As a professional archivist, understanding the context and provenance of archival material is hugely important. When I look at my camera collecting, I have applied a similar criteria to my hobby. I often like to collect cameras which are representative of a significant development in the history of photography or history in general and I am also drawn to cameras that have an interesting provenance or story. Last year, all of these criteria were fulfilled when I acquired a Kodak Retina 118.
The Kodak Retina 118
My interest in acquiring an early Kodak Retina originated from the fact that it was significant in the history of photography as being the first camera to use Kodak’s new daylight loading 35mm cassettes designed by Dr. August Nagel. Dr. Nagel also designed the Kodak Retina itself, a folding clamshell style camera first introduced in 1934 with the Nr.117 model and manufactured in Stuttgart. Nagel was a prolific camera designer who had worked for Zeiss Ikon. He left Zeiss in 1928 to form his own company Dr. Nagel Werke. In 1931 Kodak acquired the company forming their German subsidiary Kodak AG.
While the Retina 117 is sought after as it is the first Retina model, my own search was for the second model, the Nr. 118 which had an interesting association. The Kodak Retina 118 was the camera that was used by Sir Edmund Hillary to take his famous photo of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay at the summit of Mount Everest on 29 May 1953. So here is a camera model associated with an extremely significant moment in history as the two men became the first to summit Everest.
The Retina 118 was manufactured from 1935-1936 and was aesthetically the same as the 117 in regard to its black lacquered top housing and body edges and nickel plated control surfaces. The main difference on the 118 is that the film advance release lever was moved to the back of the top housing. On the 117 it had been located on the top housing next to the film advance knob.
The viewfinder of the Kodak Retina 118 protrudes from the top of the camera and serves only to help you frame the image as the camera is not a rangefinder. It is up to the user to determine the distance between camera and subject and choose the appropriate distance on the focusing scale from 1 meter to infinity. The shutter speed is set by rotating a dial on the front of the lens while the shutter is manually cocked using a small lever to the left of the lens and then released by either a plunger button to the left or a small lever to the right. The Kodak Retina 118 comes with either a Compur or Compur rapid shutter with a top speed of 1/300th or 1/500th depending on the shutter type. There is the option of a timer and bulb mode. Aperture ranges from f/3.5 to f/16 and is set by moving a small sliding knob on the bottom of the lens body. The lens is a Schneider Xenar 50mm.
I began my search to add a Kodak Retina 118 to my collection and I knew that I wanted a camera which was in good enough condition to shoot with. I came across a listing for a Retina 118 which, while not cosmetically perfect, had been serviced. The seller had proof of the service and could vouch for the fact that it was fully functioning. The camera arrived and I was instantly enamoured with its beautiful aesthetic and pocketable size.
Using a Kodak Retina 118
To use the Retina 118 you have to press a silver button on the bottom of the camera which allows you to open door and extend the bellows into position. There is a little foot on the door which can be used to pull the door down and to let the camera stand up. The first thing that strikes you when you start shooting with the Kodak Retina 118, is that the controls are tiny. I have small hands and I still found it fiddly to set the shutter speed and aperture. The second thing, as mentioned previously, is that you have to use the distance scale to focus. This is something that I have been working on learning as it does not come naturally to me. Aside from that, the camera is a joy to shoot with, compact to carry and discreet to use while out on the street.
Loading film into the Kodak Retina 118 is easy. Inside the film advance winder there is a switch, make sure this is set to A, it can also be set to R but this is for rewinding when you have shot the full roll. Open up the camera back and load in your film making sure it is secured in the take up spool. There is a little advance switch just under the viewfinder, you must use this switch each time you want to advance the film. Advance the film a little and then set your exposure counter to number one and you are ready to go. To unload your film when you have finished a roll, set the switch inside the film advance winder to R and turn the rewind knob clockwise until the roll is back in the canister. There is nothing overly complicated about using the Retina 118 once you remember to use the film advance switch under the viewfinder each time you wind on your film.
Despite my apprehension at using a camera with scale focusing, I was pleased with the results of my first roll. There were one or two blurry shots due to my unsteady hand but nothing was wildly out of focus, a big win for me. I shot the first roll on two different occasions and felt more confident in using the camera on my second attempt having become more competent at using the small controls and focusing. This also allowed me to enjoy the process more and focus on composing my shots. It is a camera I would be happy to use regularly as it doesn’t take up too much space in my camera bag and the initial results have been better than expected. I think that with more practice I could achieve better results with this little camera. I would also like to see the results of using colour film. The Kodak Retina 118 could be a contender as a travelling companion.
An Interesting Provenance
As much as I enjoyed shooting with the Kodak Retina 118, the real joy of this particular camera comes from its interesting military provenance. When I purchased my Retina 118 I noticed something interesting about the camera case. There was a name embossed on a patch stuck to the inside of the lid, Wing Commander P.R. Casement. Much like Alice in Wonderland, I subsequently fell down a rabbit hole and discovered the fascinating story of my camera’s one time owner.
Peter Reginald Casement
Peter Reginald Casement was born on the 22nd of May 1921 at Ballycastle, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Searches on The Peerage indicate that he was born into a family with a long history of military service and achievement. His father, Edgar Reginald Casement, served in the First World War and gained the rank of Captain in the Royal Engineers. He worked as the deputy Chief Engineer for the Indian State Railway and a ship passenger list from the S.S. City of Nagpur in December 1923, shows a two year old Peter arriving back to Liverpool with his father, mother and sister.
