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Meeting a Petzval Pioneer: An Interview with Geoffrey Berliner

Geoffrey Berliner is the executive director of the Penumbra Foundation and the Center for Alternative Photography in New York City. He has an astounding collection of over 2000 vintage Petzval Lenses and it was an honor for us to ask him about the Petzval and why the lens means so much to him. Head past the jump for our interview with this true Petzval Pioneer!

A Portrait of Geoffrey Berliner shot with the Lomography x Zenit New Petzval Lens – © Coco Alexander

How did you first discover Petzval photography?

I purchased my first Petzval Portrait lens, a C.C. Harrison, at a flea market in the late 1990’s. At that time, I was displeased with the limits of digital photography and was exploring large format film photography. I found the idea of using early optics romantic and was curious how this old lens would perform on contemporary film. I was quite surprised by its unusual optical qualities, especially in the out of focus areas. The out of focus areas are known by the Japanese term “Bokeh.” All lenses have Bokeh but this Bokeh differs from lens to lens and is affected by the optical design and how the lens is used, especially when shot wide open. The first thing I noticed about my Petzval was the “Bokeh” was unusual and had a swirly look to it. This intrigued me to investigate the qualities of this lens further. These early experiments pushed me into investigating the characteristics of the Petzval and to learn about other 19th century photographic optics and the history of photography.

Around that time, a friend introduced me to the Center for Alternative Photography in New York City where I took my first wet plate collodion workshop where we made tintypes. In the class, all the cameras were equipped with Petzval Portrait lenses so we were applying these early optics on a medium they were designed for. I was amazed at the results and continued my studies and interest in early photography, so much so that it propelled me into sharing this passion. It was not long before I studied other early processes. This passion for these processes urged me to share my interests, which is why I became involved administratively in the Center for Alternative Photography and eventually its director.

Why do you enjoy Petzval photography so much?

Of all the lenses I’ve shot, both vintage and modern, the Petzval remains one of my favorites. It is a versatile and complex lens that was designed for two reasons: to make exposure times shorter and to provide a sharper image. Josef Petzval was successful and the new lens was many times faster and sharper than the popular camera lens of the time, the Chevalier Achromat, which was slow and only approached sharpness when stopped down. The Petzval was fast and sharp, extremely sharp, even by modern standards but the formula was not perfect and the optical aberrations made the Petzval less than perfect, which is why it was applied only in a certain way in the 19th Century. As optical engineers designed out aberrations and modern lenses performed the same, many modern photographers were looking for lenses that would offer a different look and started peering backward to lenses that were earlier and less corrected. One of the first lenses looked at was the Petzval Portrait because it had particular aberrations that were ideal for art and expressive photography. Also, contemporary photographers working with 19th century and alternative photographic processes wanted to use original, authentic equipment for these processes, especially for Daguerreotypes and tintypes.

The Petzval lens is extremely versatile and has complexities that allow it to be applied in various ways. The most notable characteristic of the Petzval Portrait lens is its curved field. This means the image is not rendered on the film flat, what is called rectilinear. The center is the flattest and sharpest section of the lens. As the field extends outward it gets progressively more out of focus. This curved field will produce swirly Bokeh when shot a certain way against a variegated background such a trees with highlights peering through the leaves. In the 19th century only the center, sharp sweet spot would be preferred, and a Petzval which would cover much more was used on a smaller format, i.e., a Petzval that would easily cover 8×10 would be used for whole plate 6 ½ x 8 ½ or 5×7. The Petzval is also a very fast lens (having a maximum aperture of f3.8). This speed offers a very shallow depth of field, especially when used for close-up portraits. This shallow depth of field offer what is referred to as fall off. This can be seen in portraits where the eyes are sharp but the nose and ears are out of focus and appear soft. It must be noted that even with the fall off and curved field the Petzval is very sharp at the center and even in the narrow range of the shallow depth of field when shot wide open. This lens gets sharper as it’s stopped down and as the field gets wider. The Petzval can also be experimented with by switching the configuration of the two air spaced elements of the rear group. Many funky effects can be achieved this way. Another application is to employ only the front lens group called an Achromat. This is a cemented pair and is similar in design to the original Chevalier Achromatic lens. This front group when used wide open is very soft and gets progressively sharper as it’s stopped down. This lens became the basis for the soft focus lenses of the Pictorial movement of the late 19th & early 20th centuries. This lens influenced the development of such notable lenses as the Pinkham & Smith Semi-Achromat and Synthetic, used by Alfred Stieglitz and the Spencer Port-Land, used by Edward Weston. As can be seen, the Petzval Portrait lens is a very versatile lens that has applications that Joseph Petzval never imagined, or maybe he did?

The Petzval formula was revived when moving pictures were invented. Some of the first lenses for this new industry were reformulated Petzvals. They were used for both cine cameras and projectors. Of late, these cine Petzvals have been mounted onto to modern digital cameras, most notably on micro 4/3 format cameras. The new Lomography Petzval is a welcome addition to the legendary Petzval design as it covers full frame digital chips and 35mm analogue film cameras.

A Portrait of Geoffrey Berliner shot with the Lomography x Zenit New Petzval Lens – © Coco Alexander

What’s special in general about shooting with old photographic lenses?

Shooting with vintage lenses is very rewarding. It requires the photographer to think outside of accepted norms of sharpness, contrast and saturation that modern lenses offer. Vintage lenses have imperfections that can be applied in amazing and rewarding ways for those willing to take this path. The Petzval Portrait is one of the most unique and interesting optical designs ever produced.

If you’d like to get your hands on one of the Lomography x Zenit New Petzval Lenses, don’t forget to sign-up to our waiting list for news when the lens becomes available for pre-order! Find out more about the lens on our Petzval Microsite

Geoffrey Berliner is the executive director of the Penumbra Foundation and the Center for Alternative Photography in New York City. The Penumbra Foundation, www.penumbrafoundation.org, is a non-profit organization dedicated to photographic arts and education. One of the organization’s goals is to maintain the relevance of emulsion-based and early photographic processes in a rapidly changing digital world. The Center for Alternative Photography is the education wing the foundation.

written by tomas_bates

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