Remembering Abhoy Da

HERE'S A SET OF PICTURES made with an Agfa Isoly II box camera. These and several others were taken in the hill region of North East India, and printed superbly by my friend, Mr Abhoy Paul, who jointly with his brother, Mr. Panna Paul, ran Studio Monalisa in Shillong.  

My adventure with photography began in Mr Paul’s studio, and I shall ever remember him for the hints, tips and advice the gentleman had to give me. He was also a very good friend.

My acquaintance with Mr Paul was made way back in 1985. Many years later, after I had relocated to a different place and was working on this site, I remembered my friend, and included a reference to him in a post titled “The Box Camera in India”. Years passed, and nothing seemed to materialize. I had hoped the Paul brothers would be around, and would get in touch with me through the site. I had hoped this would that this would be a fine way to revive our old acquaintance.

I did get to hear from the family, but not from the brothers themselves. I received a message from Abhoy-da’s son, Arin. Sadly, Studio Monalisa in Shillong shut business many years back, and both Abhoy-da and his brother have moved on, Arin tells me. I am deeply moved. I shall miss my friends so much.

This view of Shillong was printed by Abhoy Da.
The lack of focus at the left edge is due to
improper scanning.

Mr Abhoy Paul with son Arin at the Ward Lake
in Shillong
I remember seeing Arin at the studio counter back in those days. He was a fine lad, energetic and bubbling with enthusiasm. Today he has grown up, and is a film maker in Mumbai. I am so glad Arin got in touch with me. He is the last link I have with the Paul family, and shall ever remain a precious friend.

Arin, then and now...

Father and son, a long time ago...

Ravindra Bhalerao 

The Camera Shutter

FURTHER ON IN THIS site I have described the box camera scenario in India, the various models which appeared on the market, and some of my experiences while hunting around for a camera. Perhaps I have not recounted how while I was on my camera hunt, I was also lucky enough to receive a gorgeous gift from an old aunt who stayed in Bombay. It was an old Agfa Isoly - I camera marketed by Agfa Gevaert India Limited and assembled in their camera factory at Baroda. My aunt had shot but a roll or two of film on it, and the camera was as good as new. But mechanical wizard that I was, I decided to open up the box, tinker around with the screws, alter the internal arrangements, all in the hope of ‘improving’ the device. And a week later, I was left with a box which was truly no better than a box.

Before I consigned the instrument to the dustbin, I was wise enough to salvage the lens, and the shutter. And for thirty long years, the shutter has remained with me, carefully put away in an envelope and stored in a trunk. It is still in working condition and is operated by turning a shaft at the back by inserting a pin or key sideways through a slot cut in the metal. Speeds offered are B, 1/30 and 1/100 second. I think this is an example of what is known as a 'Singlo' shutter.

Was it a wise thing for me to tinker around with the camera in the first place? Yes and no. The camera was destroyed in the process it is true, but what use would it have been to me anyway, now that roll film is no longer available in our country? So I would say that it was good I decided to try out my brains on the innards of this old box from the house of Afga. The camera was lost, but in return I have with me the shutter and can see for myself the mechanical genius of those magnificent men of old who devised this wonderful array of springs and levers for a camera.

Classic cameras are here...

This website originally started out with a detailed exposition of box cameras of old, and all the accompanying trappings, and yet how lovely it would be, I have lately felt, if one could have a site here dealing with various other types of classic cameras too.

Consider for example this single lens reflex. It’s a Pentax, and although its auto function is dysfunctional, it has given me many happy hours of pleasure. Just load up with a roll of 35mm film, go out with an exposure table, and shoot! And how delightful when the pictures are back from the processing laboratory!

Or consider this twin lens reflex from Rollei Fototechnik, Germany. In years gone by, Rollei have brought out updated versions of two of its outstanding cameras, the Rollei 35, and the other a twin lens reflex. Both had fixed focal length lenses, both were equipped with exposure meters, but were capable of full manual operation too. 

This site is all about classic cameras, and in the days to come, you may expect to find here a lot more than just box cameras. So then, friends, be on the lookout for something exciting coming your way!

The Houghton Coronet

This Houghton Coronet comes from West Yorkshire and is owned by Mr James Mitchell of Castleford, UK. I don’t wish to give full particulars of the Coronet, but would like you, the reader, to see what a charming thing an old box can be. See how close to each other are the two reflecting viewfinders. That’s how they were made in days of yore. And this one has a portrait lens too, an essential feature for the gentleman who wanted to get in close to his subject !

