This week I am delighted to introduce a guest contribution to the blog from Mr. William Fagan. William is a fellow camera collector, photographer and photographic historian. He has written articles on photography, photographic equipment and photographic history for magazines in the UK, US and Ireland and is currently researching the history of photography in Ireland from 1840 to the present. He has kindly contributed this article on the famous Vest Pocket Kodak, often known as the soldier’s camera. While I have a VPK in my own collection, I have yet to put any film through it and so I am extremely grateful to William for providing an in-depth exploration of this historic camera.
In The Pocket: Photography From World War One
Kodak is probably the most significant name in the history of photography and it was the company that was most responsible for popularising photography not only with its film products but also with its various easy to use camera products for the mass market. At one stage, photography was even called ‘Kodakery’ by some. Now that I have a collection of most camera models made by Leica, I have turned my attention to significant cameras in the history of photography such as the Nikon F and various Kodak models, such as the Brownie and the Vest Pocket Kodak (VPK) shown below.
I had intended to acquire one of these for some time but it was this article in the Amateur Photographer and the publication of the book by John Cooksey, which spurred me on to finally make a purchase.
I first bought the book which not only gives some background about the camera and its workings but also gives examples of photographs taken on the front line in World War 1. The camera reached its greatest fame during the war period, when many VPKs were carried to the battlefield by soldiers. It became known to many as ‘the Soldiers Kodak’. It is difficult to say that the battlefield images in Cooksey’s book are ‘wonderful’ in all the circumstances, but a lot of them show remarkable images taken under the most appalling circumstances. One famous set of photographs in the book are those of the famous football match on Christmas Day 2014. Cooksey’s book goes into the discomfort felt by British authorities because of the publication of such photos. This led to a general Routine Order being issued by Sir John French Commander of Chief of the British Expeditionary Force in December 1914 to the effect that ‘the taking of photographs is not permitted’. This led in time to a War Office Instruction in March 1915 that ‘any officers or soldiers… found in possession of a camera will be placed in arrest’. As a result of these orders the number of photographs from the front diminshed but there continued to be some from officers and soldiers and, also, as we will see later, from some chaplains as well.
The Kodak Vest Pocket Camera was introduced in 1912 and continued in production until 1926. There were several variations with different lens types described here. The main change introduced during the life of the camera was the introduction of the Autographic Model in 1915. This involved a small door at the back with a stylus on which details could be written, which would show up on the final photograph, something that was way ahead of its time. In 1913 Kodak had a paid a sum of $300,000 to Henry Gaisman for his patent method of writing on film. At the time, this was the largest amount ever paid for an industrial patent. This led to the production of a special Autographic Model, which was introduced in 1915. The example I have is an Autographic model which uses 127 film.
The 127 film available today does not have the carbon backing so the autographic feature cannot be used. Today’s equivalent of the VPK is, of course, the smartphone. I have shown the camera folded here along with my iPhone 6 and it is remarkable how similar they are in size in plan view.
And yes, the VPK will fit in a modern shirt pocket.
Another feature of the VPK is that the camera is a ‘bottom loader’ (well ‘top loader’ actually or ‘side loader’ when the camera is in portrait mode) just like a Leica as this photo along with a Leica I Model A shows;
I got the manual for the camera after I had taken some photos but the main controls, which can be seen below, are intuitive.
The top control contains the shutter speed markings for what the manual describes as the ‘Autotime Scale Method’ with references to Brilliant, Clear, Gray, Dull and Very Dull, a bit like the famous ‘Sunny 16’ method so familiar to photographers from the film era. The timings suggested are, of course, for the film of the day, which would have been very ‘slow’ by today’s standards. ISO ratings as we know them did not exist during the period that the VPK was in production. The film I used was ISO 100 but I was able to make a good guess about exposures. The top scale shows 1/25th, B, T and 1/50th as well as suggested timings for Gray, Dull and Very Dull complete with a ‘tripod warning’. I used 1/50th as the film was much faster than that for which the camera was made. The camera does not have a focussing mechanism. The lower scale which reads, 1 Near View Portrait, 2 Average View, 3 Distant View and 4 Clouds Marine is not a distance focussing scale but rather it stops down the aperture which as all good photographers know, increases the depth of field. It was a bright day when I used the camera and I largely used setting 3.
