Volume IV, No. 1, Fall 1976
by William Lenz as told to Caryn Rader and Jimmy Harrelston
Photography by Jimmy Harrelston
Photography is an essential part of our magazine and each of us on the staff finds that it is a special art all its own. We have found time and again that taking good pictures is not enough. There is also a special art to developing and printing pictures to get the best results. Because photography is so important to our magazine, we were especially pleased to meet and talk with William Lenz of Lebanon, Missouri. He opened his first photography studio in 1908, but his interest in photography goes further back than that.
In 1898, when I was thirteen years old and in the eighth grade, I obtained my first camera as a premium. It was just a little bit of a thing that took pictures two inches square. This little camera was instrumental in getting me interested in photography. I told my dad that I'd like to have a little bigger one, so he bought me a 4x5 plate camera and some developing equipment from Sears Roebuck. I studied the instructions and started in. I took the pictures and did my own finishing. This was a long time before Kodaks, which used roll film, were invented.
I lived in Wisconsin at this time on a farm. You see, that's up in the cold country where they have long cold winters. My mother said everytime she stepped outdoors, she felt like somebody had thrown a bucket of ice water over her. I said, "If you can't take this climate, let's go further south."
So I came down here to the Ozarks for a visit in the winter of 1906-07. When I got back home, everything was a glaze of ice. It was about two miles from the railroad station to where we lived, and I took one step forward and slipped two steps back! Oh, I had a time getting home! I told the folks how much nicer it was here in Lebanon than it was up there, so they sold out and we came down here and got here in June, 1907.
My folks and I went to look at a house down here. A pretty young girl was painting the window sash on the inside. Her father was putting up the place for sale and she was mad because her father was selling it. My folks bought the house. I got acquainted with the girl, we fell in love, and we got married the following year, in 1908.
That same year I bought out the only photographer in Lebanon. When I bought the studio, I hired my wife for a receptionist to take care of the front room. She helped me do any of the work in process, also the printing. We very seldom needed any extra help. We did most of the work ourselves.
But things changed fast, I'll tell you. I ran into some difficulty with the owner of the building. Whoever had used the darkroom must have spilled acid on the floor and it had eaten holes through the floor. I wanted the owner of the building to fix the floor, but he wouldn't do it. I should have done it myself. Instead of that I moved out. I was out in 1909. I was clear out. I didn't have a place to go, and no work.
I thought I could find a better place and location, so I went down to Arkansas, Oklahoma, and from Oklahoma, I went to Colorado. I found out that the farther I went, the worse off I was. I came back home from Colorado and saw an ad in the newspaper. They wanted a photographer in Dallas, Texas. So I went down to Dallas, worked three days and made prints while the photographer was gone. When he came back, he didn't like my work so he fired me. He wouldn't accept my work at all, and he wouldn't pay me for what I had done. So I got on the train and I came home.
When I came back, I'd had my experience with trying to work for other folks. So I went to the bank and asked the cashier if he knew where there was a lot I could buy. I wanted to build a studio so I could get back in business. He said his mother-in-law had a lot. I asked her what she would take for it, and she'd sell it to me for $400. That was less than half of what it was worth. The lot was way out then on Commercial Street and it was used as a hitching yard. People didn't have cars in those days. They all drove horses and wagons. They'd hitch the horses to the back of the wagons and feed them there. Well, that was the last building on the street, when I built out there, people would ask who was building it. I'd say, "Oh, some fellow from Wisconsin." They said, "He'll never make it. It's too far out of town. He won't get any business way out there." I'd say, "Well, it's just a half a block from the other business." Now it's right in the business district of town. The people called me the "Kid Photographer" then.
That was about 66 years ago, in March, 1910, when I started building my studio on that vacant lot. I designed the building myself, and I built it myself. I didn't have any money to hire anybody. I just hired the people who made and laid the blocks. I put on the roof and put in the floor. I did all the interior finishing and everything. My studio was about twenty-five feet wide and eighty feet long and it had four rooms. We had the reception room, the operating room, and two darkrooms, the smaller room was for developing and the larger room was for printing.
We opened for business July 10. We had business the very first day. People were in and out all day long. The longer we were in business, the more business we had. We just could hardly keep up with it. I only did portrait work. I took a lot of group pictures and pictures for the school annual.