If this picture has set you wondering who James is, and what does he have to do with an old Coronet, you had better scroll down for a fuller introduction.


Picture courtesy of James Mitchell

Camera Antiques from Yorkshire

There are two breeds of camera collectors I know of. There are a good many enthusiasts who find the greatest pleasure in collecting a wide range of cameras, to be carefully put away in glass cases in their homes. Whether the instrument works or not is of no concern to them; the vintage Edixa from Germany is there, and the fact that it is his possession gives him indescribable pleasure. On the other hand, there is the enthusiast who owns a camera and sets out to produce photographs with it. His sole reason for owning a camera is to create images using an antique instrument, making use of an equally antique process. The first is attracted to the instrument, the second is keen on what he can get out of it.

It gives me great pleasure to say that we have Mr. James Mitchell from the UK here with us today. James is a classic camera collector with a difference: he combines the qualities of the ardent collector who is proud of his antiques, and the man who goes on to load his camera with film, all prepared to experiment. James is the collector who likes to put his cameras to use.

I first came to know James after I had registered on an online analogue photographers’ community. When I asked James if he would care to share with me his photographic expertise, he was delighted, but later fell silent owing to various personal issues which kept him occupied for over a year.

I am pleased to say that Mr Mitchell is back again. James is full of enthusiasm, and while he hasn’t accumulated a truckload of vintage stuff, nor yet a sackful, he certainly owns a bagful of antique beauties. And he is here to share pictures of his cameras with us. How delightful, and so very charming !!

James lives in West Yorkshire in the UK. Now that name strikes a familiar chord for me. Yorkshire in England brings up faint recollections of a lady....  a lady named Hazel Sanderson who many years ago created a most stunning portfolio of pictures of the Yorkshire countryside. The Dales of Yorkshire, it was called, put out by that bold venture named Creative Monochrome. I have two of Hazel’s atmospheric pictures with me: undulating hills, tiny farmhouses in the distance, sheep grazing on the pasture, a vast unbroken silence... Or again, a vast open landscape, trees swaying with the breeze, a pathway leading to a farmhouse; I can almost feel the silence of the landscape, hear the toot of a horn far away, the distant cries of a mother calling out to her children...

What has become of Hazel? I have not the slightest idea. I have two of her pictures with me as a memento of my brief encounter with her. And that is all. I have not the faintest notion where the lady might be today. It looks as if she has disappeared --- lost in the mists of the dales she loved.

Getting back to business we have James with us from Castleford in West Yorkshire. For some reason I had thought Mr Mitchell would hate to go out into the countryside with his cameras, but I was proved wrong. James has taken some stunning views in the Wolds of Yorkshire. And while we are not going to reproduce an example of his pictures taken in the Wolds, we do have a charming picture he took in the countryside using an Agfa Synchro Box camera right at the end of this post.

Here is a charming picture of a bandstand James took during one of his rambles:

The bandstand was taken with a Ful-Vue dating back to 1946, a reflex type box camera put out by that revered name, Ensign Limited -- of High Holborn, London. And below is the Ful-Vue James used on the occasion...

Mr Mitchell has interesting bits of information telling us about Ensign and its products. “The only box-type camera I've been out within the last year or so is the Ensign Ful-Vue with which I took the photo of the bandstand above,” says James. “Although this looks nothing like a box camera—or indeed any other camera, for that matter—it is essentially a box camera, albeit with a huge viewfinder such that it's a box camera masquerading as a faux Twin Lens Reflex.”

James also owns an Ensign Ful-Vue Super. “The Ful Vue Super you see below is actually a later model dating to about 1950, despite it's less futuristic styling,” he tells us. “What is better about the Super, though, is that it has a TLR-like hood around the viewfinder making the image easier to see, especially in bright sunlight,” he points out.

What has become of Ensign Limited of London? It appears the company saw dwindling sales and eventually had to wind up business as they did not keep in step with the times. “While the actual styling of the later Ful Vues is very futuristic, they were actually a somewhat out-dated design for the 1940s - 1950s,” James tells us. “It is said that the demise of Ensign was caused in part by the firm refusing to accept the growth of 35mm after the second world war,  when they just kept producing box and folding cameras.”

