The evolution of the camera as seen through X-ray imaging

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It’s no secret that for many film photographers, taking photos of their cameras is as enjoyable as making photographs with them. Don’t take my word for it, just take a quick look on social media (and probably your own phone’s camera roll) to confirm it’s the norm rather than the exception.

Fine art photographer Kent Krugh took this concept further than most with SPECIATION, his multi-year project of x-ray portraits of film cameras (both still and motion), digital cameras and film photography equipment such as slide carousels and darkroom enlargers. Camera portraits range from tiny “spy” cameras like the Minox and its tiny 8×11mm negatives, all the way up to 5×7″ large format view cameras.


As you might imagine, a huge range of camera and photography-related manufacturers from the past 100+ years are represented, ranging from film photography royalty such as Hasselblad, Leica and Voigtlander, to smaller manufacturers like Eho, Korona and Univex.

The results can be seen on both Krugh’s website and in his book, “SPECIATION – Still a Camera“, which was published by Santa Fe’s Fraction Editions in December 2018.

SPECIATION is a visual feast of images that give us a look into an unseen side of film cameras and their engineering. It provides a guide of sorts to the evolution of camera construction, materials and complexity over the decades.

Starting from early plate and sheet film cameras, we see the simplicity of their construction – a lens at the front, film holder at the back and nothing but empty space hanging in between.

Over the years that follow, we see the rise of consumer cameras and the results of technological advancements and increased competition: The Feature Wars. Eventually, we are taken to the evolutionary limits of mechanical film cameras and push beyond with the rise of electronics and ultimately, digital photography.

Note: There are a LOT of images in this article. each one can be expanded to 1200px wide with a click/tap.


As we chart the history of photography through Krugh’s images, the most striking aspect to me is the use of space. The photographs show us the progression from “light”, air-filled devices to compact and incredibly dense pieces of precision engineering – the first and last frames in the gallery above, providing the starkest contrast of the entire set — in my humble opinion.

Thoroughly intrigued by his photography, I managed to grab a bit of time with Krugh’s over the past few weeks and talked with him about the wheres and whys of SPECIATION. Read on below.


EM: How did you arrive at x-ray as your chosen medium for the project? Was it a natural choice or did you go through other options such as slicing the cameras into cross-sections or even disassembly?

Kent Krugh: I am a medical physicist by trade and have worked around x-ray film and digital technology for decades. From time to time, colleagues would ask me to irradiate things: golf balls, bean seeds, live plants, etc. Sometimes for their children’s science fair projects.

About ten years ago, as I was starting my “career” in fine art photography, it seemed about time that I irradiate something in an investigative-art way. First it was some of my daughters’ dolls, then other things I found around the house or growing in my garden. Really, I chose anything that I could a) carry to work and b) would fit on a piece or two of x-ray film — more recently a digital x-ray imager. Six years ago I took a few cameras with me to x-ray out of curiosity and was fascinated by the result.

That’s how SPECIATION began and it grew from there.

EM: Talking about time, how long did this project take from conception to completion? Was it a case of finding the tools and then developing the idea or the other way round?

Kent Krugh: I started the project in 2014 using x-ray film and finished it in 2019 having x-rayed 128 different cameras — many of them from multiple orientations. I also x-rayed quite a few non-camera film photography items: dark room bulbs, lenses, photometers, developing tanks, etc. I had the tools, then developed the project. My book was published in December of 2018 by Fraction Editions of Santa Fe, NM.

EM: What did it take to get the images, “just right”. Was the process iterative, or did you just get lucky? Extending that, what was the most interesting camera you captured for the project, either in terms of how the result made you feel or how its innards clashed with your expectations?

Kent Krugh: Good question. With film, as you know, the process was part guess and part professional experience, yet in the end it was an iterative process. But once established, it varied little from camera to camera.

The large coiled spring in the Argus A with the collapsible lens was a real surprise to me.  But the most impressive camera when X-rayed was the Swiss-made Bolex-Paillard H8 Reflex movie camera.  The variety and number of gears inside along with the large coiled spring was spectacular.


(EM: See the first image below)

EM: I’m pretty sure I noticed one or two digital cameras in the mix. What drove your choices to use the mix you did. And, do you still own or use any of the cameras you captured for the project?

Kent Krugh: Yes, there are a few digital cameras. Several I still use, which should answer the question of if the x-rays permanently damaged the digital cameras: no.

At the start of the project, I brought in a few cameras from my own small collection of about 20 cameras. After showing some of my photography buddies the x-rays, they offered me theirs for the project.

Eventually, I learned that a friend from church had over 500 cameras and when I visited his collection, I was like a kid in a candy shop! I also had fun at flea markets and garage sales expanding my collection, which has grown from about 20 to over 100.

EM: Do you think film photography still has a place in today’s photographic climate, be that from the perspective of end result or process?

Kent Krugh: Yes, I do think that film photography still has a place today, but likely not commercially. That has almost exclusively been handed over to the digitals. There is a plethora of media available to artists who paint, draw, etch, and so on. Film photography is another media preferably used by many fine art photographers. There are a few things that film can do that digital can not. For example placing a small pinhole outside pointed at the horizon to capture the path of the sun over days, weeks or months. And I am sure there are other uses of film photography that is unique.


On his website, Kent makes describes SPECIATION as an exploration of the “micro-evolution of cameras”, noting that the project is also a metaphor about the limits of evolution.

You don’t need to know anything about cameras or photography to see the stark differences between the earliest and most recent cameras captured by Kent, however, they still perform the same function: point one end at a subject and expose the result on some form of analogue or digital recording medium at the back.

To me, this project feels like a natural progression of cutaway drawings/models provided by most manufacturers over the years. Granted, the end results are not the same, nor can they be used for the same purpose. However, they feel like stablemates, with the x-rays being a more artistic expression of construction vs the dry technical nature of the cutaway.


Warning: incoming tangent.

SPECIATION resonates with me on a personal level, as I have to admit to having a bit of a fetish for physical cutaway models and diagrams of cameras/lenses. In fact, the diagram below, published in the 1939 September-October edition of “The Cine-Technician” is one of my many favourites.

Current camera manufacturers still produce physical cutaway models of their cameras from time to time but it seems that more recent preferences for showing off are mostly limited to renders.

Being a bit of a Hasselblad fanboy, I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t include this fully functioning cutaway of the Hasselblad 500 ELM. At the time of writing it’s still available at Leitz Photographica Auction, so you stand a chance of snagging it for yourself 😉

Before I get completely lost in this tangent, please do take a minute to view the many, many more photographs from SPECIATION on Kent’s website, where you’ll also find a longer statement about the project and Kent’s experiences. When you’re done, go and give Kent a follow over on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Gaining access to high-end x-ray equipment is beyond the reach of many of us mere mortals. After discovering Kent’s photography, I’ll admit to having my interest piqued and yes, I’ve asked more than a few x-ray techs at airport security checkpoints if they could give me a screengrab of the contents of my (film) camera gear.

I’ve not had any luck so far but someone’s bound to say yes sooner or later, right?

EM


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2 thoughts on “The evolution of the camera as seen through X-ray imaging”

  1. I imagine the folks at airport security checkpoints are under strict instruction not to allow images out for fear (rightly or wrongly) of people probing the capabilities of the scanners, but look up the nearest industrial radiography company in your area.

    Their bread and butter will be inspection contracts from local engineering firms/heavy industry, but – if you have the cash – they’ll usually happily provide you with radiographs as a private citizen. They’ll also tell you if any welds in your boat anchor of a medium format camera were up to scratch too.

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