A great camera worth having and... Gulliver's TLR
When I was a film and photography student in the late seventies, Gary Winogrand was the god of street photography and the only films worth watching were from the American 'New Wave' cinema of the 70s.
photo by Gary Winogrand
Vivre sa Vie - the greatest film to come out of the 'Nouvelle Vague'
A little more study took us down the road to discovering the French 'Nouvelle Vague' of the 50s and early 60s and the gritty social realism of the 'Kitchen Sink' dramas that dominated British cinema - before Swinging London threw everything into colour.
'Room at the Top' released in 1958 - one of the best 'Kitchen Sink' dramas of British Cinema
I became completely fascinated by the beautiful black and white film quality of so many of those 'Kitchen Sink' dramas. I learnt that most were shot on Taylor Hobson 'Cooke' lenses. We had a set of these lenses on our college Arriflex. They were beautiful. The images produced were glowing and wonderful to behold.
Cooke describe the 'Look' from their lenses as 'a sharp subtle smooth rendering that provides dimensionality, high contrast, and pleases the eye...' I would agree but I would add that, crucially, Taylor Hobson lenses - whether they be the Cooke type made for film or the Taylor Hobson lenses made for still photography all share one extra and crucial thing: emotion... Maybe that is what is meant when Cooke says 'pleases the eye'. If something 'pleases the eye' that must mean that it has an emotional effect on the viewer.
I guess 'pleases the eye' is just a classic bit of British understatement.
But one thing is for sure, Taylor Hobson Cooke lenses lent emotional impact to those British movies of the 'kitchen sink' period. And the work had a profound effect on me.
I wanted the 'Cooke Look' in my stills work. I got hold of a Reid camera (a British copy of the Leica) with a Taylor-Hobson lens on it and loved the results - but the real thrill came with the discovery of the Microflex camera. This Twin lens reflex looked maybe a little cruder than the glamorous Rolleiflex but the Micronar lens on the Microflex was made by Taylor Hobson and it was capable of lovely results.
Microflex TLR - 1/30th sec f 4.5 1600 asa Tri-X image from 'Soho Stories' by Matthew Whiteman
I still have that Microflex and it is the first camera I would grab if the house was burning down, that's for sure.
But it wasn't just the lens on the Microflex that caught me... I loved using a TLR - and I was now on a mission to explore the territory beyond the 35mm format (I have written about the power of image-making with a TLR in another recent blog - see: https://www.tli-processing.com/post/notes-from-the-masters-or-why-you-need-a-medium-format-camera-as-well-as-your-35mm)
As far as I knew, the TLR was exclusively a camera designed to be used with medium format (6x6cm) 120 film. But I was wrong. Far from the gritty black and white dramas of the UK and France, Hollywood photographer, Peter Gowland was shooting glamour and publicity shots on the glittering sun-drenched beach that led to his home on Santa Monica. And he was using an extraordinary home-built TLR to do it.
To satisfy the technical demands of the American magazines of the period, Gowland ideally needed to shoot colour images on 4x5 format but trying to compose images through the wire frame of a 4x5 press camera like a Speed Graphic or overheating under a dark cloth whilst struggling to operate an 'old-school' view camera on the beach was just not the style of an action man like Gowland...
And so he built a camera that would not have looked out of place in the hands of a giant.
The 'Gowlandflex' was a 4x5 Twin Lens reflex. And Peter would go on to sell the camera for decades. (I guess to anyone strong enough to hold one up!)
Composing for magazines - for images that would have copy overlaid - demanded a view of what the lens sees at the moment of exposure; allowing the photographer full control of the image making process. The inspiration for the mighty Gowlandflex had come from the legendary LIFE magazine photographer, Phillipe Halsmann, who had built his own 4x5 camera in the 1940s.
Both men were responding to that same demand from magazine picture editors - the need for precise composition and control and appraisal of lens effects and depth of focus during a shoot… Which was something only achievable with a camera that offered through the lens viewing at the moment of exposure.
'When you take a picture, you must become the camera'
These days Gowland's glamour photos look distinctly dated. But, during the heyday of the great picture magazines,
The Gowlandflex certainly delivered - producing amazing quality images on that big 5x4" format.
The camera certainly is an admirable thing. I would love one - especially if I could fit a Taylor Hobson lens to it.
Gowland was shooting stills on the beach with cult Hollywood model, Vampira, when a strange figure, clutching a battered Speed Graphic press camera and chomping on a cigar approached - Gowland captured the moment.
The figure was the legendary 'Weegee'; a street photographer from a very different mould to Gary Winogrand. Weegee, over several decades had captured the savage world of crime in the USA.
Weegee got his name because of his uncanny ability to turn up at the scene of a crime and frequently grab the scene with a blitz of his flash gun before even the cops arrived... It was rumoured he must have been consulting a ouija board to have such luck... But the police radio tucked away in the boot of his car probably helped.
'Ouija' sounds like 'Weegee' - and he liked that name better than his real name of Arthur Fellig.
Weegee tramped off, on up the beach and, sometime later, at the invitation of Stanley Kubrick, Weegee went to shoot stills on Kubrick's movie 'Dr Strangelove', which was being shot near London just as the city was beginning to 'swing' - at least according to the magazines of the time. LIFE, PARIS MATCH and the emerging new magazines like TOWN and QUEEN in the UK were as dominant as social media is today.
The power of the magazine media in the sixties is perfectly captured by Simon Napier Bell, a rock and roll music manager -
"London didn't start swinging as soon as it hit the sixties. In fact, London didn't even know it was swinging till some overseas journalists turned up some time in the middle of the decade and told us what was going on...
Swinging sounded like a fun thing to be doing so we all started to have a go at it. It didn't seem too hard; you just found out where the swinging was meant to be taking place (you could read that in Time magazine or Der Spiegel), and you headed off down there. Then, settled in a corner of the Ad Lib club or The Scotch of St James, you drank until you were blind drunk or, if it still wasn't three o'clock in the morning, you could try downing even more.
Doing this night after night, you naturally tended to commit a variety of indiscretions, and the more adventurous of these acts were referred to as 'swinging'. The combined total of everyone's indiscretions was known as 'Swinging London'."
Peter Gowland lived through it all. And photographically he tried just about anything technically possible; "With camera gear, I tried just about everything but the kitchen sink"
His pictures may be dated but Gowland stands as a true original; a photographer who loved his medium so much that he dedicated almost as much time to building cameras as shooting photographs. He even tried out a 8x10 format version of the Gowlandflex -
Gowland died at the grand old age of 93 in 2010 - by which time his work had appeared on more than a 1,000 magazine covers including the epoch defining Rolling Stone.
Annie Leibovitz - that most famous of editorial photographers - loved using the 5x4 Gowlandflex. But Peter Gowland, despite his many photographic accomplishments and innovative style has remained relatively obscure.
...I guess the same could be said for the Microflex TLR camera that started me on this journey. It's one of those cameras that languishes in relative obscurity - but I would strongly advise you: if you can find one, buy it! That Taylor Hobson lens is GLORIOUS!
As you may have gathered, William, Josh and I spend an awful lot of time trying out lenses. Those of Taylor Hobson rank as some of our all-time favourites. Now that we have a machine shop that can make mounts for us to try all kinds of vintage lenses on different cameras, we are starting out on a mission to test and give you our appraisal of every single one that comes our way.
....So watch this space!
Blog copyright Matthew Whiteman 2023
note: all historic images are copyright.