Deardorff cameras

by Q.-Tuan Luong and Ken Hough for the Large Format Page

The Deardorff, is quite comparable to some contemporary wood cameras. It weights 8 lbs and has 22 inches of bellows, and has the standard range of movements. Don Cardwell: "To a photographer raised on monorails, it may seem quaint, but it has proven a more reliable and rugged camera than any metal camera made. It was meant from the beginning to take a beating, and it does. If dropped, mahogany dents where Linhofs often break, castings are not as resilient." The problems that I saw were:

I scanned the original Deardorff litterature which was kindly provided to me by Michael Buchmeier. They are large files. The 8x10 model, The 8x20, 12x20, 11x14 models: Here is a modern photo of the 8x10 courtesy of Bill DaSilva.

Here are photos of the 4x5 (special), taken by Al Joseph

to have a Deardoff fixed

Ken Hough was trained at the Deardorff factory, and is a dedicated Deardorff user from 4x5 to 12x20. He appears to be knowledgeable and competent, but several people have complained about his unreliable and/or unethical business practices.

Ken Hough's historical notes

If you have a pre front swing 8x10, 5x7 or 4x5 (The Baby) . You do have a way to affect front swings. Merle Deardorff himself taught me this while I was training there at the factory. You tilt the front standard BACKWARD so the lens is OVER the tripod hole ( FACING FORWARD ). Now to swing the lens pivot the camera on the tripod hole and swing the back. Now the relationship between the lens plane and the image plane can be adjusted as in a camera with front swing. FAQ How many Baby Deardorffs were made ? About 500. That camera was made from 1936-1948. Alot were from the 1938-41 era. There are 2 distinct versions. The first 15 (1936) have 2 wood strips attached to the top of the bed as in any Deardorff built at the time. An extrusion company salesman visited the factory and convinced Merle that an extrusion would support the front and rear extensions. All the rest of the production run (1938-48) are built like this. They all take 3 1/2 x 3 1/2 in round cornered lensboards. The biggest negative it can make is 4x5. This brings to mind an intresting story Merle told me. Most of the world used Graphic type lensboards then (1920s-30s) Deardorff did not. They had bigger boards so the camera could have bigger flanges. The round corners came from a visit Merle did to a studio. He noticed alot of the boards the studio used had smashed corners from being dropped !! The idea of round corners on lens boards was put into production soon after.

Laben F. Deardorff had been a camera repairman for nearly 30 years before building the first 8 x 10 Deardorff. He had been employed by Rochester Camera Company in the 1890s. Part of the design of the Premo line of cameras was his responsability. Rochester Optical factory records do not say what part. He moved to Chicago and set up shop as a repairman. He developed a skill of re-figuring lens to improve their performance in addition to modifing existing view cameras such as Eastmans & Senecas to have front tilt and swing. He knew the optical advantage of these movements even if the manufactures did not ! Around 1920 according to Merle ( his son ) some pro photographers and architects approched Laben to build his own camera. No doubt influenced by the English Folding Field camera design of the 1870s Laben came up with a view camera that bears an uncanny resemblence to the 8 x 10 Deardorff of the 1980s. Those first cameras were self casing and had rear swing and tilt, triple extension bed, front tilt and a rising panel so the photographer could change the image position without refocusing or changing the tilt setting. They had a 5 1/2 X 6 inch lensboard. Merle told me the lensboard size was so photographers would buy their boards. They went to the standard 6 x 6 Eastman board after the first 15 cameras. Perhaps the photographers did not want to buy more lensboards ? The next 200 or so cameras did not change much from the first so that is probable. 1926 saw the departure of the all handmade camera. Till that time every metal part except the gear racks and gears were made by the family members. The metal parts were hand polished and clear laquered In 1926 they went to outside sources to produce certain metal parts. All brass parts were PAINTED in a special gold paint. This lasted till 1937-38. Why gold paint ?? So there was NOT so much work in preparing the metal ! Clean it and paint it ! I have restored about 15 of the early cameras and there is nearly 7 hrs satinizing the metal. Painting takes about 3 1/2. Well there you have it.