I made the pictures just as cheap as I could, but still make a little profit, so that people could afford to buy my product. It wasn't a scheme to get rich. I never had a desire to be rich.
I designed my own mounts and had them made in a factory. I had my own designs so nobody could duplicate them. I changed the style of my pictures so that the other fellow couldn't make them. We had so many different kinds of pictures and so many different sizes that there was a wide range of prices. One time I made a stand and a whole outfit for making stamp pictures. I made three poses, four of each, for twenty-five cents a dozen. We had a big rotating cabinet of the samples of pictures. Somebody would come in, select a picture and have that made, and, lo and behold, several people would come in and want the same thing. Oh, well, that was a very peculiar thing about the wants and desires of people. The next time it'd be altogether different. It just depends upon your customers, what they want. We made 8x10 group pictures, but not in the studio. The largest I could make in the studio was a 5x7.
In 1920 I lost my health and I sold out. I'd been closed in the darkroom with all those chemicals, and I never had a day's vacation. I felt like if I could get out on a farm, I could get my health back. So my brother-in-law and I bought a dairy farm in Susquehana Valley in Pennsylvania. We were on that farm for four years. Then we came back home. The man I sold out to went bankrupt and lost everything he had. He lost his building, and I bought the studio back at a bankrupt sale. We went back into business until 1929 when I sold out. When I sold the studio, everything went with it, except the enlarging machine I had made.
When I bought my studio, the lens that was in it wouldn't take everything I wanted. Lenses were mounted on a board, and you could change lenses instantly, but I didn't want to keep changing lenses. Voigtlander Heliar was the only lense I could find on the market that I would use at all. I could use it for everything. I could use it for portraits or I could use it for groups. Classes from high school used to come and have whole classes taken at one time. You could open that lens wide open. See, lenses are made with diaphrams in them so you could open the diaphram or close it and set it on different points, and the more you cut it down, the sharper the image was. Well, this lens was corrected so that you could keep the diaphram wide open. I never did close the diaphram on this lens at all. It was so large and admitted so much light that I could take a picture as fast as I could squeeze the bulb and make the exposure.
Back then, I made the exposure with a bulb with an open end on it. Put your thumb over it, and when you squeezed it, it automatically worked the shutter. If you wanted to leave the shutter open, you just took your finger off and the shutter would stay open.
I had a regular portrait camera and two view cameras, one 5x7 and one 8x10. A view camera is a folding camera you can put in a case and carry. The portrait studio camera was on a stand with three casters on it so you could move the camera around the room. It was an upright that had a wheel on the side so you could raise and lower that camera and get it the proper height. Then it had a tilting device on it, and you could tilt it at any angle you wanted. You can get your image on the ground glass just like you want it. Then slide the slide over, and then place the negative in the same place where you did your focusing. Then you make your exposure. As fast as I could press the bulb, why that would make the exposure. It'd be about a 25th of a second.
I knew about how long to make the exposure according to the speed of the plates and the lens I was using. I never shot at random. I made my adjustments so the light was right and everything was right, and I was in the right location at the right angle. There wasn't any shooting at random and getting a lot of negatives and none of them any account. Everytime I made an exposure, why I expected to get a good image.
Most of my work was with dry plates, on glass. I didn't use films very long. The dry plates were made in St. Louis. I could get better results with their plates than I could get with any other plates. The other plates were too contrasty. I didn't like contrast. I like a picture so you can see into the shadows. They didn't use American glass because American glass had too many flaws in it--air bubbles and imperfections. They got the glass from Belgium. It was thinner--much thinner glass than window glass. It was just real thin glass plate and the emulsion was coated on one side. It's just the same as film, only it's glass instead of plastic. It was developed the same as negatives are today. Right before I quit the business the industry changed to films, but the film was a heavy film. we would shoot 5x7 or 8x10 film. The film was cut that size and you put it in an adapter in the plate holder, the same one that held the glass plates. The adapter held it in place just as straight as a piece of glass.
In 1910, all studios were equipped with skylights. When I built my studio, I made a big skylight in the building. It was a quarter inch thick ground glass. It was about six feet wide and sixteen feet long, six feet in the wall and ten feet-at 45 degrees on the roof. You can't have direct sunlight, so the skylight was on the north side of the building so the sunlight wouldn't directly hit it. That ground glass gave a diffused light. It had no shadows to it. Pictures taken by daylight look different from pictures taken by artificial light. You can't take pictures with artificial light that look as natural as those made with daylight. There's no substitute for daylight.
