The “Swiss Roll” photo project, courtesy of a rusty old box camera

First I tried cramming two rolls of 35mm film into a medium-format camera.  And yes, the results were impressive.

Then I tried shooting with vintage 50-year old film.  And yes, the results were astounding.

Now comes my next magic trick.  And whether or not this works might be the reason I enter or don’t enter these photos in competition.

An Agfa Chief 616 box camera, manufactured in Binghamton, N.Y. Photo by Chuck Miller.

First off, give a welcome to the newest camera in the Miller household, the Agfa Chief.  The Agfa Chief is a 616 box camera that was first manufactured in 1940; it was later rebranded as an Ansco Pioneer camera.  That’s right, this camera could have taken pictures when Lou Gehrig was still first baseman for the Yankees.

The Agfa Chief has one aperture setting – approximately f/14.  It has two shutter speeds, 1:50 and bulb.  Trust me – this isn’t the kind of camera you would use to photograph a wedding.  Well, maybe a wedding in 1942…

Believe it or not, this camera even has a flash mount, and at some point I’ll get that – along with the necessary M3 and M3B flash bulbs.  But for now…

This Agfa Chief has a lot of age to it – in fact, this little rusty box camera looks like it spent 70 years in a trash heap.  I got it for $5 on eBay.  And if I’m going to spend the princely sum of $5 on a camera, you know I’m going to exploit whatever the camera can do.  And I think there’s a spark of life in this camera that hasn’t been exploited yet.

First, though, I had to make sure this camera actually works.  I mean, not only is this camera at least 70 years old, but it was also made in Binghamton.  That’s two strikes right there.  Hee.

Again, on eBay, I acquired three packs of Kodak Verichrome Pan 616 film.  Expiration date – 1979.  As I unwrapped the package of decades-old film from its foil wrapper, I saw a message on the film’s paper band.

“Eastman Kodak Co. will not manufacture Verichrome pan film in this size after 1976.”

Wow.  So not only do I have a roll that should have been used before 1979, I’ve got a roll that was probably made in 1975 or so, after the last of the 616-formatted cameras fell off the assembly lines.

So on Saturday, April 30, I took this senior citizen of a camera and went for a photo shoot.  This time, I snagged some shots down at the Mt. Ida Falls in Troy.

Poestenkill Mt. Ida Falls 1, shot with Agfa Chief
Mt. Ida Falls, Troy, N.Y. Photo taken April 30, 2011 with Agfa Chief camera and Kodak Verichrome Pan 616 film. Photo by Chuck Miller.

And as you can see, the Agfa Chief did a halfway decent job for an old geezer of a camera.  And I am SO loving this 6×9 aspect ratio.

Poestenkill Mt. Ida Falls 2, shot with Agfa Chief
Lower portion of Mt. Ida Falls. Kodak Verichrome Pan 616 film, Agfa Chief camera. Photo by Chuck Miller.

The thing is – if I want to use this camera at all, I have to make sure that whatever I put in is either highly sensitive – at least 200 or 400 ISO – or only shoot with a sunny, cloudless day.  Yeah, like I’m going to find any 616 film with a 400 ISO floating around eBay or B&H PhotoVideo.  If I really wanted to do some serious mod-work, I could re-spool some 120 rollfilm onto a 616 spool, or add some spacers to 120 rolls to make them fit in the Chief.

And this thing has a nasty case of camera shake.  You didn’t see the other pictures I took with this camera, because the photo above was one of the only shots that didn’t look as if it was taken after the photographer drank 12 cans of Red Bull.  There’s no tripod mount on the Agfa Chief, and the shutter button has the grunt-pressure of the accelerator pedal on a John Deere tractor.  So with that in mind, you really have to find something solid to rest the camera body on, or really practice your meditative skills.

And also I need to make sure that the film is properly advanced for each shot; as you can see from the picture on the right, the shutter may have given the picture a second exposure at the bottom of the frame.  Can’t have that.

Still, I like the test results.  There’s some hope for this Broome County-born bad boy box camera.

And now comes what I call the “Swiss Roll” photo experiment.

