This is a two-part article. Part One in this issue covers how to make a simple large format camera lens. Part Two (in November/ December 2012) explores how to make a large format camera and how to use the camera lens combo to make photographs.
In 1839, Charles Louis Chevalier, an optician and instrument maker in France, created a simple one-element lens that was used in the first photographic cameras. This simple, achromatic meniscus lens was invented some years earlier by Charles’ father, Vincent Chevalier, for use in camera obscuras. Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce, an early photographic pioneer, used Chevalier’s lenses in his work, and in 1826 created the first permanent photograph View from the Window at Le Gras. In addition to creating this remarkable lens Vincent was also responsible for connecting a fledgling photographer named Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre and Niépce. This introduction started Daguerre down the road of photo-graphic experimentation and discovery.
Over the past several years there’s been a tremendous interest in the early lenses created by Chevalier, Petzval, Dallmeyer and others. The optical artifacts they provide are of particular curiosity to those using 19th Century photo- graphic processes. Not surprisingly, the value of these lenses has increased dramatically on eBay and through private dealers. A collection of lenses, antique or contemporary, can easily be the most expensive component of one’s photographic apparatus. It’s easy to overbuy, but it usually happens slowly and innocently. Different situations require different lenses and after a few years, a wild assortment sits on the shelf—some of which have never been used! There are many reasons one could end up with lots of lenses, but it’s important to remember that the apparatus alone doesn’t create pictures. The most important thing a photographer can understand is what each piece of equipment brings to the table. How can the use of a particular lens benefit the idea and intent of the photograph?
Steichen didn’t use a modern, multi-element lens adjusted for a minimal amount of chromatic aberration when he made his famous 1904 photograph The Pond—Moonlight that sold for a record $2.9 million dollars in 2006. He had something much closer to Chevalier’s single element lens, but he knew exactly how to use it and created a beautiful, evocative photograph.
These early style lenses are actually quite easy and inexpensive to make on your own, using surplus lens elements and a few parts from the plumbing section at the hardware store Granted, they lack the provenance, beautiful brass and palpable connection with history but the optical results between them and an authentic 19th Century Chevalier type lens can be strikingly similar. The best part is that a self-made lens will cost less than $20.