This week I have a melange of things, all from our recent trip to Colorado’s beautiful North Fork Valley. One of them may be a Balda Pontina — although it is definitely a fairly old 6×9 folding camera.
I present today a book, a place and its raw materials, and a mystery camera. Let’s start with the smaller stuff.
From a tiny blue house on the west end of Bridge Street in Hotchkiss, Colo., called The Used Book Store, I purchased three books.
Sure, I could’ve bought them in town. I sometimes feel a bit weird bringing home books and cameras instead of things that I could only get somewhere else. But on the other hand, I’ll always remember the places I got these things. I remember clearly the little antique store in Rico, Colo., where I found the Kodak No. 2 Folding Cartridge Hawkeye Model B and the Agfa Ansco PB20 Viking.
So this time I’ll remember the little blue Used Book Store whenever I read my new copies of Ansel Adams’ The Camera and The Negative. I grabbed these two because I already have a copy of The Print from a thrift store, and no, aside from excerpts, I still have not actually studied these important works.
The third book, however, is a book of photographs by Robert Adams, a former English professor who turned to photography seriously in the early 1970s. His name and work were previously unknown to me, though I’m glad to be rectifying that — his moody, introspective portraits of changing landscapes feel familiar to me, but at the same time fill me with questions. I could see myself aspiring to match these frames that appear mundane at first glance but which quickly reveal that they hide far more.
Titled What Can We Believe Where, this particular book seems to focus primarily on the Mountain West and Colorado. The printing is simple but elegant. A perfect-bound paperback with a dust jacket, it’s about the size of a textbook and maybe half an inch thick.
I’m not done appreciating this book yet but it’s led me to learn of Adams’ other works, many of which focus more on Colorado — where Adams lived for many years beginning in his teen years — and elsewhere. It seems he also has written a number of well-respected essays on photography, which I must endeavor to read as well.
A few weeks ago I mentioned the beginning of a new project, and while in the North Fork Valley I found time to put in a few hours on the project in a town called Somerset.
Somerset is a very tiny hamlet of around 60 buildings — mostly homes, but also a closed café/bar/market, a U.S. Post Office and a local telecom’s exchange.
The town sits in a narrow gap in the valley, squeezed between Highway 133 and the North Fork of the Gunnison River. Across the highway and partially hidden up a steep gulch is Oxbow Mining’s Elk Creek coal mine, which has sat idle now for over a year and a half.
Visible from anywhere in town is the mine’s rail car loader, straddling a long stretch of track next to the main track. Not that long ago trains of a hundred or more cars would edge slowly forward for hours as cars were filled with low-sulphur bituminous coal — over 4 million tons annually.
I spent a morning exploring the town’s quiet streets and talking to a couple of residents. The valley is really quite lovely, and traffic on the highway seems light enough that I could see the town becoming a quiet summer destination one day if the mine were reclaimed. With the river running right there and the elevation just a little over 6,000 feet, it would be a great retreat.
While there, I found some lumps of coal on the road — the black rocks and dust are all over the place. Even after some study online I’m still not sure wether it’s bituminous coal or anthracite.
The majority of the coal in Colorado is reportedly bituminous, but according to the Colorado Geological Survey, bituminous coal in the vicinity of hot igneous intrusions can be locally metamorphosed into anthracite. The CGS lists Somerset as one of the places this has happened in Colorado, which makes sense given the number of intrusive formations found in the area — such as Needle Rock.
So these five lumps are probably high-grade bituminous coal or may be low-grade anthracite — they do look like anthracite to my eyes, and are quite hard and don’t rub off on things. To really be sure I’d have to light one on fire, I suppose.
The Good Stuff
Yeah, that’s right, I know you came here to read about cameras. And I have a mysterious one to discuss.
Found at an antique store in Orchard City, Colo., this camera baffled me at first. Frankly, it still does in a lot of ways. Here’s what I know for sure: It’s a folding 6×9 camera made in 1937 or 1938.
That’s about it.
