I have always been interested in aerial photography; being able to photograph places from a perspective that most people will never see themselves or photographing places that can only been seen from the air. Photographers like Bradford Washburn and Vittorio Sella served only to pour gas on an already raging fire, with their amazing portfolios of remote mountain ranges, glaciers and snow covered peaks from around the world. A friend of mine used his Linhof Tech IV with 2 gyroscopes mounted to the bottom to take aerials perched in the door of a small plane, a feet that I would very much like to repeat. So when I had the opportunity to buy a Fairchild Aerial camera, I jumped on it.
Fairchild Camera and Instrument would go on to become the official cameras of the United States Army and Navy Air Services. After incorporating into Fairchild Aviation, the company became the second-largest manufacturer of commercial airplanes and the fourth-largest aviation organization in the United States. Fairchild created dozens of aerial camera models ranging in size, film size and type. They built cameras that used glass plates, sheet film and even roll film up 9″ wide – to create 9 x 9 inch images. The K-20 was produced in very large numbers and in fact during World War II they built around 15,000 cameras.
I stumbled onto a Fairchild K-20 on eBay while looking at large format cameras. The K-20 was manufactured by Fairchild Camera and Instrument from 1941 to 1945 under contract through Folmer Graflex. The K-20 creates a 4 x 5 image on 5 1/4 inch wide roll film and is a mounted camera. In fact, it was a Fairchild K-20 that was mounted in the tail gunner position of the Enola Gay and responsible for many of the pictures of the mushroom cloud after the bomb was dropped at Hiroshima. The thing is a monster. It’s massive, heavy and very over-built. Even though the body is made of cast aluminum it weighs in at a daunting 10 pounds (fully loaded), it’s not something you’re going to be lugging around with as you traipse around the countryside. It could be fitted with a 20 or 200 foot roll of film and had to be loaded in complete darkness since there wasn’t a cartridge to hold the film.
Operating the camera is very much like cocking and firing a large machine gun. The firing and film advance handle are basically a large grip with a trigger that fires the shutter, then by cocking it, you advance the film and cock the shutter. There is a large diaphragm in the camera that creates a vacuum to hold the film flat against the film plane. The shutter is a large, interchangeable leaf shutter. There weren’t options or variations of the shutter, but it was designed as a sealed mechanism to be easily replaced. The design is complex but not overly complicated in a way that would make it cumbersome to use, but there are several caveats to operating this monster. The slot on the bottom, which looks to be for a dark slide is actually for the film loading guide, which should be inserted if you need to fire the camera with no film, otherwise the mechanism gets out of sync with the vacuum back. It is not meant to be fired “dry” and should be stored with the shutter tripped, not cocked. The inclusion of a gun-sight on the top of the camera makes it easy(ish) to aim, but having never seen one mounted or on some sort of gimbal I’m not sure how these were employed.
The K-20 came fitted with a 161mm Kodak Antistagmatic lens with only 3 shutter speeds of 1/125, 1/250, and 1/500 but a full range of aperture settings from f/4.5 to f/22. There are also a couple of filters for black and white photography; a #25 red filter, and #8 yellow filter that just twist and lock onto the front of the lens. The lens itself seems small for how big the camera is, but like other Kodak lenses it’s a workhorse; reliable and sharp. The blades on the iris are quite large considering the size of the lens, and the mechanism seems rather fragile considering how the rest of the camera is built – or over-built as the case may be.
The manual for the K-20 is pretty dry and extremely verbose – it is definitely a technical guide meant for the military but it is thorough and explains in detail how to operate, maintain and fix potential problems. For a bit more detail on what came in the box, there’s an example at the Science Museum Groups site of a K-20 with all the fixins.
This is one camera I bought just because I wanted one. I wasn’t too concerned to get one that had all the filters, film guide, manual and case. There’s no way to get the film for it anymore and definitely no way to easily process a massive roll of large format film. It’s just a cool camera to be able to have. It’s dripping with WWII era style and a great example of a purpose built device that worked extremely well for decades and under some pretty harsh conditions.
Fairchild K-20 (Folmer Graflex)
Production: 1941 -1945
Film: 5 1/4 roll film (20 – 200 feet)
Image size: 4″ x 5″
Shutter: Leaf (removeable/replaceable)
Weight: 9lbs 12oz
161mm Kodak Antistagmatic lens
Shutter speeds: 1/125, 1/250, 1/500
Apertures: f/4.5 – f/22
Filters: bayonet mount
Two filters were available with the K-20, a #25 ed and #8 Yellow.
The aperture and shutter assemblies were designed to be somewhat self contained to make them easy to replace. Any shutter or aperture assembly could be swapped from one K-20 to another.