Thursday, 23 May 2013

Sepia Saturday 178: Polyfoto, The Natural Photography


Sepia Saturday by Alan Burnett and Kat Mortensen

I do appreciate that, for Saturday Sepians at least, sepia is a state of mind rather than a colour, shade or bygone photographic hue, but this week I will share a photograph in the traditionally sepian style from my aunt's family collection.

Image © and courtesy of Barbara Ellison
Lieutenant Charles Leslie Lionel Payne, 1941
Unmounted silver gelatin print (76 x 98mm)
Image © and courtesy of Barbara Ellison

Her father - my grandfather - had served as a machine gunner in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the Great War but, when the Second World War broke out, at 47 he was a little old to head off abroad, and was commissioned as an officer in the Pioneer Corps. Judging by the number of passport-style shots of my grandfather taken during the war years, he and the rest of the family were rather proud of his achievements, and justifiably so. In early 1942 he was promoted from Lieutenant to the rank of Captain, and by mid-1943 he was Major Payne, Officer Commanding 315 Company at Newport, Monmouthshire.

Image © and courtesy of Barbara Ellison
Reverse of silver gelatin print (76 x 98mm)
Image © and courtesy of Barbara Ellison

The back of an almost identical print has the remains of stamp edging stuck to the four edges, suggesting that it may at one time have been affixed to a mount or frame of some sort. Both this and the previous print have a small number 60 pencilled on the back, in the lower right-hand corner.

Image © and courtesy of Barbara Ellison
Lieutenant Charles Leslie Lionel Payne, 1941
Unmounted silver gelatin prints (each strip 110 x 37mm)
Image © and courtesy of Barbara Ellison

The prints are sepia-toned enlargements of a negative which also resulted in the two strips of 1¼"-square portraits above, and are almost certainly a product of the Polyfoto process. Unfortunately the reverse only has the date 1941 (corrected from 1940) written in blue ink by my grandmother. Derby had its own Polyfoto studio during and after the war, situated first at The Spot, and later in the Midland Drapery Co. Building on the corner of St Peter's and East Streets.

Image © and collection of Brett PayneImage © and collection of Brett PayneImage © and collection of Brett PayneImage © and collection of Brett Payne
Two portraits of an unidentified woman, undated, estd. c1935-1945
Unmounted silver gelatin Polyfoto prints (37 x 37mm)
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

One of these two similar-sized head-and-shoulders portraits from my own collection fortunately does have the remnants of the manufacturer's name on the back, as well as the number 22 written in purple pencil, although the subject sadly remains anonymous.

Image © and courtesy of the National Media Museum
The Polyfoto camera, made in England by Kodak Limited, 1933
Image © and courtesy of the National Media Museum

The camera used to produce these photographs was a rather unusual one, employing an automated process which reduced costs dramatically, although it did not, such as with Photomatic photobooths, dispense with the need for an operator. Originally of Danish design, and subsequently manufactured under license in England by Williamson Maunfacturing and Kodak Ltd from 1933, they used a repeating back, a series of 48 half-inch-square exposures being made on a 7" x 5" glass plate negative as a handle on the side was cranked.

Image © and courtesy of the Polyfoto web site
Taking portraits in a Polyfoto studio, c.1949
Image © and courtesy of the Polyfoto web site

They were deployed in booths located in all the major towns in England, Scotland and Wales. Caulton (2010) lists 109 of them existing around 1950, most operated as concessions in large department stores, although there were a number of stand-alone studios in busy central locations.

Image © and courtesy of British Pathé
Sabrina at a Polyfoto studio in a department store, 1956
Image © and courtesy of British Pathé

British Pathé has a wonderfully evocative film clip of Sabrina in her sweater (for those among you familiar with the Goon show) having her portrait taken at a Polyfoto booth in Bourne and Hollingsworth's department store (click on image above to view the clip). They advertised themselves as "the only system of photography giving natural and truly characteristic portraits, since the sitter can move and converse freely whilst the 48 photographs are being taken."

The sitter was asked to look this way and that. Sometimes the session was stopped, to remove a hat or coat. The photographer would chat to the sitter to put them at ease and often induced a genuine smile. Children were often given a ball or balloon to play with.

(Geoff Caulton, 2010)

A former employee of Polyfoto describes here how the camera was operated and the glass plates then dispatched to the Head Office and factory at Stanmore in North London (later located at Boreham Wood, Hertfordshire) (Anon, 2006).

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Polyfoto proof sheet envelope
Image © and collection of Brett Payne, courtesy of Anthony Norton

After developing the glass plate negative, 48-photo proof sheets were printed using fixed-focus enlargers and sent back to the studios. The envelope shown above, marked with the address of Derby's Polyfoto studio at number 3 The Spot, is presumed to be one in which the proof sheet was delivered to the studio, ready for collection by the customer.

Image © and courtesy of Alison Richards
Yvonne Chevalier, De Gruchy's Department Store, St Helier, Jersey, c.1948
Proof sheet (silver gelatin print, 225 x 300mm) and numbered plastic sleeve by Polyfoto Ltd.
Image © and courtesy of Alison Richards

This proof sheet shows 48 different photographs arranged in a 6x8 grid, together with a numbered plastic sleeve or overlay, from which the customer could choose to have one or more shots enlarged at an additional cost.