Out of curiosity, I also looked into the family’s connection to another famous Casement. Sir Roger Casement was a diplomat and Irish nationalist who was hanged on the 3rd of August 1916 in Pentonville prison on the charge of treason. He was arrested in Ireland upon his return from Germany where he had been attempting to secure German support for the cause of Irish Independence. Peter Reginald Casement and Sir Roger Casement were indeed related, Sir Roger’s grandfather being a half brother of Peter’s great grandfather.
Peter was educated at Marlborough College and began his flying career in 1939 when he learned to fly Tiger Moths in Coventry. He flew solo for the first time after just 11 hours and 30 minutes of training. In 1941 he joined No. 61 Squadron which had originally been formed as a fighter squadron of the British Royal Flying Corps during the First World War. It was re-formed in March 1937 as a bomber squadron of the Royal Air Force and Peter would become one of the very few pilots to have seen service throughout the Second World War.
In the summer of 1942, No. 61 Squadron was twice loaned to the Royal Air Force Coastal Command for anti-submarine operations in the Bay of Biscay. On July 17th 1942 during the Battle of the Atlantic, a crew captained by Flight Lieutenant Peter Reginald Casement flying Lancaster I R5724, became the first Bomber Command crew to bring back photographic evidence that they had destroyed a U-boat at sea. In his book Deep Sea Hunters, Martin Bowman describes in detail the sinking of U-751 and Peter’s role in it. Having survived initial attacks, U-571 resurfaced and Lancaster R5724 piloted by Casement was orbiting overhead. Bowman writes:
“U-751 was drifting helplessly on the fringe of an oil patch larger than a football field. Just before two o’clock in the afternoon, as Casement ran in to attack, U-751 returned fire with all her guns. At two o’clock, according to his log, he bombed the submarine again. The Lancaster dropped ten close Mark VIII depth charges and then a string of ASW bombs. The U-boat was now so low in the water that at times it disappeared in the wash of the bombs. At a minute past two the submarine’s crew jumped to the deck gun and fired at the Lancaster. A minute later the aircraft replied. Two minutes later Casement bombed again. After another six minutes U-751 began to slide stern first beneath the sea and the crew threw themselves overboard ‘some of them shaking fists in defiance’ reported the Lancaster crew. The bow of the U-boat rose vertically and she sank.”
Peter had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in October 1941 and his role in the sinking of the U-boat led to his being awarded the Bar in August 1942 and a Distinguished Service Order in December 1942. The London Gazette from Friday 28th August 1942 which issues notices of medals awarded states:
Air Ministry 1st September 1942.
Acting Flight Lieutenant Peter Reginald Casement, D.F.C. (44185) No. 61 Squadron.
Flight Lieutenant Casement is an outstanding captain and pilot. He has completed numerous operational missions, during which he has attacked highly important industrial targets in Germany; he has also completed several patrols over the Atlantic and has assisted in the destruction of a U-boat. Throughout his operational career, this officer has displayed great efficiency and devotion to duty which have proved a source of encouragement to his fellow captains.
After World War Two, Peter was posted to Amman in the Middle East and then returned to the United Kingdom in 1948. In 1951 he was awarded an Air Force Cross (AFC), a military decoration awarded for “an act or acts of exemplary gallantry while flying, though not in active operations against the enemy“. In the same year he was appointed to the rank of Wing Commander. In 1960 he was awarded the rank of Group Captain and his later career featured stints at RAF Binbrook and at home in Northern Ireland where he was attached to HMS Eagle. He also worked with Nato submarines, at RAF Mountabatten in Plymouth and RAF Topcliffe in Yorkshire. He retired in 1968 having flown 3,800 hours in twenty seven different aircraft during an extraordinary career. Following his retirement he moved to South Devon with his wife where he remained until his death on the 12th December 2016.
In the course of my research on Peter, I discovered that his personal archive including his medals, uniforms, photographs, log books and documents were sold at auction in 2019 by Chilcotts Auctioneers. Articles regarding the auction state that his log books documented the RAF’s nightly missions while his notebooks provided insight into the airmen’s night-time battles with the cold, poor visibility, navigation problems, sickness and enemy searchlights. All of the photographs in the archive were taken from the planes that Peter flew and provide a pilots view of other planes and locations that he flew over. Chilcotts website states that the collection sold for £21,000 in June 2019. I was unable to find out where the collection has ultimately ended up, but as an archivist, I hope that it will be preserved with the utmost of care and consideration given its historical significance.
More than just a camera
Uncovering the story of Peter Reginald Casement has been an absolute joy and has added another layer of interest to my Kodak Retina 118. I will likely never know if this camera ever flew in a plane with Peter, but it is no longer simply a camera, an object for making images. It is linked inextricably to history through its association with a gentleman who deserves to be better known than he is. It is fitting, I think, that a camera which was once owned by the pilot who brought back the first photographic evidence of a U-boat sinking, should end up in the hands of an archivist and camera collector. In telling Peter’s story, I hope that it is apparent that sometimes a camera is so much more than just a camera.