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  • Photography, 160 Years Ago: A Really Old Voigtlander Lens

    Voightlander & John in Wien - Brass Lens

    What was Photography 160 years ago?

    Well, for starters, there was no standardized film. George Eastman was not even born yet. We were 70+ years away from seeing companies like Nikon. There were, however, a couple names that may sound familiar: Zeiss and Voigtlander. These two companies are two of the oldest optical manufacturers in existence. Many of their products were not for photographic purposes back then.

    Voightlander & John in Wien - Brass Lens

    Green Mountain Camera has once again unearthed a gem of photographic history, dating back to 1847.  It is a “Voigtlander & Sohn in Wien” Brass lens, serial number 2761, which places it among one of the earliest photographic lenses in existence. This lens was made in Vienna, Austria and is considered a “Petzval” type Portrait lens.

    A "Petzval" type lens is named after Joseph Petzval, who came up with the design of this lens type around 1840. A Professor of Mathematics at Vienna University, he was the first to design a lens with good center sharpness and an extremely fast maximum aperture (f/3.6, which was unheard of at the time). This lens design trumped the then standard design of Charles Chevalier, who designed a lens with a maximum aperture of only f/5.6, and the lens was relatively unsharp. To his credit, Chevalier greatly improved on the lenses that came before him, which were extremely slow--f/17 or slower. Chevalier was really the first individual to make Portraiture accessible to the new process of Photography. With the then current chemical processes and extremely slow lenses, an exposure time of 10 minutes in bright sunlight was not unusual. This was OK if you wanted to take a picture of a landscape, relax and have a cocktail, but for portraits, it made life very difficult.

    With the advent of Petzval's lens design, which had a maximum aperture as large as f/3.6, Portraiture truly began to blossom. In fact, commercial photography was thus born, and photographers took advantage of it by being paid to take portraits. Petzval's lens was therefore an instant and widely accepted success. Unfortunately for him, a patent was never acquired and the lens was quickly copied the world over. At the time, and to their advantage, Voigtlander and Sons was working closely with Joseph Petzval, and were the first to manufacture the new lens design. The success of the Petzval lens design meant instant success for Voigtlander too, and they were quickly regarded as the manufacturer of the finest lenses.

    This Voigtlander lens was used for two types of cameras: Daguerreotype and Wet-Plate. Daguerre announced his process to the world on August 19, 1839, and this is the date most often associated with the beginning of photography. Daguerreotype cameras used copper plates coated in silver. Exposures took several minutes and the plates were costly. Wet-Plate cameras used a glass or tin plate. Exposure times were shortened to just a couple of seconds and the cost was dramatically less.

    To understand how special our lens is, you have to reflect a little while on how important photography is today, and how it changed the world back in 1839. Then think of how short 8 years truly is in the grand scheme of things, and then place this lens, No. 2761, right there in the center of it all.

    Voightlander & John in Wien - Brass Lens

    And then, the mysteries and fables pour out of this short brass barrel.  I can’t help but wonder, looking through a piece of glass that has been around for more than 1 and a half centuries, what sort of images this lens may have captured…

    A cityscape of Paris, before the Eiffel Tower was built…

    A portrait of Abraham Lincoln...

    The construction of the Statue of Liberty…

    There is one thing we do know:

    A lot has happened since 1847.

    Voightlander & John in Wien - Brass LensVoightlander & John in Wien - Brass Lens
    Voightlander & John in Wien - Brass Lens

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    For more information on this lens and other antiques contact Jay at 

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