1.06.2017

One Goodwin Turn Deserves Another - The Ansco No. 2A Goodwin

Certain groundbreaking names are often etched in the memory of the photographic community.  Even those who have never shot film have typically heard of George Eastman and Auguste Lumiere.  It is tough not to think of Ansel Adams or Henri Cartier Bresson when thinking of early photographers. As well, hobby collectors of film cameras are often well aware of the legacies created by Ernst Leitz and Carl Zeiss.

But what about the Reverend Hannibal Goodwin?  In a way, most of the people mentioned already owe a bit to the Reverend Goodwin for his contribution to photography.

Goodwin filed the first patents to produce film in a flexible roll form.  In this way, he could be considered the "Grandfather" of motion pictures, and of the 35mm film format, though he never lived to see his innovation reach its widespread potential.

Prior to the recently retired Reverend's patent filing in 1887, most photography was done on rigid materials such as glass plates.  Goodwin's intent was to create a sturdy film material from a nitrocellulose film base for the purpose of biblical teachings.  His patent was not granted until over 11 years later, by which point George Eastman was already producing roll film using a process of his own.  Goodwin would begin setting up an operation in 1898, only to die in an accident at the end of 1900. 

Later, this patent would be sold, along with the Goodwin's film production business to Scovill & Anthony (later shortened to "Ansco") who used their leverage as patent holders to sue Eastman for patent infringement, resulting in an award of $5 million dollars to Ansco in 1914, and saving it from bankruptcy.

The Ansco film and camera production business would continue to exist in various forms over the next several decades, merging first with Agfa in 1928, and eventually simply was folded into parent company GAF in the late 1960's.  In its earlier years, the company did pay a modest tribute to Reverend Goodwin by naming some models in its box camera lineup with his name, such as the Ansco No. 2A Goodwin.

The austere and basic Ansco No. 2A Goodwin



The Ansco No. 2A Goodwin is a 116 format box camera introduced in 1930, a time when leather-clad box cameras, common in the teens and twenties, had begun to plateau.  The camera looks more or less similar to most box cameras of the era, complete with the often-seen features of a time exposure setting and a smaller diaphragm setting.  


My example of the No. 2A Goodwin came to me in excellent shape, having the feature that is often missing on box cameras, the vulnerable top carry strap.  Below, the camera can be seen displaying its two settings, a sliding pull at top is extended upward for a time exposure, while the sliding pull at left "stops down" the lens to a smaller aperture in brighter conditions.  As contradictory as these settings used in tandem may seem, the lack of any other variability in shutter speeds does dictate their use together.  



This particular camera came to me in a fortunate pick-up of a multi-unit lot of various cameras that I snagged off of ebay for about $20.  Admittedly, it was one of the cameras within the lot about which I was least excited.  It was large and blocky, and comparatively pedestrian to the likes of most of the rest of the lot.  But it was in near mint shape and completely functional.  As I strive to do, I certainly wanted to run a roll of film through the Ansco, and so, in October, I found the time to respool a roll of Kodak Portra 160 to a 116 backing and loaded it in the Ansco, expecting not terribly much from the 85 year old camera.  
You see, box cameras are often snubbed in the vintage photographic world.  They are the things people find in attics thinking they are worth a mint, only to usually discover they are so common to be worth very little comparatively little.   They often use defunct film formats and lack the versatility desired by most photographic hobbyists.  Often equipped with simple meniscus lenses, the image quality of a box camera is nothing that one typically expects to be of adequate quality. 


Above, the viewfinder of the No. 2A Goodwin is decent for the breed, though not stellar.  One can usually discern enough through the small window to properly frame a photo.  Below, one can see how the film is wound through the "guts" of the camera.  No film was damaged in the making of this image, as this is simply the backing I reuse.  



Certainly, I had only mediocre hopes while shooting the bulky box camera.  By the time, I could take the Ansco out after a long work day, the light was fading, and I hastily rushed through scenes to knock out the 6-exposures possible from the converted 120 roll.  To add insult to the injury of hastily shooting the roll, I developed the roll of film in a pretty well stretched solution of Unicolor C-41 chemistry.  Regrettably, I was taking too many short cuts in a format which typically had deterred me from doing so.

