|Graphic Film Pack Adapter. The lack of a zip code indicates that the adapter is pre-1965 or 1966 vintage.|
|Sealed Versapan film pack, probably late-1960s vintage.|
Would You Like Some Film Packs?
A good friend here in town is an experienced and very capable photographer with over five decades of experience. Early this year (2020), his wife emailed me wondering if I would like a couple of his film packs because they wanted to make space in the freezer. I thought, film packs? I had not used one since the early 1970s. They still exist? Come to find out, a couple meant an entire cooler full, and my friend had stored them in various freezers since the late 1960s! Well, this sounded like a photographic adventure, so I graciously accepted this generous gift.
|1960s-vintage GAF VersaPan and Kodak Tri-X film packs in their original foil packages|
What is a Film Pack?
A film pack is a metal box which holds 16 sheets of thin-based 4×5 inch film. Each sheet is attached to a numbered black paper tab. You place the metal box in a film pack adapter. My friend gave me an adapter made by the American company Graphic (see the first photograph). The user starts the film pack by pulling and then tearing off the initial tab of black paper. Then frame no. 1 is ready to use. Focus and compose your 4×5 camera as normal, and then insert the Graphic adapter. Pull the dark slide and take exposure no. 1. Then carefully pull the tab, and that first sheet of film pulls under the rest of the stack to the back of the group.
This makes sheet no. 2 ready to use in the front of the pack. In the photographs below, I have shown the handsome red metal film pack in the adapter and well as one of the 4×5 sheets pulled partway. When you expose sheet 16, you pull the tab and you have finished the pack. You can then remove the metal from the adapter in subdued daylight. The film manufacturers warn you to not press on the exposed black paper shield because then you risk a light leak. The pack adapter is a bit thicker then a normal Fidelity or Lisco sheet film holder but should fit under the ground glass of most brands of cameras.
According to Camera-wiki
, Eastman Kodak introduced the film pack in 1903. Over time, at least 12 film sizes were sold, and possibly European manufacturers offered even more. My experience in the 1970s was with 2¼×3¼" film pack in an old Certo Sport camera. I do not remember how many sheets were in that size pack. The most popular size may have been 4×5" because the old time press reporters could take 16 quick exposures with their Speed Graphic cameras at a news event. Then they could pop another pack in the adapter and take another 16 frames. I read somewhere that Kodak finally discontinued their 4×5" film packs around 1992, when the last technician who knew how to assemble the packs retired. By then, most of the demand was gone because press/wedding photographers were using medium format or 35mm cameras.
The film pack lingered on in modified form to hold Polaroid instant films. Fuji's Instax film is a form of film pack.
The main criticism of the film pack was that the film was thin and too flexible. Darkroom users needed to mount the thin film on glass negative holders. With respect to scanning, in my limited experience, the film will lie in the 4×5" holder of my Epson scanner with minimal sagging. Some companies sell holders with anti-Newton glass to ensure that the film would be absolutely flat. Regular 4×5" film is on a much thicker base and does not sag. The film pack film is a slightly larger then normal 4×5, so you need to trim it to fit normal scanner film holders.
|GAF VersaPan film pack rear side. The lid on the adapter is open to show the handsome metal box. The paper tabs extend out of a slot on the top.|
|Front side with one sheet of 4×5" film partly pulled around the pack. When the pack adapter is not in the camera, a dark slide protects this surface. |
|Graphic film pack under ground glass of a Tachihara 4×5" field camera. The adapter is thicker than the standard Lisco or Fidelity 2-sided film holder.|
Tachihara Field Camera
|Tachihara 4×5" field camera with a 135mm ƒ/4.5 Schneider Xenar lens.|
The Tachihara is a light weight Japanese wood field camera. I bought this one in 1982 from Lee Beeder Cameras of California via mail order. I was inspired to try 4×5" by Fred Picker's Zone VI Newsletters
. Picker was a controversial fellow and very fond of himself, but he did a good service to the photographic world by emphasizing large format photography in the era when most photographers had switched to 35mm cameras. The 1960s and 1970s were the years when 35mm press photographers seemed so glamorous and were taking shocking photographs in war zones. Most press photographers had discarded their Speed Graphics and other large cameras a decade earlier. Picker emphasized how a large negative could make magnificent prints that were simply impossible with the small film of a 35mm camera. The newsletters were well-written, and you can find them on the Internet Archive
(highly recommended). Picker eventually sold Zone VI to Calumet Photographic, and Calumet is now gone, as well. His darkroom products and cameras sell quickly on eBay.
