Shot 100 years ago: Developing Kodak Premo-Pack 4×5 film from a Rochester Premo B camera ~ by Salvador Busquets

One of the most fascinating things I’ve found by collecting cameras is that from time to time, there is some exposed — but not developed — film or glass plate. They often have spent decades inside the camera and are über-expired; the so-called “found film”. But they can still be developed! I bought a camera and some related equipment a year ago, on an all well-known auction website that contained this very treasure.

It was a Rochester Premo B 4×5 camera, and came with a Kodak Premo-Pack adapter, still loaded with a pack of film. The Kodak Premo-Packs, or Film-Packs were a type of large-format sheet film, but glued as kind of pack, usually in 12 units. They stopped production in the 1970s or 80s. This one was still loaded in the adapter, with 10 of its sheets exposed and only 2 left unused.

Rochester Premo B 4x5 camera - Front
Rochester Premo B 4×5 camera – Front
Rochester Premo B 4x5 camera - Right
Rochester Premo B 4×5 camera – Right

The “Premo B” was a camera produced by several Rochester (NY) companies, with considerable confusion in the very unimaginative names of the first versions. This camera specifically seems to date from 1901 or 1902 and is clearly marked as made by the “Rochester Optical and Camera Co.,” a merger that existed between 1899 and 1903. The confusion comes because originally, Premo cameras were manufactured by the “Rochester Optical Co.,” , founded in 1883 and later the co-founder of said merger of companies which ended in the “Rochester Optical and Camera Co.,” in 1899.

Finally, all this was bought by Eastman Kodak in 1903 which for a while, continued manufacturing Premos (was there any American company that Kodak did not buy in its early 20th Century heyday?!). The Premo B was the second most expensive model of the Premo series, and produced in 4×5 and 5×7 inch formats; this one is a 4×5 inch version. The whole camera was compact enough in that era, to be transformed into a more or less square box, where there was space in the rear for plate holders (see below).

Rochester Premo B 4x5 camera - Right, rear
Rochester Premo B 4×5 camera – Right, rear
Rochester Premo B 4x5 camera - Left, front
Rochester Premo B 4×5 camera – Left, front

This compactness was quite relevant for these types of cameras, as they were advertised as “cycle cameras”, to be used while doing a bicycle trip.

A curious detail of this camera is the shutter — a Bausch & Lomb-Zeiss Tessar Series IIb 4×5 in a Volute shutter — which I must say was one the main points of interest about this particular Premo among its sisters on the internet. The lens was quite probably was not the one issued with the camera in the factory.

The Premo B generally had a Bausch & Lomb Victor shutter. I have commented that this camera (for various features such as the viewfinder or the spirit levels) seems to be one the latest produced by Rochester Optical, right? This was in 1901 or 1902. Well, it appears that sometime around 1908-1910, the owner of this camera modernized it with a new shutter, the precious and beautiful Bausch & Lomb Volute.

The Volute seems to have started production in 1903, just when that Premo B exited the factory. I have calculated the ap-proximate production window for this shutter (1908-1910), not by it’s serial number, but by the one in the lens, a Bausch & Lomb Zeiss Tessar II b.

By the way, this Volute, although magnificent, works nowadays quite slugishly at all speeds, but when bought was almost stuck. I ventured to open, and clean it, which partially improved its pace, but still not enough. Maybe the problem is dirty diaphragm parts, but I don’t dare to touch them. At least I can still use it for its B & T modes in low light, or at the top speed — when it’s own inertia helps in keeping more or less the theoretical speed of 1/150. All in all, it has helped me to understand the wonderful operation of these jewels of the engineering of one hundred years ago.

Bausch & Lomb-Zeiss Tessar Series IIb 4x5 - Volute shutter maintenance
Bausch & Lomb-Zeiss Tessar Series IIb 4×5 – Volute shutter maintenance
Bausch & Lomb-Zeiss Tessar Series IIb 4x5 - Volute shutter maintenance
Bausch & Lomb-Zeiss Tessar Series IIb 4×5 – Volute shutter maintenance

As you might imagine, I was curious about the exposed — but still latent — images in the film-pack. I had to develop them. But first, I had to finish the pack.

I tried to expose the two remaining sheets rating them at a low ISO, but to no avail as you can see below:

Then, in the darkroom, I opened the holder and the pack. I carefully separated each sheet from the others and put them apart in a darkbox while I proceed to develop them in trays. Looking at several websites, the most reliable developer for very old film seems to be HC-110, as it’s quite useful against fogging. The developed sheets looked completely dark at first sight, but on the lightbox, some images could be seen. I scanned them, with positive yet extremely foggy results in most of the sheets.

Except for the two shots taken by me, which showed nothing (and are not presented here), the remaining frames are highly fogged, but they have spent ~100 years living as latent images, waiting inside their pack!

They show scenes from a trip in the forest, with a group of men and women posing near a river and in a picnic. Others show a garden with wisteria and some portraits of the same men under it, or what appears as a cabin in the woods. All are shrouded in a mist-like atmosphere, especially some of the portraits, which appear almost as floating ghosts.

What else do we know about these old photos?

I think I can date them in the mid-1920s, most likely in the United States. The film pack in question was already branded as Kodak-Pack, and until 1922 they had the name Premo-Pack (produced by Kodak). By 1922 this camera was already about 20 years old and had begun to be outdated. It’s for that reason I do not think they are photos taken in the ’30s.

About the location, I mentioned it was most likely in the United States because these Rochester cameras were mainly sold there, and I bought it from a seller in Michigan. Still, perhaps this does not mean that the original owner was from that state.

To think that their authors never developed or saw these photos, which patiently waited almost a century to be contemplated, despite their bad state… Why were they were not developed? Was it an oversight? A misfortune?

We will almost certainly never know but I am glad to have helped them finally see the light.

~ Salvador

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About the author

Avatar - Salvador Busquets

Salvador Busquets

I had a certain interest in photography as a child, but it wasn't until about 12 years ago that I started working as a commercial photographer, fully digital. Initially I surrendered to it’s possibilities, but my interest in history (I have a PhD), and a...

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  1. Thanks for posting this great story. Amazing how much of the images survive after lying dormant for so long, in who knows what conditions (damp, heat, etc).

  2. Yes, I think it was a Kodak Verichrome, not Pan, as far as I can remember (I have it not here, now). So I could try to develop under safelight, but anyway I did not dare to. Just in case. I developed each 4×5 sheet apart, on trays.

  3. A fascinating insight into the past.
    My guess as to why they were never developed is that the owner got a new camera (as you comment that it was getting obsolete) and then simply forgot it.