James has other interests besides the Ful-Vues he owns. He loves to experiment a good deal with folding cameras with bellows. Here he encounters problems peculiar to these tiny bellows-cameras, as polish gives way to rust and fungus with the passing years. To quote James, “I like folding cameras but I've bought a few that have had to have new bellows put in them which can double or triple the overall cost.  Similarly, I've had to have shutters serviced which again costs money. One thing I've found with cheaper folders is that when using faster film, one can run out of exposure speeds in brighter weather, that is, even when stopped right down, you can't set the shutter speed fast enough so as not to over-expose. Consequently, what I try to do on bright days is to use a film that is the reciprocal of the fastest shutter speed on the camera, that is, if the fastest shutter speed is 1/125, then take a film with a maximum ISO rating of 125.”

Stowed away in a loft in his home, James Mitchell has a set of antique cameras that will gladden the heart of any camera enthusiast. To the casual onlooker, they may look like a set of boxes with glass eyes, some rusting away with age. To us they mean a lot more. For the Ensign Ful-Vue we have seen is not the only box James owns. He has several other models, all closely guarded, each a priceless bit of treasure.

Here’s a Kodak Brownie from James’ collection. It has a premium look to it, but I have no idea of the date of manufacture. Whatever it may be, this camera is grand old vintage stuff !!

What does James have to say about his collection of Brownies ? Being a box camera, many of these cameras came with simple uncorrected optics. “The fact is that most lenses on Kodak cameras weren't that great,” points out James. “This was in part based upon the fact that, given the 6x9cm negative size, most amateur negatives weren't enlarged, but merely contact-printed onto photographic paper for snapshots.  Thus, the lenses didn't have to produce a high-quality image given the relatively small size of the final print, as any defects in the camera lens weren't going to be magnified by enlargement.  Also, Kodak were really a film manufacturer, and got into cameras only as a way of creating a market for their film.” 

It has been very kind of James to share his pictures and expertise with us here, and we can never thank him enough. As you go along this website, you are going to find more examples from James' treasure chest. Each is a shiny, sturdy instrument with pretty 'glass eyes' , each a misty reflection of a bygone age -- an age of classic cameras, roll films and developing chemistry.

This lovely view of the English countryside was
captured by James using an Agfa Synchro Box.


Photographs on this post courtesy of Mr James Mitchell.
Text by Ravindra Bhalerao.

Welcome to the World of Box Cameras

“My box Brownie was a trusted companion for years and has given me more pleasure than I could ever imagine possible. Family gatherings, holiday outings or a visit to dad’s old farm were just the occasion to get my sturdy little friend out of its closet. It was an incredibly simple camera with no dials and knobs to fuss about. My husband chose to steer clear of me : he worked with an expensive folding camera and used an exposure meter as a crutch all along. So while hubby was busy measuring the light and distance I would wipe my lens clean with a handkerchief, back up the ten feet from the group, put the sun at my back, peep into the tiny view-glass at the top and snap away happily. . .”

--Maria Ward

Maria’s words bring back the long forgotten romance of box camera photography in the first half of the twentieth century. Imagine the thrill of buying a roll of film, loading your box and moving out into the wooded landscape on a sunny day. On your way back late in the afternoon, you drop the film at the nearest photo lab, or if you are adept at handling chemicals, head straight for a session in the kitchen-turned-darkroom. Whichever the method, you are working along the same lines as did hundreds of others in the early days. And the reward of your labors comes on the following day when family and friends crowd around you letting out squeals of delight, each of them eagerly passing around the snaps, and  junior enormously pleased to see himself standing beside the car with a sombre expression on his face.

Although a precision instrument made with the same care and thoroughness bestowed on its more sophisticated rivals, the key feature that distinguishes a box camera is its simplicity. Hundreds of these gadgets were in production earlier using a variety of film sizes. Thousands were stocked by photographic dealers to be eagerly snapped up by people who wanted to take family get-togethers back in the home or out on a picnic, and who were just a bit scared of the intricacies of a gadgety professional camera. Turn over the leaves of an old album and you will find evidence in the form of those golden-brown snapshots showing granny when she was a girl, or granddad trying to push hard against the lawn mower. And how charming these pictures look!