GAF and Ansco Film
Ansco was an American company founded in 1842. The company expanded into photographic products in 1847 and invented celluloid flexible roll film. Kodak used (stole) the technology and eventually lost a 12-year patent lawsuit to Ansco. As summarized in VintageCameraLab.com
, the German film company, Agfa, merged with Ansco and renamed the new operation Agfa-Ansco. Agfa-Ansco thrived after the takeover, producing cameras, films, and photographic papers. Upon America's entry in World War II, the U.S. Government seized Ansco’s operations as enemy property because of the German ownership and its complicated association with the American IG Chemical Corporation (part of the IG Farben empire). During the war, production shifted to military optics like sextants and bomber sights, and the “Agfa-Ansco” brand reverted to just “Ansco.”
After the war, Ansco remained under U.S. Government ownership and control until 1965, at which time it sold shares to the public. Post-war, Ansco thrived, selling 2 million cameras per year at its peak, as well as selling rebranded cameras from Agfa, Ricoh, Chinon, and Minolta. In 1967, Ansco changed its name to General Aniline & Film (GAF), an old-line American company that was best known for roofing shingles but who also had a photographic products division. The GAF film factory was in Binghamton, New York. From the 1950s to the 1970s, Ansco/GAF was Eastman Kodak's largest competitor in the US market. At some stage of this complicated history, International Paper owned both GAF and Ilford. I have read that the two companies shared some film or paper technology. In 1977, GAF finally ended production of consumer films, although the manufacture of other films continued (I assume aerial photography, X-ray, and other industrial products). Ilford, of course, still exists and makes a full range of excellent films.
Ansco offered some innovative products, including color films and the first ASA 500 slide film. Most of Ansco's color products have not survived the years well and have suffered severe color shifts and fading. But photographers praised the black and white films.
I tried to find information on the web about Versapan film but found very little. This is not surprising considering that it was discontinued at least 40 years ago. A few notes said it was an excellent product, but one needs to beware that the "good old days" often sound romantically good on internet forums. A Popular Science
magazine from November, 1963, contained a short paragraph describing the new film. At that time, Versapan roll film was rated at ASA (American Standards Association) 125. A 1969 US Army still photography manual listed the cut film at a speed of 100.
Needless to say, with 50-year-old film, you are not sure how it will respond. Old film tends to lose sensitivity, so for my first pack, I decided to take triple exposures at each site using EI (exposure index) = 64, 32, and 16. With a pack holding 16 sheets, this would give me five scenes with one extra frame left over from the pack.
The next challenge was developing the film. I do not have a darkroom any more and therefore could not use open trays. My Jobo 4×5 daylight kit is for regular thick-based film. After some inquiries, I sent it to Northeast Photographic
in Maine, where the owner developed the Versapan in Xtol using Jobo tanks. He reported that the film looked like new. I subsequently scanned the negatives with an Epson 3200 Photo scanner at 2400 dpi and cleaned minor blobs and scratches with Photoshop CS5's heal tool (the icon that looks like a bandage).
