can get (or have made) matching RF cams any more, so you are limited to ground-glass focusing.

Did Graflex have to die? Was the firm so successful with one type of camera, the Speed Graphic, that it became incapable of innovation? By the 1950s, Graflex was casting about for other types of cameras to meet the rapidly growing trend to smaller and lighter. It did purchase and produce the Ciroflex TLR (CameraShopper, issue 54) as the Graflex 22, but it did not change or improve it except for a fresnel field lens. If Graflex had been serious, it would have developed the Ciroflex into an interchangeable-lens TLR (like a Mamiya C3) or even an SLR. Graflex also imported some unimpressive German and Japanese 35mm RF cameras, but without interchangeable lenses no professionals and not many amateurs were interested.

Instead, in 1965 Graflex brought out a smaller (6x7cm) press camera, the modular Graflex XL, which had no bellows. You could change backs and lenses, but the plastic focusing cams and lens cylinders quickly wore into inaccuracy, and the plastic rollfilm backs (in my limited experience) didn't keep the 120 film flat. Although the XL was big, heavy, and expensive, some wedding photographers still use and like them. If the U.S. armed forces had not been required to purchase American, the XL would likely not have remained in production as long as it did.
CENTER SECTION of an 11x14 blowup (a mere 3X), even using a Graflarger with the Xenar as an enlargine lens, gave me possibly the sharpest enlargement I have ever made.

The used Crowns sell at about the same price as similarly equipped Speeds, as many people do not want the back shutter, which has but one utility, to use shutterless lenses. A Graflarger back on the camera turns it into an inexpensive if not very bright coldlight enfarger. Disadvantage: taking lenses such as the Xenar were never intended for flat-field work, so you get noticeable loss of sharpness toward the edges. Solution: either get a 4x5 enlarger or put an enlarging lens on a Crown lensboard. The center section of an 11 x 14 shown here, made with a Graflarger acquired from CameraShopper reader Fred Goldstein of Suffern, NY took 60 seconds at f16 but is sensationally sharp at the center.

Graflex, like most human institutions, got set in its ways and could not change. In 1968 it was purchased by Singer of sewing-machine fame (interesting parallel: two great U.S. firms that could not innovate to keep up with competition) and in 1973 ceased all camera production. The Crown Graphic is both a high point in the history of the U.S. photo industry and a highly usable camera. Just having one takes you back to your early years in photography and makes you spiritually young again! I still feel deep inside, when looking at young photographers and their click-whir machines, that if you haven't cut your teeth on a Graphic, you're only a pretend photographer.

Political scientist Mike Roskin, a professor at Lycoming College, Williamsport, PA 17701, has been an avid amateur photographer for over four decades. You may write him directly or E-mail
Copyright © 1995, Mike Roskin
Copyright © 1995, Camera Shopper
Reprinted by Graflex.Org with permission from Camera Shopper®, August 1995.

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