Kodaks’ WWII rangefinder goodness

I go back and forth on this camera, the Kodak Medalist II. Often, I find myself in awe of its built-like-a-tank construction: all aluminum, brass, and chrome. That wonderfully oddball double-helical focusing mount, with a very sharp 100mm f3.5 Ektar on its end – it’s all good. And how about those massive strap lugs? – this was Made in the USA at its best.
And it’s a medium format rangefinder – which in itself makes it a very special thing.
Yet, there’s something not quite right about the Medalist. First off, it takes type 620 film, which is long gone from dealer shelves. You can make your own by re-winding 120 film back onto a salvaged 620 spool. It’s the same film and backing paper, but the 620 spool is skinnier. This is likely why 620 wasn’t embraced by the professional community. The film was wound tighter and curled a bit more than in the 120 equivalent.
I would hazard a guess that the Kodak Medalist was the most sophisticated camera to ever use 620. Nearly all other 620 cameras were of the snapshot Brownie type. Let me know if you have seen any other precision camera using 620.
I can also quibble about the Medalist’s viewfinder being too small to be taken seriously by a working pro.
The whole camera has an air of being made to fit a military proposal – someone wanted a precision camera, rugged (ie, no bellows), accurate focus, eyelevel finder, big negative, sharp lens, and it must be as compact as possible. So we end up with a heavy (1350 grams with film), dense camera, that’s about as easy to hold onto as a snow globe.
Still, it’s an awesome piece of equipment, all the same. Showing it to anyone who has never seen anything like it before never fails to impress.
The original Medalist was made from 1941 to about 1946 – no doubt due to the lack of European cameras in the WW2 period. Kodak apparently stepped up to produce a serious camera for the “duration”. It still has some beauty to it though.
The one I have here is a Medalist II, which was made from ‘46 to ‘53, and in addition to a couple of minor updates, it apparently had better lens coatings, and a bayonet socket for flash syncronization. The lens code suggests it was made in 1946. I have the original case for it, as well as a set of Series VI filters and a hood. What’s not to love?
Incidentally, there was no Medalist III, as Kodak brought out a simpler, cheaper, and short-lived Chevron model in ‘53. No doubt that European and even Japanese cameras were back on the US market spelled the end of the Medalist program.
So I dug out a couple of rolls of Verichrome 120 film (what better emulsion to use in a vintage piece like this), and re-wound it onto some 620 spools. A murky November Monday saw me head out to give this piece a whirl. I brought along an original Weston Master meter from my collection – which is correct for the period.
The negs developed up perfectly, and I offer you a sampling of the shots I got, despite the clouds and rain.
If the Medalist was the only medium format camera I had, it would probably see more use. But having to re-spool film, and struggle with its odd ergonomics don’t put it at the top of the list. Still, the Medalist owner can be proud of having what was an awesome piece of machined metal and top-grade American optics for its time (don’t forget that Ektar lenses were used on the first Hasselblads in the late ‘50s). The fact that this complicated camera still works almost perfectly after 55 years is proof enough.

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~ by windsorphotooutfitters on December 3, 2011.

One Response to “Kodaks’ WWII rangefinder goodness”

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    some % to force the message home a bit, however other than that, this is wonderful blog. A great read. I will certainly be back.

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