Image © and courtesy of Barbara EllisonImage © and courtesy of Barbara Ellison
Variation in degree of sepia-toning of Polyfoto print enlargements
Images © and courtesy of Barbara Ellison

The enlargements could be supplied in a number of different formats, ranging from 4" x 5" to 10" x 12", and with a variety of finishes, including sepia toning and colouring.

Image © and courtesy of George Plemper
Enid Joan Goacher, Sussex, c.1948
Proof sheet (silver gelatin print, 225 x 300mm) by Polyfoto Ltd.
Image © and courtesy of George Plemper

Of course the individual prints on the proof sheet could themselves be used and, as Geoff Caulton notes (2010), many carefully selected shots were cut out and "carried in purses, wallets and paybooks in every theatre of war."

Image © and courtesy of Paul Godfrey
Paul Godfrey, Arnold's Ltd., Great Yarmouth, 1949
Mounted proof print, taken by Polyfoto Ltd in a department store booth
Image © and courtesy of Paul Godfrey

Many proof prints were individually mounted behind simple pre-printed passe-partout card frames, such as this cute example from fellow photohistory enthusiast Paul Godfrey.

Image © and courtesy of Geoff Caulton Image © and courtesy of Geoff Caulton

Geoff Caulton also has a number of fine specimens displayed on his PhotoDetective web site (click the Gallery button), most of which appear to have been taken during the war years, and I suspect this is when the Polyfoto attained its greatest popularity.

Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin
Mary Lavender Wallis in WAAF uniform, before June 1942
Booklet of proofs by Polyfoto Ltd.
Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

One could also chose to have the proof sheet cut up into blocks of six and mounted in a plastic-covered album, such as this booklet ordered by Nigel Aspdin's mother, and probably taken at a Polyfoto branch in London shortly before she received a commission in the WAAF in June 1942. She visited the studio for another session in her new officer's uniform sometime after that date, for which Nigel also has an almost complete proof sheet.



It appears that Polyfoto was not restricted to the United Kingdom. The above unidentified and undated print is from Denmark, and I have also seen a characteristically diminutive print originating from Leipzig, Germany. I'd be interested in hearing from readers who have seen examples from even further afield, as I am unsure whether the cameras ever reached North America or the Antipodes.

Image © and courtesy of -fs-
Former Polyfoto studio in Hainstrasse, Leipzig, Germany
Digital image taken with Sigma DP2s camera, 19 February 2012
Image © and courtesy of -fs-

It is not clear how long the Polyfoto network lasted although certainly by the late 1960s, when the head office moved to Watford, its popularity was on the wane. Several sources claim that the reason for its demise was the coin-operated photobooth although I have my doubts, since the operator-free booths were already well established prior to the Second World War, when the Polyfoto network was expanding rapidly.

Image © and courtesy of George Eastman House
Duc de Coimbra, c.1860
Albumen print (201 x 237mm), uncut carte de visite sheet, by Disderi
Image © and courtesy of George Eastman House (GEH NEG:13908)

The idea of exposing multiple frames on a single photographic plate was not a new one. In fact, it had been around for nearly seven decades prior to the Polyfoto camera's debut in 1933, and indeed formed the basis of popular commercial photographic portraiture in the 1860s and 1870s, as introduced by Disderi and others with the carte de visite format in the mid- to late 1850s. Using a multi-lens camera several (usually eight) exposures were made on a single collodion wet-plate which was contact-printed on albumen paper. The images were then cut up and mounted on card separately as cartes de visite.

Image © and courtesy of David Tristram Ludwig
Simon Wing Ajax Multiplying Wet Plate Camera, c.1899-1900
Image © and courtesy of David Tristram Ludwig's Antique Cameras Photo Gallery

This technique of taking several frames on a single plate also found very popular use in the production of gem tintypes, which I will cover in a forthcoming Photo-Sleuth article. The multiplying wet-plate camera designed by Simon Wing and shown above, had a mechanism surprisingly similar to that of the Polyfoto camera of 1933. So, as some say, there is nothing new under the sun.

Before you head over to see what the rest of the Sepia Saturday folk have in store for you this week, have a look at this poignant two-and-a-half-minute Polyfoto compilation by Daniel Meadows about his parents.

References

Polyphoto Portrait Photography Studios web site. [retrieved 19 May 2013]

Anon (2006) Reviving the Polyfoto, on Camster Factor, 2 March 2006. [retrieved 19 May 2013]

Anon (nd) Polyfoto Vintage Style Photobooths, on Ian Johnson Wedding Photographer. [retrieved 19 May 2013]

Caulton, Geoff (2010) The Polyfoto and Polyfoto Studios, on PhotoDetective. [retrieved 19 May 2013]

Coe, Brian (1978) Cameras: From Daguerreotypes to Instant Pictures, United States: Crown Publishers.

31 comments:

  1. 48 prints with different poses of one subject, taken at one time, would be very interesting. There are none in my collection.

