Sunday, May 29, 2022

The Menlo Post Office (Small Towns in Washington 01)

Menlo Post Office (Kodak Gold 200 film, Retina IIa camera, 50mm ƒ/2 Xenon lens)

Menlo is an unincorporated community in the Willapa Valley of Pacific County, Washington. It is on WA state route 6, which takes you to the Pacific coast from I-5 in central west Washington near Chehalis. Interesting note: the 56-mile Willapa Hills State Park Trail follows Rte 6 on the former Northern Pacific Railroad line. What an incredible ride. 

"Reach for the batter-whipped bread" (Gold 200 film)

We wanted a drink and looked in the Post Office/store. This proved to be an interesting place. I always love to visit small stores like this.

Have a seat, a soda, and some petrol

The store/Post Office had an impressive collection of snapshots of generations of high school graduates,  babies, and miscellaneous townsfolk. This must be the town archive. The post mistress said the original store burned in the 1920s, This was the "new" store - from 1924.  

The first two photographs are from my new/old 1950s Kodak Retina IIa camera on Gold 200 film. It has the right vibe for this type of subject matter, and the optical quality is excellent.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

1950s Optical Excellence: Kodak Retina IIa Camera

Kodak Retina IIa, made in West Germany from 1951-1954


The Kodak Retina was a highly-respected camera in the 1950s and 1960s. I never used one, but several friends said the lenses and output were excellent. So, in one of my occasional GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) episodes, I started looking on the infamous eBay (now known as ePrey). Amazingly, some bargains in film equipment are still to be found there, but you need to be patient and look at the descriptions carefully. In early March (2022) this handsome little Retina model IIa (Type 016) came from a US vendor for all of $37, including shipping. It also included a medium yellow filter and a case. $37? How is this possible?

Retina Cameras

The most famous Retinas were folding cameras. This means the lens would pivot or fold into the body to make the unit more portable. You click a button to release the front door, and it swings open and shifts the lens into position. Before WWII and through the 1950s, folders were popular because they were compact. Medium format models tended to have problems with lens alignment, but 35mm models were smaller and more rigid. Zeiss Ikon, Agfa, Voigtländer, Certo, and other companies made various models. The finest may have been Voigtländer's Vito III with its superb 50mm Ultron lens, one of the best 50s of the mid-20th century. But Kodak sold the largest number of folders.

By the mid-1950s, solid body cameras became the dominant design because the lens could be mounted more precisely and remain aligned over time. 

Kodak made these superb little Retina cameras at their Nagel-werke subsidiary in Stuttgart, Germany. For reasons that I never understood, the mighty Eastman Kodak Company was unable to successfully make higher-end 35mm cameras in the USA. They made millions of snapshooter-level cameras for casual photographers, and their large-format lenses were well-respected, but precision 35mm cameras for enthusiasts eluded them. 

Dr. August Nagel himself designed the original Retina in 1934. It held Kodak's 35mm metal film cassette, the same format that we still use today. Various Retinas of increasing sophistication followed for the next 35 years. 

The models are confusing, and a Wikipedia article and list the varieties of the post-war models in more detail than I can:

  1. I series. 1945-1960. Viewfinder folding cameras with ƒ/3.5 to ƒ/2 lenses.
  2. II series. 1946-1958. Nagel-werke added a rangefinder to improve focussing. My IIa is in this group and has a superb 50mm ƒ/2 Schneider Xenon lens.
  3. III series. 1954-1960. The most sophisticated models with both a selenium light meter and rangefinder. Most of the selenium meters have failed by now.
    • The IIIc models allowed the front optical group to be exchanged with 35mm and 80mm groups. It was clumsy but worked. 
    • The IIIC (large C) models had an improved viewfinder and also accepted the interchangeable front lens elements. 
  4. S series. Rigid bodies, 1958-1966. The IIIS used interchangeable lenses with the DKL (or Deckel) mount. They needed the S series lenses with a focus cam for the rangefinder. Beautiful cameras but very complicated internally
  5. Retina Reflex. 1957-1967. Totally different leaf shutter bodies. The Type 025 could use the same lens elements as the IIIc series above, while the later Reflex S used the DKL lenses. These did not successfully compete with Japanese reflex cameras in the 1960s. When working, they were excellent optically.
  6. Retinette series. These were lower cost with Reomar triplet lenses. Some of there bodies were almost identical to Retina bodies. 