In choosing a subject or project for the camera, I wanted to get a subject, which related to World War 1. The Irish National War Memorial Gardens are in Islandbridge, about 4 miles from my home in Dublin. The Gardens were built in the 1930s, to a design by the famous architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens. Lutyens had an Irish mother and, therefore, had some connection to the country. The gardens were originally intended to be a memorial to the 49,400 Irish persons who died in World War 1 but since they were built the gardens have become a memorial to Irish persons who have died in all conflicts. The photo of the Visitors’ Guide below shows the wonderful layout of Lutyen’s design.
The 127 film which is used in the VPK is very difficult to acquire nowadays. I used a roll of ISO 100 Rera Pan, which I obtained from Nik and Trick’s Photographic Supplies in Folkestone, Kent, UK. This is produced in Japan, by a company called Kawauso-shoten. Nik and Trick also had Rerapan 127 film for colour slides, but because of the issues with calculating and executing exposure with the VPK, which are described above, I decided to go with the greater exposure latitude available from black and white negative film. I also wanted to get an authentic ‘1915 feel’ from my photographs. Nik and Trick also did the processing of my 127 roll for me.
Each roll of 127 film has 8 exposures on it. I, therefore, had to choose what to photograph carefully. I had purchased two rolls and I decided I would not use the second roll until I saw the results from the first one. Generally, the shoot went well. My biggest difficulties included seeing what was in the viewfinder, which has two settings, one for portrait mode and one for landscape mode. I also had some difficulty with holding the camera steady with the arthritis in my left hand. I then, however, hit a spot around frame 4 where I found that the film would not wind on. I think that the turning key got detached from the film spindle at that stage. I went into a shaded spot and loosened the ‘bottom plate’ and after some jiggling I got the camera winding again. Light leaks and artifacts have shown up on some frames as well as the effects of shakiness from my arthritic left hand.
I was very pleased, thrilled in fact, to find when I received the results back by Dropbox (sounds strange when the camera came from 1915) that 50% (4) of the shots were very usable.
The first is this shot of the Temple on the outskirts of the Gardens.
The floor of this contains some lines from the poem ‘ War Sonnet II: Safety’ by Rupert Brooke.
The next one, which contains some artifacts, perhaps from loosening the ‘bottom plate’ is of the Book Rooms and Pergola. I quite like the effect created by the artifacts.
These Book Rooms contain details of those who died in the conflict and other related items. The Pergola is said by some to represent an area of rest for wounded combatants.
This photo shows the central area of gardens with ponds, obelisks and walls.
The final photo shows one of two giant circular sunken rose gardens at either end of the main the main garden.
It is said that Lutyens had intended that the rose gardens would be tranquil memorial spots devoid of all military symbolism, but others have suggested that the sunken gardens were inspired by Roman arenas for gladiatorial combat.
My photos of the Memorial Gardens were as close as I got to World War 1. The Cooksey book includes a picture of Irish soldiers at Gallipoli, specifically the Dublin Fusiliers on a beach under fire and some wounded Munster Fusiliers on board a lighter in the foreground. This is said to have been taken by a VPK. As for Irish photographers who may have used a VPK I have looked at the work of the famous Irish Jesuit priest photographer Fr Frank Browne who has been called ‘the Irish Cartier Bresson’. These photos are contained in the book called Father Browne’s First World War. Father Browne served as a chaplain to the Irish Guards during WW1 and he did take photos on the battlefield despite the Orders and Instructions mentioned above. He was, in fact, sponsored by Kodak, for reasons which I give below. I am surmising, therefore, that Father Browne did use the VPK, which seems to have been the camera of choice on the battlefield.
This photo was taken by Father Browne at Ypres in 1916.
Another photo taken by Father Browne after the war was this one of the writer Rudyard Kipling visiting the Irish Guards in 1919.
