One of my ‘resolutions’ this year was to use the vast information resource that is the internet for interesting, educational means (and less for looking at funny pictures of cats).
So, I’ve set myself monthly research projects. Nothing huge, and no requirement for a massive report on my findings. Just things which interest me, and which I’d like to know more about. Most of them I probably won’t even write about here, since they won’t all have a connection to art or photography, but I found this one interesting enough to post a little of what I’ve learned about two cameras which I own and use myself.
Throughout January, I’ve been looking into the history of Soviet camera design. I use a FED 3 rangefinder, and an original LOMO Lubitel 2 TLR, and whilst I’m aware of the fact that the FED series was one of several versions of Leica copy Soviet-made rangefinders, and of the original LOMO (ЛОМО́) cameras, and the modern Lomography movement which originated from them, I was curious as to the history surrounding them.
Even the naming is intriguing. FED stands for Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky, (although beyond a short and unsourced passage on Wikipedia, I can’t find any indication as to specifically why), whilst LOMO (in the original language) is an acronym for Leningrad Optical Mechanical Association, and are better known for their (ongoing) work in the field of scientific and medical optical devices. The cameras which influenced a whole movement are a relatively tiny part of the history of the brand.
After Germany was fractured post WWII, part of it came under Russian control, and a large number of German camera manufacturers were forced to surrender their patents. Manufacturers in Russia then began to produce copies of those designs, with a significantly lower price attached (presumably because they didn’t have design costs to factor into the retail prices of their products). Alongside the FED series of Leica copies, there are also the Zorki and Kiev brands, with similar stylings, and all using the M39 lens mount, often known as the Leica Mount. In terms of early models at least, they all have in common the distinctive shape of the Leica M series, with the cutaway top plate and circular top dials (later models of the FED at least moved to a fully rectangular shape, with a lever based film advance rather than the rotating dial, although the basic design is still reminiscent of the roots).
Based on the serial number, it looks like my particular FED was produced somewhere around 1952, making it about 62 years old at time of writing. Given that it’s obviously travelled quite a few miles between then and now, and shot more than a handful of rolls of film, but remains in good cosmetic and working condition, it’s safe to say that the workmanship on these cameras was far from shoddy.
Moving on to the Lubitels, it’s far more evident that these cameras were produced for a more amateur market. Whilst there are plenty of functioning models still around, even the ones which shoot fine usually have some small foible. The pop up mechanism for the viewfinder is notorious for, well, exploding. It’s all held in place with a small pin, and if that loosens, the whole thing can pop up and off. Minor annoyance, and easily repaired, though.
My particular pair of Lubitel 2s, which you may have noticed have very slight differences in appearance, have their own eccentricities. The lower lens of the one I consider ‘working order’ is a bit delicate, and has a habit of unscrewing itself. I almost lost the front piece last time I took it out, and ended up having to recalibrate the entire focussing mechanism when I reattached it. The slightly older model has a fault with the coupling of the lenses, which I’ve been meaning to try repairing at some point. I originally bought it for spares, but as I mentioned, the designs differ slightly, so most of it wouldn’t be suitable for transplant.
For clarity, I’m referring to my working version as the newer, and the project version as older. I don’t actually know if this is accurate, although the numbering of the shutter speeds might indicate so.
Both models are based on the same body, with waist level finder, pop-open back, manual focussing mechanism and manual exposure control. Where they differ is relatively small. The older model has an f4.5/75mm lens, but a top shutter speed of 1/200 compared to the 1/250 of the newer model (although the numbering convention differs too, with the older model having speeds labelled 1/10, 1/25, 1/50, 1/100 and 1/200 in contrast to the 1/15, 1/30, 1/60, 1/125 and 1/250. This makes me curious as to whether the mechanics do in fact differ, or whether it’s some oddity of numbering. After all, there’s very little difference in terms of exposure between 1/200 and 1/250 – in most circumastances, and particularly with negative film, it wouldn’t even be noticeable.) In addition, the newer one has a modernised 1/4″ tripod mount, whereas the older camera possesses a larger 3/8″ screw thread. Cosmetically, the branding on the top plate differs, with the older version having a raised/engraved and silvered logo, compared to the simpler printed metal plate of the newer one. Several sources indicate that the reasoning behind the different logo designs was that the stamps used to make them wore out quite quickly, and a fresh one was then created, which seems like a logical explanation.
The Lubitel, (which means ‘amateur’), was produced between 1949 and 1956, and exported to an international market (although as Alfred Klomp points out, whilst there was a version named ‘Amatör’ for the East German market, “it’s interesting that GOMZ didn’t name their general export version the ‘Amateur’, [perhaps] because anyone not familiar with socialist naming philosophy would be [put off] by such a catch-all, uncompetitive name“.) The later Lubitel 2 was produced between 1955 and 1980, overlapping production dates with the 166 and then the 166B and -U.
Despite Lomo’s comparatively small production of cameras, it still inspired a group of students, and the early 1990s saw the birth of the Lomography art movement, a movement which has, undoubtedly, helped to keep the film industry ticking over. It’s easy to see why the older cameras are as sought after as the brand new remade models. Even the odd little faults can often be part of the charm, and from a less purist and more artistic approach, happy accidents and interesting little surprises are part of the fun (although not, of course, on those occasions when you discover that the camera has a light leak big enough to ruin every shot – but, you take the rough with the smooth, and employ liberal application of Gorilla tape next time).
As an aside, it excites me a little to think of what these cameras might have ‘seen’ in all that time. Whose hands have released the shutter, whose eyes have carefully composed in the viewfinders. This is all part of the draw of old things, for me. Not only cameras, but relics of history in general. They seem to posses soul, which the brand new lacks.
Soviet Cams http://www.sovietcams.com
Alfred Klomp http://cameras.alfredklomp.com/lubitel2/
Lubitel Wiki http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lubitel