Retina IIa with front panel closed. The lens and shutter are protected.
Coated Schneider-Kreuznach 50mm ƒ/2 Xenon lens (6 elements), approx. 1952-1953. Filter size: 29.5mm
Shutter with range 1 sec to 1/500 sec. The distance scale is in feet for the US market.
Film guide and spools - all precision machining

My IIa has a 6-element Schneider Xenon lens, a unit focus 6-element design. Unit focus means the entire lens moves forward and back as you focus. This lens is coated, as indicated by the blue tinge and the red arrow on the label. I assume this was a post-war computation, but the early-1950s would have been before the designers used computers for lens design. Rodenstock also supplied lenses for Retinas, usually the models sold in Europe. Notice the precision labels, metalwork, and mounting of the shutter and focus scale.

The filter size is 29.5 mm screw-in. Genuine German Kodak filters are thin enough to remain mounted when the lid is closed. Why do the most modern 50mm Über-lenses for mirrorless cameras need 67 mm or even larger filters? 

More Information

You can find many reviews of Retinas on the web. They are popular with their current owners. I am surprised I do not see them in use. Of course, one rarely sees film cameras at all in use, but someone is buying them as well as film. 

Cameraquest states that the IIa is his favorite model.

Photography & Vintage Cameras also prefers the IIa to other Retina models. 

My friend, Jim Grey, loved his IIa but then let it go, which he now regrets (he will probably buy another one...). He also demonstrated the excellent optics of a IIc model. 

Mike Eckman dot com wrote a detailed review of the IIa and a summary of the Kodak company's association with its German subsidiary. He has reviewed other Retina models, as well.

Chris Sherlock in New Zealand is the reigning expert.

Photo Thinking also loves the IIa.

Random Camera wrote a good review of all German folders, with emphasis on the Retinas. He liked the IIa, too.

Photojottings described the superb and sophisticated Retina IIIC, the one with auxiliary lenses.

All My Cameras liked the II (Type 014), the predecessor to my IIa. 

Is this Retina camera any good?

Well, that is the big question, of course. How is it optically? Here are some Kodak Gold 200 photographs from a recent trip to the Pacific Northwest. Click a frame to see 1600 pixels on the long dimension. You can judge for yourself, and I welcome comments, criticisms, insults, anything.

Olympia, Washington

Port of Olympia (next to the Dancing Goats® Coffee Tasting Room!) 
Swantown Marina, Port of Olympia
Thurston County Food Bank, 220 Thurston Ave., NE, Olympia

The Food Bank serves hundreds in need in the Olympia area with food and other essentials. 

Frog Pond Grocery in the historic South Capitol area (1/250 ƒ/5.6)

Olympia is a nice little city at the south end of Puget Sound. You will see more Olympia photographs in the future. 

Southwest Washington

Driving through rural Washington, interesting photo topics popped up and said, "Photograph me."

I am in the Danger Zone, Rte. 101, Skokomish (1/250 f/8)
Fixer-upper hotel, 311 Main Street, Pe Ell, Washington (1/250 ƒ/11)
Room with a view, Park Avenue, Aberdeen (the building really is curved; 1/100 ƒ/5.6½)

Aberdeen has a wealth of delicious grunginess. It is on my return list.

Astoria, Oregon

Great blue heron, Columbia River, Astoria, Oregon


This little Kodak Retina is a jewel of 1950s Germany precision manufacturing and optical excellence. I certainly can't complain about the lens resolution or body rigidity. Imagine the skill of the technicians who assembled these cameras on workbenches. 

On mine, the rangefinder was cloudy and a bit out of alignment. I sent it to Paul Barden in Corvallis, Oregon, for a thorough cleaning and adjustment. After seven decades, I need a cleaning and adjustment, too! Mr. Barden said the camera was in good condition and minor fungus in the rear group cleaned off without etching the coating. The rangefinder is rather squinty and is not as brilliant and clear as one in a Leica M, but what do you expect?