Here's the theory I used to take photographs. A person's head is round, but if all the light comes from the front, the head looks flat. You have a map of the face that has no roundness to it. The light should come from about a 45° angle from one side or the other. The light should be shone through under the eyebrows. You should face the camera and the light should come across the face that way and not straight in your face.
You've got to use your light to the best advantage too. You can use light to make your subject look better. I only had to have one person come back for a retake, and it was my fault. This lady came in for a photograph, and I took one without really looking at her. When I developed the negative--well, I just couldn't make a picture of it. Her teeth protruded in front. I had to call her back, told her the negative was ruined. Well, this time I set her so her mouth was in a shadow, didn't show as much, and the picture came out good. That was the only picture I ever had to take over.
I'd always take several views of the people. Then I would make proofs and send them to customers to see which ones they wanted. When they would decided which one they wanted, than I could go ahead and start working on them. In making portraits of groups I wouldn't make any prints off of a negative until it had been retouched. There's no use in retouching it until you know people are going to buy it from you because retouching is a big job.
I was pretty good at retouching because I took a short course in photography at Da Guerre Memorial Institute at Winona Lake, Indiana, in 1923. I guess there were a hundred students there. When they were starting the retouching course, the instructor went around and watched. Everyone had his own negative to work on. He came by and watched me retouch, and I didn't pay any attention to him at all. He had a call to leave and wanted me to take his place there while he was gone because I was the best retoucher in the outfit.
When you're retouching you have a pencil. It's a lead pencil and the leads are made in several different hardnesses. You select the grade that suits your touch. A soft lead will not make a fine line. A harder lead will. I never used the real hard or the real soft one because of my touch. I could do it so accurately that if you had freckles on your face, I could take the freckles off and they'd never show on the finished picture--take all the blemishes out of your face and make you look pretty.
Retouching was especially important when I made enlargements. You see, you enlarge and if there are any defects, you won't notice them in a small picture, but you enlarge a picture and then the defects are enlarged with it, and you have to remove those defects.
All pictures then were black and white or sepia and white. You got the sepia by toning the black and white, so the pictures were brown and white instead of black and white. I'd tone prints sepia, then paint them. The colors would blend with the tone of the print. It would look like a painted portrait. You couldn't do that on a black and white print because you couldn't give any other color to the black. So I made sepia tones to do color work. That was before they did automatic coloring. I don't know anything about that process. That came in after I quit the business.
A photograph is nothing but highlights and shadows. That's all it is. We tried to make our negatives so we could use one kind of paper. I preferred a paper that could take a standard properly exposed negative and a proper density. I never made a negative and blanked the highlights so there would be no detail in the highlights, or no detail in the shadows. I don't like black shades or white highlights. I don't like too much contrast, but I don't like a picture too flat either. I like for it to have a little--if it's too flat, it doesn't have any kick in it. That's all acquired by practice.
The texture of the paper is made by the manufacturer. Now for outside work, we used all glossy paper. It's not desirable for portrait work, so we used matt surface paper for portraits.
In 1908 when I first was in the business, all prints were made by sun-light--printed in the sun. The paper was called sun printing paper. You had to print them about two shades darker than what you wanted them to be when they were finished because the toning process made them much lighter. You toned them in a toning solution. The highest class paper that I used was Aristo Platina and you had to tone it in a liquid gold toning solution--which was a costly operation.
We had printing frames for sun printing. A printing frame is a wooden frame and the glass plate fits in it with just enough flange around the edge to hold the glass in so it won't fall through. You put your glass plate in, laid your paper face down on the negative. Then there was a back with a spring to hold the paper. The back was hinged in the center. You would put one side down and clamp it down with the spring and put the other side down and clamp it down. Then when you were printing you could open one side and see how much the paper was printed. The other side held the paper in position so you wouldn't move it. Then if the picture wasn't printed enough, you could clamp it down again and print it some more--leave it in the sun longer. You couldn't print at all if the sun wasn't shining. We set the printing frames on racks outside the windows. My studio was on the second floor of the building. There were two windows with a two foot wide board shelf outside out over the street. There was room for about a dozen frames on the shelf. It took a long time.
