Burke and James Ajax Portrait Petzval…

A number of years ago, following a flurry of posts by Jim Galli, I developed an interest in antique lenses, specifically those of the Petzval design. I’ve since developed a friendship with Richard Rankin who frequently collects and sells old lenses.

One of the first Petzvals Richard hooked me up with was a Burke & James Ajax Portrait #1, a 9″ f/5 Petzval with an integral aperture. It was a beautiful lens, and thouugh it displayed the characteristic Petzval “swirl” under the right circumstances, what was most appealing about it was the creamy bokeh that good Petzvals exhibit.

'Nother lens test...

I was hooked, but as things always seem to go, other priorities reared their heads, and the Ajax was destined for a new owner. A sale I immediately regretted.

A year or so later, Richard contacted me that he had found another Ajax #1. I had him send it immediately. This one was cut for Waterhouse slots (as opposed to the built-in aperture) and came with the original flange, an added bonus. Again, I used the lens extensively. The lens was a favorite on 4×5, though it was especially nice on 5×7.

Again, though, priorities changed, money became tight, and something needed to go. The second #1 Ajax left my stable.

Now, a few weeks ago, Richard again found himself with an Ajax, though this time it was a #2. Unsure what the difference between the #1 and #2 was, I posted to largeformatphotography.info. A reply came, including this catalog page:

So, all the Ajax lenses are f/5, and the #2 is 10-1/2″, built to cover 56×7, while the #1 (9″ f/5) had less coverage. Now, Petzval coverage ideals have evolved, and the distinct out-of-focus renderings were organically considered shortcomings of the design. So, when the catalog lists 5×7 as the coverage, it’s very conservative compared to today’s aesthetics.

Anyway, I was intrigued, and bought the #2.

Lens arrived, a little more beat-up than usual: No shade, three of the four screws to hold down the focus gear missing. No matter, the focus mechanism is redundant on a view camera, and I use a front-mount Packard, anyway. But I dreaded the thought of making another lensboard for it, and I let it sit for a week, figuring I’d sell it off without using it.

So, yesterday, I duct-taped the lens to a board, wanting to get an idea of coverage before listing it. Slapped it on the 10×12, and at about 7′ focus distance, the lens covered the format. Wonderfully. Swirly along the edges, creamy toward the center. Just what it should be. As a portrait lens, I’d never be shooting more than a few feet away, anyway. I was immediately stoked!

So, I loaded a holder, sat the boy in front of a tree, and burned a sheet. Unfortunately, I neglected to tape over the Waterhouse slot, and got a bit of a light leak on the image.


Rookie mistake. But the lens has distinct potential. Were I not out of HC-110 right now, I’d be in full-on feeding frenzy mode. But it will have to wait a little longer.

Now I’m on a hunt for all sizes of Ajax lenses. A #1 for 4×5 (again), the others just to have focal length options. If anyone has one or sees one for sale somewhere, well, you know what to do…

Some others from the #1:



Seed pod...

Roses, revisited...



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