Okay, I sort of know a little more, but nothing is certain. It’s probably a Balda Pontina, but the only clear evidence of that fact is the small “BW” logo of the Dresden-based Balda-Werk Max Baldeweg (German), and the shape of the rounded ends, which matches quite clearly.
Balda’s cameras were frequently rebranded, and the Pontina model frequently appeared as the Porst Hapo 45. The mystery begins, however, with the leather covering, which bears no branding. Both the Pontina and the Hapo should’ve had their name embossed on one of the shoulders.
I first established a rough date range in the 1930s by the “D.R.G.M.” marking on the cover plate for the red windows. Similar to a “registered patent” marking (but apparently less meaningful) the abbreviation stands for Deutsches Reichsgebrauchsmuster. As far as I can tell, this parlance was used from 1930 through 1949. But Balda ceased camera production in 1940 to build armaments, and after the war company owner Baldewag fled to West Germany where he re-established the manufactory and began production of spoons and plates before returning to cameras closer to 1950.
I further narrowed the camera’s age based on the shutter, which is a Prontor II, sans flash sync. Prontor II was introduced in 1934 and updated to add flash sync in 1938. I had hoped to narrow it down further with the serial number of the lens, but I have thus far been unable to locate it.
That lens is a Schneider-Kreuznach Radionar 105mm f/4.5 triplet (three-element) number that seems quite well regarded. The single front element threads in and out to focus, and this one operates quite smoothly.
Other points of confusion:
- The hinge and bracket assembly that holds the front open, which doesn’t match any of the Pontinas I can find pictures of — but does match some other Balda cameras from the early 1930s.
- The flip-up viewfinder, which includes a nice glass magnifying element and an additional flip-up mask, which I believe was meant to be used with a 6×4.5cm insert in the camera.
- The film advance knob, which appears on what I believe is the bottom of the camera; most Pontinas appear to have the film advance on the top.
- The Prontor II shutter, which has the fastest speed marked as 1/150th sec., though many sources claim the Prontor II came in either 1/175th or 1/200th variations.
- The shutter again — which is marked only with the name of the manufacturer, Gauthier G.m.b.H. Calmbach (German, again) and Gauthier’s lovely “AGC” half-open shutter logo.
This Balda Pontina features the advance knob and a simpler viewfinder on opposite sides of the body, noting that the viewfinder was moved in 1937. It also features the same hinge and latch assembly for the bellows that I have. If I had to guess at this point, I’d speculate my camera was made in 1938 — based on the newer viewfinder style, older hinge/latch type and the pre-flash sync Prontor II shutter. The pictured camera also has no logo embossed on the upper shoulder, so I must be close.
Inside the camera looks like pure Pontina, at least in comparison to the photos I’ve found online. It has little half-cylinders at each end that rotate up and out of the camera back, into which slide the film spools.
Condition-wise, the outside of the camera shows some moderate wear on the leather and polished surfaces, and a little minor rust in a few places. It’s just fairly normal wear, though — everything seems to work and nothing is very badly damaged or coming apart. The leather is mostly just scuffed, but seems quite supple still — especially the small handle on the end.
Open the camera and extend the bellows, though, and everything is stunning. All the chrome is brighter than Tuco’s grill and the black enameled parts look just as good. Only a little discoloration in the white markings betrays any of the camera’s age.
As a testament to the quality of German cameras, in case you don’t already know them, the shutter is only about 1/5-stop slower than accurate at the highest speed (measuring about 1/135 sec. when set to 1/150), and nearly perfect from 1/60th on down. That is according to my recently-acquired shutter speed tester (more on it in a future post). The shutter and aperture move smoothly and seem to work without issue.
Amazingly, the bellows seems absolutely perfect. I did my best to candle it in the shop before buying the camera using a keychain LED flashlight and it looked great. When we got it home I used my Fenix E11 in a dark closet and still saw no light leaks.
80 years and it’s still perfectly functional.
Don’t worry, I’ll start testing this beauty very soon.