As the negatives dried, the first thing I noticed (aside from some thin definition - likely the outcome of chemistry and modest lighting in my scenes) was that some of these shots showed a surprising amount of sharpness.  My lukewarm initial reception to this camera was beginning to change.  I "fast tracked" the roll towards the scanner to see what I was working with.

Right off the bat, the Ansco delivered an image with good sharpness and definition in both near and far elements, and across much of the frame.  There is very little of the tunnel vision effect that tends to be almost stereotypical of older fixed focus cameras with simple lenses and shutter mechanisms.


Terrible processing and underexposure aside, the Goodwin still shows respectable a respectable result in this early morning time exposure.  


A quick roadside stop for a pond photo comes complete with many of the shortcomings of a hastily composed shot, including fingers in the lens.  Ugh.


But in less rushed settings, I was able to see some surprising potential in the images put forth by the No. 2A Goodwin.  Tree limbs along the top edges of the image still show good definition, and the center has decent sharpness as well.  The uncoated lens handled the golden hour lighting pretty well. 


A bit of blowout in the white house at left, but still a good exposure on the Portra by the Goodwin. 


As the afternoon light faded and I simply wished to finish the roll, I elected to try an experiment to give better exposure time in the dwindling light, namely to shoot multiple exposures on the same frame.  As the Goodwin lacks a tripod mount, I had to try my best to rest the camera in the car window.  The exposure result is good - the registration between exposures... not so much! 

While all was not stellar about my first experiment with the Ansco, the first and forth shots of the pilot roll showed some particular promise.  I was surprised at what I was seeing, and actually wondered if it was a fluke.  Seeing that the Ansco at least seemed capable of some decent images, I was certainly interested in giving it another try, this time electing to respool a roll of Ilford FP4 onto the same 116 backing paper, to see if I could get some better overall images with the Goodwin, now knowing a bit more of where its strengths lay.  Over the course of a few days in November and December, I snapped up the six shots (this time NOT rushing) on the Ilford before dropping the film into a stand development process in fresh HC-110 chemistry.

Studying the negatives as they dried, it seemed that I had a roll full of decently exposed and sharp images on the No. 2A.  And on scanning, I was actually astonished to discover that this camera is actually one hell of a good shooter! Each image of the roll rendered some lovely images, and officially made me a fan of FP4 as well!


A time exposure taken at dusk along Carroll Creek really doesn't look as if it was taken with a box camera at all.  The Goodwin and FP4 rendered a rather ethereal look to the scene, with soft lighting and excellent detail to this setting.  

A second attempt incorporating a near element also rendered surprisingly well.  Again, edge detail is surprisingly well rendered by the simple lens, as evidenced by the completely readable letting on the right edge of the frame. 


Under full sun, and stopped down using the "diaphragm" setting, the Goodwin again renders a surprisingly sharp scene, as seen in the lettering.  Tonality of the FP4 is excellent and vignetting is minimal, as the lower left corner was shrouded in shade. 


A mostly shaded scene taken with the lens opened up again renders quite well.  Framing through the viewfinder was particularly easy on the Goodwin, something which can not often be said of many box cameras. 


I very nearly walked right past this setting before the ornate stone work caught my eye and I elected to try an exposure.  The scene renders in a VERY nostalgic and dreamy way that somehow still manages to be particularly sharp.


I wasn't quite so lucky with the last shot on the roll.  The varied lighting in the scene was just a bit too much, and the statue at right is lost in murky shadows.  Still, the lens did a decent job of taking in the scene. 

The results of the second roll clearly illustrated to me that the good results from the rushed first roll were anything but a fluke.  I'm feeling VERY fortunate to have in my employ a classic box camera in which I can shoot excellent images on either 120 or 116 film.  That this camera was simply a bonus amid a multi-camera lot is in some ways a nice surprise, but otherwise seems like an all-too fitting bit of my usual serendipity at work.  

The results have certainly given me a new appreciation for box cameras in general, and while I don't see this bulky camera as a daily carry for me, it will certainly be along with me on future photo expeditions around the area once I find the time to really get out and capture more images in which I crave a somewhat vintage, yet still respectably sharp image. If the performance of this camera is any indication, the folks at Ansco certainly held a degree of reverence for Hannibal Goodwin, as his namesake camera makes exceptional use of the medium which he patented over a century ago!