A few weeks ago, I was editing photos when my phone rang. It does that, occasionally. On the other end of the line was fellow photographer Henry Iddon. Henry told me about a project he is currently working on; a commission that solely uses an antique camera with a rather special story – one that is particularly close to home for two reasons:
1) The former owners of this camera could be considered the 'original' adventure photographers – a line of work that I am now heavily involved in and passionately love to learn about.
2) The camera spent it's life shooting in the Lake District – so in the literal sense the story is close to home.
Henry wanted to know if Leah (Crane ... my partner in crime) and I would be up for joining him on a day of shooting. Leah would be the subject – obviously – I would join them to see the camera & snap some 'behind the scenes' photos. We were psyched.
The Instanto camera was manufactured and sold by E & T Underwood of Birmingham, a leading producer of photographic equipment back in the day. The specific model that Henry is using was most likely built sometime between 1886 to 1905 (that makes it about 120 years old for all you folks that don't do maths).
It is built from a combination of seasoned mahogany, leather bellows, brass fittings & ground glass.
The main features of the Instanto were the sliding rails that allowed the bellows to extend/contract, thus changing the focusing plane that was projected onto the large format 10"x12" glass plates.
Ironically, there is nothing 'instant' about the Instanto. In fact, it is far from speedy in the slightest. It takes a good while to set up (not to mention two pairs of hands), it isn't lightweight and the 'negatives' take an age to process. Either the folks at E&T Underwood had a sense of humour, or a they knew how to sell a camera to unsuspecting photographers. All that said, the Instant has a very charming appearance and a fantastic history – I was very excited to get up close and personal with one.
TWO MAN JOB
In the late 1800's and early 1900's, as photography developed across Europe, so too did the pursuit of rock climbing in its own right. Until that point, rock climbing was merely preparation for the greater ranges.
The English Lake District, a quintessential tourist destination of the era, was a thriving hotspot of mountain activities and also a popular postcard photo destination. The business of creating these postcard photos was one that the Abraham family had been involved in since 1887 when George Snr set up shop. The original building where the Abraham Photographic Studio was situated, on Lake Road, Keswick still exists today, but is now home to the famous outdoor outfitters, George Fishers. George Abraham Snr had two sons, George Jnr and Ashley. They too had a talent for photography and had the idea of taking their fathers cameras into the mountains. In doing so, George and Ashley Abraham became the original "adventure photographers", pioneering their craft in a way that nobody had dared before ... and few have managed to recreate since.
Climbing perilously into positions that gave them vantage points on routes, laden with around 10 kilos of camera equipment –– this may not sound much, but factor in that they were wearing tweed jackets, hobnail boots and hemp rope ... no carabiners until 1911 (!) ... and then add in the fact that Ashely, the stronger of the two, was reported to weigh in the region of 95kg (15st) and things start to become more impressive –– and extremely rudimentary climbing equipment, they would photograph the likes of Owen Glynne Jones as he quested forth in the search for unclimbed terrain.
The brothers would often hike for many hours just to get to the cliffs themselves ... there were no cars, roads or otherwise at this time. It is quite frankly mind blowing that they put in the time and effort to get these photos, but it did give them a global reputation for their craft. Not only did they invest the time in getting to their destinations, but they were also fastidious about the way they shot their photos too ... often waiting hours for the best light, not too harsh, not too dull and then when it was perfect only then would they take the shot.
The photos themselves were taken on glass plate, coated with a special emulsion that became the 'negative'. There was no shutter on the camera, just a lens cap ... when the Abraham Brothers were ready to take the picture, they would simply remove the lens cap ... count the length of their exposure and then replace it once they had finished. Even more impressive, they didn't use light metres or anything like that ... they simply used their expertise and intuition.
Their work was the product of a healthy appetite for exposure, a good helping of bravery and an insane display of patience.
Henry Iddon is a professional photographer based out of North West Lancashire. You'll find him shooting all over the place, from the mountains, to motorway service stations and almost everything in between. One aspect of the work that Henry does, that really sets him apart from many other photographers, is his work with old cameras. And the project with the Instanto camera is no different. Henry is the man.
So, that pretty much gives you all the background to the project that you need to know. I'm sure you can see why I was so keen to join Henry & Leah on a morning of shooting with this fantastic antique and to see what late 1800's adventure photography would have looked like (almost).
You all know Leah by now, right? I mean, I have talked about her a lot over the years. You should do.
Anyway, Henry was keen to get Leah involved in the project because he wanted to represent climbing in its modern state as opposed to replicating what the Abraham Brothers showed in the early 1900's.
I particularly enjoyed the juxtaposition between the Abraham Brothers shooting Owen Glynne Jones – a man who was looked upon disdainfully by some of his peers in the day due to his teaming up with photographers; Aleister Crowley famously dubbed him a 'self-publicist' & openly disapproved of his pre-practised top-rope ascents of new routes high in the Lakeland fells ... and then flipping to modern day, Henry shooting Leah, a professional climber, fully immersed in the world of self-publicising, with close to 20k Instagram followers; as she hung upside down on an 8a/V11 boulder problem on a glorious summers day in Kentmere. Lovely stuff.
And so on that note, I'll let the rest of my photos from the day tell the story. There's even a short montage style video too. If you want to know more about the project, or about the Abraham Brothers etc, then there are a number of links at the bottom of this article.
Until the next time // LL
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
A particularly in depth and entertaining article can be found in the Alpine Journal, written by Alan Hankinson and entitled "Keswick Brothers", you can read it here.
To see original works of the Abraham Brothers online, there is a small gallery here, an additional gallery here and more information can be found at the George Fisher store in Keswick, the Armitt Museum and the FRCC; all of whom have a number of original works in their possession.
If you would like to know more about Leah then you should look here.
If you want to find out more about ME then you'll have to email me because you're already on my website!