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The Gowland Camera

Gowland cameras are the unique and wonderful creations of Peter Gowland, a famed American photographer, inventor, and tinkerer of the mid-20th century.

Fascinated with the cameras he acquired as a young photographer in the 1920s, yet not entirely satisfied with their design and function, Gowland embarked on a quest to develop cameras that served his specific demands as a fashion and glamour photographer. What resulted were several models of mostly large format cameras, from the diminutive Pocket View 4x5, to the mammoth Gowlandflex 8x10 twin-lens reflex model, which stood nearly three feet tall. Each camera represented a niche identified by Gowland for which there was an unfulfilled need, at least in his line of work.

In his lifetime, Gowland produced 600 cameras, some singularly unique, and others with a modest run of similar construction. When you research Gowland, it is rare to find two exactly alike. The most popular of Gowland's creations was the Gowlandflex 4x5, first made in the late 1950s, and adopted by notable photographers such Annie Liebovitz, Josef Karsh, Dennis Manarchy, and others.

Gowland cameras were all designed with practical, utilitarian simplicity. They were bare-bones cameras, modular, created with a singularity of purpose and function. Aluminum, steel, nuts, bolts. When you hold a Gowland in your hands, you instantly feel the personality of the camera itself as well as that of the creator.

So why did he create these cameras? What did he need that could not be found in professional cameras of his day? In a nutshell, what Gowland needed as a fashion photographer was the flexibility of a hand-held camera that allowed nimbleness in working with moving, human subjects, and the quality produced by a 4x5, 5x7, and 8x10 large-format image. Put those needs together and you come up with the world's first large format, twin lens reflex camera.

Technically-speaking, the Gowlandflex 4x5 camera is a supersized twin-lens reflex camera such as the Rolleiflex -- you look down through a waist-level viewfinder, through the viewing lens, and the exposure is made through the lower, taking-lens onto large format film. With regular large format cameras, once you compose the scene through the body of the camera onto the ground glass, and insert the sheet film back, you no longer can see the view of your subject. In Gowland's work this posed a problem: he needed to continually see the potentially moving subject until the moment he pressed the shutter release. With the Gowlandflex, this was now possible.

Because the top of the two lenses of a Gowlandflex 4x5 is merely a "viewing" lens, it does not necessarily need to have a shutter in the lens, and can be a less expensive barrel lens, as long as it is the same focal length as the taking lens. With any twin-lens reflex camera, both the viewing lens and the taking lens travel in and out together as the image is focused so the viewing focus matches the taking lens. Many Gowlandflex cameras came standard with two matching, shuttered lenses, which was technically overkill, but it simplified and standardized the production and use since it was assured that the lens focused at exactly the same focal length. With a shuttered viewing lens, you simply set the shutter speed on the T (time) setting, set the aperture to the widest opening, and release the shutter to open it up and leave it open. As a note, with this example, the viewing and taking lenses are very close in serial numbers and may very well have come off the Fuji assembly line on the same day.

Some early Gowlandflex cameras were designed with portrait/vertical format as a fixed format; perhaps Gowland was doing almost entirely portrait format (magazine covers and pages), and landscape work was a distant thought. With these early versions, however, creating a landscape, or horizontal, required the camera to be turned sideways. The resulting an awkward, acrobatic move, spurred the design change of later backs that could easily be rotated from portrait to landscape.

Using this camera today attracts a lot of attention on the street due mostly to its generally unusual styling and large viewfinder into which you bury your face to focus the image, like a downward-facing submarine periscope. Despite its seemingly awkward design and size, it feels rather comfortable in the hands. One thing it does cry out for is a handle grip to help support the camera in one hand while focusing and pressing the shutter release in the other. It is not a light camera, and could also use a strap to offload some of the weight from the hands.

An interesting feature, which is instantly noticed, is the parallax adjusting mechanism. As the bellows extends for closer-up shots, a rail on the front standard eases down a roller, moving the viewing-lens and taking-lens closer together. This is designed to ensure that the view through the viewing lens stays in synch with the actual image made by the taking-lens on the film. In practice, the guides and rollers are functional but not always smooth. With the lens extended out, the guide has a tendency to become misaligned and drop off the roller. Nevertheless, it is all part of the experience of using such a hand-made camera.

Peter Gowland was known as a generous, approachable man. There are many stories of his personal touch and attentive customer service for those who purchased his cameras or needed them serviced. He and his wife and business partner, Alice, also published books sharing the secrets of the fashion photography trade. Gowland was active in producing cameras into his 90s, but age eventually caught up to him and he passed away in 2010 at the age of 93.


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