The leather case was seriously stinky, but I washed it and re-glued the lining to the outer shell. It works well, although normally I am not a user of camera cases. I also fixed four "Zeiss bumps", bumps where rivets under the leather build up a blob of tarnish.

These Retinas are still somewhat inexpensive on the 'Bay. When will they become the next trendy in-thing for film photographers? Buy before the prices go up, and enjoy.

Update July 2022: The cleaned and overhauled the IIa is home. Now I need to make time to use it. Here are photographs of Houston, Texas, in November of 2022.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Decaying Rapidly: Oil Mill of Port Gibson, Mississippi

Oil Mill, Anthony Street (4×5" Fuji Astia film, 135mm Schneider Xenar lens and too-small hood)

In late April (2022), a friend and I drove to Port Gibson, in Claiborne County, to look for interesting photo topics. We had both been to the unused oil mill on Anthony Street before and taken pictures there. But this visit, we were both amazed how the brush, poison ivy, and trees have overtaken the site and engulfed machines. Today, you can barely see through the fence, which supports luxuriant poison ivy growth. The jungle is taking over, as per many of the Life after People episodes. Here are some 2012 photographs from when the site was more visible. At that time, the gates were secure and I could not enter.

 Tachihara 4×5" camera, 135mm ƒ/3.5 Schneider Xenar lens, Fuji Astia film
Mill from corner of Anthony and Vanderhaven Streets (Fuji Astia film)

The Mississippi Cotton Oil mill may have been one of the first oil mills in the United States, with the original brick buildings dating to 1882. Preservation in Mississippi discussed the site in a short 2012 article. In the 1800s, cotton seed arrived by railroad. The rail line ran from the town of Grand Gulf to the depot in Port Gibson, but the tracks are now gone. I do not know when mill operations stopped. 

In February of 2012, I read an article in the Vicksburg Post about the mill, inspiring me to drive south to look at the site.

Disassembly of unit on Anthony Street

On that day, a crew of workers were disassembling machines on the north side of Anthony Street (the side nearest to Bayou Pierre. One of them said the machinery would be shipped to an oil company in Nigeria.

This is the view west along Anthony Street

Intact in 2012
Freshly collapsed approx. 2020 (Ilford Pan-F, Hasselblad 501CM, 50mm ƒ/4 Distagon lens, 1/8 ƒ/11.5)

The front part of this building has collapsed. The brick unit to the rear looks like it is still mostly intact.

Vandeventer Street is rough, just horrifying. Many of these shotgun houses have disappeared. 

Port Gibson has some interesting photographic topics:

The digital photographs above are from my Panasonic G1 µ4/3 camera. This was a very capable 12-mpixel camera, which I used in USA, Europe, and Nepal. Standby for some Hasselblad XPan panoramas in the future.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

The Fan Store of Hanoi


 Fan repair shop on Hàng Bồ, Hanoi

One afternoon, my wife and I were walking down Hàng Bồ in Hanoi's Old Quarter, and we came across this amazing little corner store full of fans. The old gent who ran the shop generously let us look around. I would not be surprised if some of his fans and parts date back to the Indochine Française era. He might have dated back to the French era, too.

Walk up and down the tangle of street, and the French influence on the architecture is all around you in the form of mouldering buildings, some with impossibly ornate decorative elements. As noted in the StarTribune, "The past lives on in the tree-lined avenues, grand villas and sidewalk society of the Paris of Vietnam."

Well, possibly the wiring lacks a bit of the elegance that the French might have preferred. But the internet worked.

What to do after visiting the fan shop and the Hanoi Hilton? Select one of the hundreds of small restaurants or snack shops and eat lunch. The cook will stir-fry your fish and vegetables on the table right in front of you. It does not get much better than this. 

In Season 5 of Bizarre Foods, Andrew Zimmern dined at a restaurant where you can choose your own snake, and they skin it for you right there. We missed that place. 

An afternoon at Tạ Hiện, Hanoi
Snacks and a WiFi signal at Nhà Chung, Hanoi

Cafe society Hanoi style. My back could not handle the low chairs and tables, but the youngsters seemed unfazed.