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    Replies
    1. I have not seen any of this style from North America, Kristin. I'd be keen to hear from you if you do come across any.

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  2. The coloring of the first photo of your grandfather reminds me of the WWII photo of my own grandfather who was also an older soldier. He was a father of four children and did not have to serve, but felt it was his duty. He tried to get in the paratroopers, but was turned down and ended up serving in Burma.

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    Replies
    1. From what I can tell, sepia-toning underwent something of a revival between the wars, especially in North America, where they tended to produce very rich, deep tones, and mount prints on textured and elaborately embellished similarly brownish or greenish card.

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  3. The Polyfoto system is very interesting and sounds like an excellent way of capturing multiple poses. I never heard of anything like it before. I wonder whether there was any system like this in the U.S. in the past or now.

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    1. I have seen plenty of instances of "sessions" of half a dozen poses from North America, but not dozens. As I responded to Kristin, I'd be keen to hear of any.

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  4. You always cease to amaze me - always coming up with some camera that I've never heard of. I must tell my daughter who films with super 8 film and cameras about polyfoto. She'll want to buy one to add to her relic cameras. I wonder if any are still around, I'll check out ebay.
    That's was a wonderful post and I thoroughly enjoyed Daniel Meadow's post. That was so beautifully done.
    Nancy

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    Replies
    1. I think it unlikely they'll come up for sale on eBay, having been strictly a professional studio device, but you never know. Sadly, since it took specially designed glass plates, you'd have to be a real enthusiast and be willing to prepare your own photographic plates, and develop and print them. Quite a performance, I think.

      The Daniel Meadows sequence was something I discovered after completing the piece, but I thought it would make a nice coda.

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  5. I went to a rather disappointing talk on "dating and Preserving Old Photographs" at the Local Library, the other day. The speaker was someone from the West Yorkshire Archives service but it was a less than fascinating presentation. I kept thinking to myself "they should have invited Brett". the trouble is, I suspect they wouldn't have paid your travelling costs!

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    Replies
    1. How very kind of you Alan, but I suspect you're right. Besides, the last time I gave a talk on just that topic to a group from the local genealogical society, one woman in the front row was so fast asleep you could almost hear the snores, and I'm surprised she didn't fall off the seat.

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  6. I too had an uncle who served in the 2nd World war at the age of 39. He also did not have to serve, having 7 children, but felt he had t. During WW! his father - an Australian of German extraction was interned purely because he had german ancestry and my uncle felt compelled to prove he was a loyal Australian even though he family had been in Australia since 1848. My uncle was capyured and spent a number of years in Changi Prison Camp.

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    Replies
    1. The stories of Changi are legendary - it must have been awful.

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  7. My father was in WWI. my brothers in WWII but we only have photos of my elder brother in the Fleet Air Arm. Polyfoto was an interesting concept but what could you do with 48 poses, even Sabrina got tired of posing.

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    1. My impression is that they were so cheap that you could give them away to all and sundry, and I suppose most did, but I agree, after half a dozen I'm sure it became very tedious.

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  8. Fascinating post again. Love the series of photos, this Memorial Day is for them.

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  9. Fascinating post, I have a few polyfotos in the card frame, but didn't know the background to them. Thank you. Fun to watch the pathe film too!

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    1. I rarely think of looking there for relevant film clips to my articles, so it was lucky that fellow photohistorian Paul Godfrey alerted me to it.

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  10. I remember seeing photo number one before! Great photo with much thought captured in his gaze! Once again you have offered a most interesting post, and great photos for this fun theme.

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    1. Yes, you're quite right, I have used it before, in my article about his service as officer commanding an Italian Working Company at a POW camp in Wales. There are a LOT of similar wallet-sized shots of him from that period, but not all in the Polyfoto style. I wonder at the number of studio/photobooth visits he must have made.

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  11. Thank you, Brett! I enjoyed learning about Polyfoto, your grandfather, and watching both the clips - from posing Sabrina (whom I had not heard of) to the touching video by Daniel Meadows.

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    Replies
    1. Sabrina has rather slipped from public view in recent years, not surprising as her last film role was 43 years ago.

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  12. Fascinating is an insufficient adjective for this post, Brett. Combining family photos and collected photos to illustrate a camera/photo technique is more than instructive but also good storytelling. And thanks for the video link to Daniel Meadows' eloquent short film.

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    1. Thank you Mike. As you've no doubt gathered, I feel that I'm on a roll now connecting photographs to the cameras they came from.

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  13. The photo of your Uncle was great -- and quite possibly could have been enough --- but never for you Mr. Payne. You gave us a raft of pictures, as well as a delightful mini course in polyfots of the era, cameras and techniques. Good way to start off my morning.

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    1. Well I hope your day continued the way it started, Joan. Sepia Saturday is always about more than just the image, and for each of us, delving behind the image takes us in a slightly diffrerent direction.

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  14. Interesting journey.
    I didn't know about Polyfoto
    and it seemed like an interesting concept
    for one session.
    I like Meadows montage in that vid you included.
    :)~
    HUGZ

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    Replies
    1. Bruno - Yes, the video montage was very well done, wasn't it.

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