I brought my Agfa Chief, a roll of Kodak Verichrome Pan 616 film, and a 35mm roll of Kodak Portra 160 VC, all to my dark room.

Off go the lights.

I unspooled the 616 roll, and unspooled the Kodak Portra 35mm film.  The Portra was longer than the roll of Verichrome, so I trimmed off the excess Portra with a pair of safety scissors.

I then positioned the Kodak Portra film over the Verichrome film, and taped down the ends.

I rolled the entire product back onto the 616 supply spool.

I taped the roll shut and light-tight until it was time to load this mixture into the Agfa Chief.

Lights on.

Instead of my usual “split-film” discipline, in which I combined two rolls of 35mm film onto a 120 spool and shot the combined results from my toy Holga camera, I decided to create a “Swiss Roll” – a 35mm film WRAPPED in a 616 spool, just like a Drake’s Yodel pastry – and see what kind of results I could generate.

I loaded the thick Swiss Roll film into the Agfa Chief, and fed the film into the pickup spool.  If this is successful, one of several things can happen regarding this project.

  • I can at least get some sprocket hole photography on the Kodak Portra film, with a seriously long – nearly panoramic – aspect ratio.
  • I can get a “split film” result, with both the Portra and the Verichrome exposed at the same time, both in a 6×9 aspect ratio.
  • The Agfa Chief can let me down and simply not work.  Then I’m out $5 for the camera, $25 for the three rolls of Verichrome Pan, and a couple of cents for the old Kodak Portra 160 VC 35mm film I found in my freezer.

Since I tested the original Kodak Verichrome shots the first time at the Mt. Ida Falls, well it makes plenty of sense to go back there for another shot or eight.

I arrived at the Falls, took a few shots at the upper level of the pathway, and then I carefully walked down to the ground level to shoot at the base of the Falls.

Okay, film has been shot.  Now it’s time for extraction.

Dark of the night.  I go back into the darkroom.  Lights out.

I completely un-spool the 616 film from its pickup spool, taking care to catch the 35mm film before it falls on the ground.  I quickly wrap the 35mm film up and place it in a light tight container.  Then I re-spool the 616 film onto the pickup spool and lick the seal shut.  Eww, 35-year-old sticker glue… blecch, tastes like dried menthol… Then, after I’m sure everything has been taken care of, I turn on the lights.

Step two is done.

Now comes Step 3.

Off to McGreevy Pro Lab I go.  Yep. Monday morning.  Say it with me.  It’s not a Monday morning unless I’m dropping something off at McGreevy Pro Lab.

On Wednesday night, I got the negatives back.  And I started assembling some of them – scanning them into the computer and using my old copy of CorelDraw 9 to stitch the images together.

And this is what I came up with.

Mt. Ida Falls, Troy, NY - split film
Mt. Ida Falls, Troy, N.Y. Split film "Swiss Roll" technique, with Kodak Verichrome Pan (black and white) and Kodak Portra 160 VC (color) films. Photo by Chuck Miller.


Mt. Ida Falls, Troy, NY - split film
Mt. Ida Falls, Troy, N.Y. Split film "Swiss Roll" technique, with Kodak Verichrome Pan (black and white) and Kodak Portra 160 VC (color) films. Photo by Chuck Miller.

O. M. . G.

This really turned out better than I expected.  I still need to work on a few things – the color film was not as tight in the roll as I would have liked; I may have to adjust my winding technique so that both films stay tight upon exposure and one film doesn’t buckle or pucker.  And I still need to work on the Agfa’s focus – although I think I’ve gotten some steadier shots with this metal beast of a camera.

So now that I know that the Swiss Roll technique CAN be done – it’s not just a theory, it’s a proven fact- I need to improve my technique and make this photography discipline something truly special.

That, and get a few more rolls of Verichrome Pan 616 film.  At least I know that the Verichrome Pan 616 stuff actually works; now let’s hope I can source more rolls as my needs require.

Now am I going to enter these two pictures in competition?  Possibly.

But I can tell you that from these pictures, I can determine what I need so as I can get BETTER pictures in the future.

It’s all a learning process.

But I’m liking what I’m learning.