Hanoi is a fascinating and fun destination. The city is thriving. It looks much better than many mid-continent US cities. The people are energetic and busy with small shops, repairs, banks, restaurants, and restoration projects. Go there.

If you want to see an epic and beautifully-filmed movie about the war for independence in colonial Vietnam, watch "Indochine" (1992, in French), starring Catherine Deneuve. 

And if you want to read how we slipped into war in a post-French Vietnam, read Graham Green's The Quiet American. Mr. Pyle is the naive young American who thinks he can bring "democracy" to Vietnam by backing a certain general. “He was impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance.” The 2003 movie version stars Michael Caine.

I took these photographs with a Fuji X-E1 digital camera. I do not use it often, but when I revive older files, both jpeg or RAW, I am pleased with the optical quality and the uniform performance of the Fuji lenses. 

Sunday, May 1, 2022

More 1960s Excellence: The Canon 50mm ƒ/1.8 Leica Thread Mount (ltm) lens

The 1960s was a decade of amazing innovation and creativity for the Japanese optical companies. They sold equipment equal or even superior to many of the German offerings at the time and eventually dominated sales in the USA. 

Long-term readers may remember that I bought a Canon 50mm ƒ/1.4 ltm lens in 2019. It was superb optically but was a big cylinder that blocked too much of the viewfinder of my little Leica IIIC. I reluctantly sold it and looked for one of the smaller ƒ-stop Canon lenses. 

As I noted in the earlier article, Canon mounted their early post-war lenses in heavy chrome mounts. I wanted one of the lighter weight mid-1960s versions. Problem: many (most?) of these 50mm black barrel ƒ/1.8 lenses suffer from the infamous hazy or etched inner elements. No one has a solid answer why this happens, but the haze was likely caused by gas from the lubricants used in the aperture mechanism. Many of the 1.8 lenses are totally ruined and cannot be cleaned, but once in awhile, one shows up on the infamous 'Bay with a clear interior. 

There's a fungus among us
Precise engraving; brass and aluminum helical mount

I bought one of the 1.8 lenses with clear glass but minor fungus. The Japanese vendor was honest and the price was right. I have used fungus before. The 35mm ƒ/3.5 Leitz Summaron lens that I bought in Buenos Aires in 1982 was a fungus farm. A technician cleaned off the inner coating to remove the fungus, and I proceeded to use the lens for another 15 years. No issues at all, and barely any flare problems. As usual, I wish I had kept that lens.

Here are some initial examples from my Canon 50mm ƒ/1.8 lens in and around Vicksburg, Mississippi on Fuji Acros film. 

2917 Drummond Street (empty for years)
Kansas City Southern rail yard, Levee Street (1/60 ƒ/4.0½)
Have a seat, Valley Street (1/60 ƒ/5.6)
Stouts Bayou footbridge at Avenue A
Stouts Bayou from Letitia Street
Need a mask? Letitia Street
Morgan Lane (1/100 ƒ/5.6, yellow-green filter)
Alma Street, Vicksburg (1/60 ƒ/8)
1920s or 1930s cottage, 2613 Alma Street, Vicksburg (1/60 ƒ/8.0½)

With Vicksburg's hilly terrain, many older homes have serious steps.

Bowmar Avenue house undergoing endless renovation (1/200 ƒ/8, yellow-green filter) 


This is a nice lens optically and mechanically. I have no complaints. Oops, one issue: this lens uses 40mm filters, an odd size (while dozens of German and Soviet lenses used 40.5mm). With an adapter, I can use Series VI filters. The correct Canon screw-in filters would be more convenient and faster in the field but are seriously expensive from the Japanese sellers. All flaws in the photos above are those of the photographer's. I have sent the lens to Don Goldberg (DAG Camera) for cleaning and checking. When it is back, I will use it regularly, along with my 1960s Soviet Jupiter-8 lens and my 1949 Leitz Summitar. (Yes, I know, I have far too many cameras and lenses....)

Update July 2022:  The little Canon lens is back from its cleaning. Now to make time to use the little Leica IIIC.