In the fall of 1908, a man in Columbus, Ohio, invented a developing paper. You develop it just like you do a negative. He called it Artura paper, and it had a beautiful tone to it. It wasn't real black. It was a greenish-black, a warm green tone. You exposed that just a short time in any kind of light. You wouldn't dare expose it in sunlight at all. It would burn it up. You just expose it in daylight for just a couple of seconds.
When they made the transition from sun printing paper to developing paper, all we had were printing frames for printing inside--didn't have any equipment for processing developing papers. So I had to get busy and make equipment made for that kind of work. You couldn't buy it because there was none on the market. Nobody needed it until developing papers did come in.
I made an enlarger for my own use. You couldn't make enlargements on sun printing paper at all.
When they made the transition from sun printing paper to developing paper, then you could
project your image on this paper and make it any size you wanted to. I could take a negative the
size of a postage stamp and I could make an 18x24 enlargement. That was the extreme
enlargement I could make. The enlarging machine I made was much like present day moving
picture projectors. The light was behind, the negative was in front, the light shown through the
negative and lens, the lens projected the image onto the paper mounted on an easel, and you could
make the enlargement any size you wanted. The distance between the easel and the lens
determined the size of the picture.
PHOTOGRAPHIC MACHINES INVENTED BY WILLIAM LENZ
I had to make a printing machine, too. When we first got the developing papers, Lebanon only had electricity at night. I designed and made my printing machine so we could move it to a window to use daylight to print. The daylight fluctuated so much when clouds passed over the sun, it was difficult to expose prints to such irregular light. As soon as the city furnished electric current during the day, I made an electric light cabinet to attach to the machine to do our printing. This provided dependable and uniform light for doing our printing.
My wife did all the printing. Sometimes she'd have hundreds of prints to do, but if in doubt, she made a small test to get the correct length of exposure.
I left the machine in the studio when I sold it, and later the machine was destroyed. I still think it was the best one ever made, because you could sit down to operate it. To my knowledge, all the others made since, you have to stand to do the printing.
My main invention was a print washer. I made those and marketed them. Before I made my washer, we had to wash prints by hand. We collected a day's printing in a large porcelain enamel tray. We placed an empty tray under the tap and transferred all the prints, one at a time, from the full tray to the empty tray. We would dump the water from the emptied tray and repeat this process sixteen times. This was such a tedious job, we considered it to be the drudgery of photography.
The last solution a black and white photograph goes through when you're processing it is a fixing bath of hyposulfite of soda. If you don't wash that off thoroughly, it will consume the image on your print. You had to wash that sixteen times in order to be reasonably sure your prints were properly washed so the fixing bath wouldn't ruin the image on your prints. They used to call that fading. It wasn't fading--just improperly washed, or insufficently washed so that the chemicals just ate up the image. A thoroughly washed photograph will not fade. Because that image is a silver image, it won't fade. But the fixing bath, if it's not washed off properly will destroy the image.
I made a print washer. It was the first mechanical means for washing prints, and I exhibited it at the National Photographer's Convention at Cedar Point, Ohio, in August, 1919.
I had the patent on it then. But it was not like the washer is now. A patent is only good for seventeen years, and if you don't improve on it or change the patent, anyone else can make the washer. I don't know how many patents we were granted, but everytime we made an improvement, we obtained a new patent. I made my own washers and sold them at wholesale to the photographic supply houses. The Eastman Kodak Company had a supply house in practically every principal city in the United States and Canada, and they sold the washers. We made enough so that I sold out the studio in 1929 and put my whole time in making the washer.
During the war the government wouldn't allow us to have any materials for private use. The only customer we could make washers for was the government. I hired I think it was seven men to help me, and we put out 200 washers every thirty days.
My son came back in 1946 to help me. We perfected the washer so that it washes prints twice as fast as our older models and from two to four times faster than any other print washers on the market.
I've lived through a lot of changes in photography. I lived through sun printing, developing papers, and now color photography. Things have changed a lot since I had my studio. But, in my experience, I think the greatest transition of all, even greater than the change from black and white to color, was the change from sun printing to developing papers. That changed the whole business.
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