Why did L.F. Deardorff create the first 8 x 10 ( called the V8 ) ? He had been a repairman for nearly 30 years before the 1923 premiere of the first V8. He worked for Rochester Optical and assisted in the design of their PREMO line of VIEW cameras. He also modified any view camera to have more movements. He gained quite a reputation for this work. He also saw a need for a camera that did all the funtions of those modified cameras he worked on. To understand what was going on you have to think of what cameras were around in the early 1920s. Agfas, Anscos, Kodaks, Carltons, etc.... What do all of these have in common ? They are almost clones of each other. Limited movements, inability to do wide angle work without contortions ( running the camera to the front of the rails putting the thing out of balance) L.F was undoubtedly influenced by the English folding field cameras of nearly 40 years before. What he and his sons did was to re-design the English folding field to have a front extenstion that rolled out of the bed and a rear extenstion that did the same. Why these movements ? To balance the camera on the tripod. Remember, these are some heavy lenses made with lots of brass. Also the optical properties of these movements are that the front extenstion changes the size of the object on the ground glass and the rear extenstion sets the focusing plane. The moveable rear swing unit focuses the image.. The sliding lensboard panel adjusts the image on the ground glass without readjusting the front tilt. Take ALL these movements Rear swing and tilt, front tilt and the slidingpanel, put them together and you do not have to stop down sooooo much as before, though I still know photographers who insist on stopping down to f 90 when f 22 will do. But even I do not use all the movements all the time. It can also be squeezed together to accept a 3.5in lens. What came of all this ? One of the longest production view cameras in history. If you see an early 1924 Deardorff and a 1988 model you will see a wonderful family resemblence. I said I'd mention Kens classic lens each month. Last months was the Goerz DOGMAR. This months is the Taylor Hobson Cook triple convertable. I use one mounted in an Ilex and found that as a prime lens using both cells its 12" combination is one of the sharpest lenses in my collection. It will cover 11 X 14. I have only used the single cells a few times and the prints are wonderful when viewed at arms lenth.

The early 1930s were an intresting time for the Deardorff factory. The country was in the midst of a depression and the world of photography was in change. Some examples of this are an Eastman Kodak box camera cost about a dollar with a roll of film while a Leica II cost 175.00. This was a time when the average U.S worker was making maybe 20.00 a week, if he were working. The Deardorff factory in Chicago was busy making their 8 X 10 and had just started with the 5 X 7. The 5 X 7 was introduced in response to keeping film prices lower for the pro photographer during the depression. Roosevelt was elected and promised to bring the country out of the " Great Depression". In Chicago, The Worlds Fair was being readied for its premier. The fairs concession office had set some intresting rules for the photo concessions. They had to use 4 X 5 and larger for all publicity and guest photos. The general public was only allowed to bring onto the fairgrounds a camera that took negatives SMALLER than 4 X 5. The belief was that the publics cameras would not compete with the offical photographers pictures. A lawyer from Detroit had planed to visit the fair and wanted a quality camera with movements. In 1932 he contacted Merle Deardorff and discussed his needs. Merle said ( in a as usual can do attitude ) " We will be pleased to build your camera". Merle went on to design a 3 1/4 X 4 1/4 view camera. This met the requirements of the fair board. One problem.......the camera never got completed! The fair came and went and no camera was built. Other work and the task of running the business got in the way. In 1935 though, Merle dusted off the parts and decided to redesign it into a 4 X 5 size camera. He built 15 4 X 5s very similar in construction to the 8 X 10 and 5 X 7s. The factory did the unusal in that they lent the cameras to photographers to evaluate for a year. At the end of the year they were to be returned and evaluated by Merle. About 8 cameras came back. These were examined and a problem was found with the front extension falling out of the bed. About the same time an extrusion company rep. was making his rounds and stopped at Deardorff. He saw the returned cameras and came up with a solution to the problem. Create extrusions to hold the rear and front extensions on the bed. This turned out to be the Baby Deardorff that we all have lusted after. Well maybe not lusted but wanted. The Baby Deardorff was made from 1937-48. Not many were built during the war and only a few after. Total production was about 500 cameras. It has a 3 1/2in sq. round cornered lens boards and takes film backs from 2 1/4 X 3 1/4 to 4 X 5. It has Front tilt, front rise, Rear swing and tilt. Maximum bellows is 17 inches. Values range from 500.00 for a beater to 2500.00 for a like new restored one. The 2500.00 is a price that does not happen often, though I know of 3 times that these cameras has reached that price.

More Deardorff history:

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