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.
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…