The Mississippi Delta
During our somewhat loose virus shutdown, I drove north into the Mississippi Delta several times to get out of the house, explore, use my Tachihara camera, and test the Versapan film. I like overcast days when the sky looks ominous and rain is pending. My first test was to compare the GAF Versapan with Kodak Tri-X Professional film. In the example of an old store in Yazoo City, Mississippi, the first frame is from Tri-X while the second is Versapan. The Tri-X recorded a little more texture in the sky, but the contrast of one or the other could be adjusted during scanning. I certainly can't claim that one is "better" than the other. The Versapan is fine grain and records fine detail. Remember, this film is five decades old.
|CocaCola store, West Broadway, Yazoo City, Mississippi (Tri-X 400 film, Schneider 135mm ƒ/4.5 Xenar lens)|
|CocaCola store, West Broadway, Yazoo City, Mississippi (Versapan film, Schneider 135mm ƒ/4.5 Xenar lens)|
I drove along Levee Road west of Yazoo City and saw an interesting petroleum tank farm. The scene let me test the ability of the film to record the dark tank cars as well as the clouds. It passed with flying colors! This was a gloomy day with spitting rain on and off. I cropped the center section to show the signs on the tank cars, which are almost legible. The grain is tight.
|Tank Farm, Rialto Rd., Yazoo City, Mississippi, USA (Versapan film, 180mm ƒ/5.6 Caltar IIN lens, yellow filter, ⅛ sec. ƒ/11.3)|
|Crop of railroad cars at 100% scale, no sharpening|
The little town of Midnight had an unused cotton gin with interesting shapes and textures. Many gins are unused now because farmers have shifted to soybeans or corn.
|Midnight Gin, Old US 49, Midnight, Mississippi (Versapan film, Schneider 135mm ƒ/4.5 Xenar lens, yellow filter, ⅒ sec ƒ/22.5)|
By the time I reached Holly Bluff, the sun was beginning to break through the clouds. Some old storage silos glowed in the light. I think the Versapan does very well with metal and silver objects.
|Silos, MS 16 north of Holly Bluff, Mississippi (Versapan film, Schneider 90mm ƒ/6.8 Angulon lens, 1/100 sec ƒ/11)|
I took this picture with a tiny 90mm ƒ/6.8 Angulon lens that I bought recently. It does not have much extra coverage for the 4×5" format, but I really like the rendering on black and white film. The filter thread is 40.5mm, for which I have a Series VI adapter and various Leitz filters.
Returning to Vicksburg, the photograph below is a nasty bayou (creek) which flows under 61 Bypass. I used a green filter to help lighten the foliage. This is an example of a high-contrast scene where the Versapan only retained some detail in the light sky.
|Bliss Creek at N. Washington Street and US 61, Vicksburg, Mississippi (Versapan film, 180mm ƒ/5.6 Caltar IIN lens, green filter, ⅛ sec ƒ/11.7)|
Some Concluding Remarks
Well, this was a pleasant surprise. Using a film pack on my 4×5" camera took me back to an earlier time. I really liked the convenience of having 16 frames in one easy-to-change cartridge. I had not used this camera in a number of years, and this was the incentive I needed to exercise it again. With regular Fidelity or Lisco film holders, each one holds only 2 sheets, and I need to load them in a dark closet at night. For a long day's outing, one can easily fill a cooler with holders (I mention cooler because in summer you want to avoid excess heat.). But with three convenient and thin film packs, you have 48 sheets ready to use. The bad news: as far as I know, no one packages regular film (i.e., not instant) in film packs any more.
The second surprise: this thin-base Versapan is still viable and looks good, even after five decades storage. Traditional silver gelatin emulsion is truly an amazing chemical and optical invention, despite the disparaging troll comments from the D crowd. For most projects, I will continue to use Kodak Tri-X, but it is a nice option to have this "antique" Versapan available. I will post some more examples in the future here on Urban Decay
Thank you for reading. I have written about Tri-X 400 roll film on the 35mmc blog
before. Stay well, record your world, and always explore.
This is no. 03 of my irregular series on Abandoned Films.