Kipling’s son John had died in combat with the Irish Guards during the war. He had been turned down by the Royal Navy because of poor eyesight, but Kipling was friends with the Colonel of the Irish Guards and so John went into the Irish Guards. Kipling wrote a poem about his son called ‘My Boy Jack’.
I mentioned above that Father Browne was sponsored by Kodak. He was given free film for life by Kodak. This was because he was the last person to have taken photographs (to be seen here) on board the Titanic and his photos taken on Kodak film were circulated world wide at the time, including this one, with some double exposure, of the wireless room on the Titanic.
Father Browne had a lucky break on the Titanic, which ensured that he would live to photograph WW1 and many other subjects for years to come. He travelled from Liverpool to Queenstown (now Cobh pronounced ‘Cove’) in Cork on the Titanic. On the boat he befriended a wealthy American family who offered to buy him a ticket for the onward journey to New York. He was a clerical student at the time and he had to telegraph his Provincial (religious superior) in order to get permission to travel. When he arrived in Cobh he received the following terse response by telegraph ‘Get off that ship- Provincial’. Thus he survived the sinking of the Titanic and went on to photograph World War 1 and a great many other events and places. I wonder, though, whether the Jesuits knew something about the ultimate fate of the Titanic.
Going back to the Memorial Gardens, I had brought a 1930s Kodak Beau Brownie with some colour Portra ISO 160 120 film inside. The results were not that great due to a stiff shutter and I will do another article about the Brownie, which was another great populariser of photography. As a representative sample this photo must do.
I brought my current main camera, a Leica M10 with a 35mm Summicron lens, as I knew that with only 8 shots on a roll the VPK would take my coverage only so far. My first shot with that combination was this one of what is known as ‘The War Stone’.
The inscription on the stone is a biblical one chosen by Rudyard Kipling whose son died fighting with the Irish Guards. The 3 chaps on the left asked me to take their photo on a smartphone (today’s VPK ?). They seemed to have a huge interest in the war graves, perhaps because of relatives, and they told me that they had asked in advance to enter into the Book Rooms. Because I had taken their photo together they asked me if I would like to join them in the guided tour of the Book Rooms.
Before we left the War Stone I took this photo of one of the wreaths, which was from the Apostolic Nunciature, which is the Vatican Embassy in Ireland. A lot of the wreaths were from Foreign Embassies as well as from the usual regimental and British Legion sources.
In the Book Rooms we saw the books recording those Irish people who died in World War one. The edges of the books were decorated by the Irish artist Harry Clarke, whose speciality was stained glass windows. The light was poor in the small Book Rooms, which filled up quickly with five people. I had to shoot wide open and at an angle in order to avoid light reflections.
The largest item on display in another Book Room (there are 4 in all) was the wooden Ginchy Cross, which stood in a field in France, commemorating fallen members of the 16th Irish Division until the mid 1920s. When the wooden cross was replaced by a stone one, it was taken back to Dublin and then placed in the Gardens when they were completed in the 1930s.
Also in the Book Rooms, but unfortunately in poor light at the bottom of a display case, was a bronze memorial plaque called a ‘Death Penny’ which was issued to the next of kin to all British and Empire personnel who were killed as a result of World War 1.
Finally, here are some photos taken around the Gardens, some of which are of buildings and areas, which appear in the VPK and Brownie photos.
Click slider to view all images.
It is, of course, ludicrous to compare the photos taken by cameras made 102 years apart. I will, however, nail my colours to the mast by saying that I like the photos taken by the VPK just as much as those taken by the Leica M10. Ultimately, photographic quality is all about the photographer and not the equipment. Taking that 100+ years into account, I always point to the photos taken by those two great Antarctic Photographers, Herbert Ponting and Frank Hurley, between 1911 and 1916 and say that today’s photographers would find it very difficult to do better, even with a fine black and white camera like the Leica Monochrom. Many of the battlefield photos in Cooksey’s book are also of a very high quality considering what a humble little camera was used to take them and the circumstances in which they were taken. I would not even begin to compare my photography with that of any of those photographers.
I greatly enjoyed this photographic project. What next for my VPK? Well, I still have one roll of Rera Pan 127 film left over. What I just need is another suitable project for it. Any suggestions would be gratefully received.