[Editor’s Note: Near the outset of this project, on June 26, 2014, I published photographer and historian Rob McElroy’s analysis of the examples of Robert Capa’s “ruined” D-Day negatives presented in a 70th-anniversary video commissioned by TIME, Inc. from Magnum in Motion, the media division of Magnum Photos, the picture agency founded by Capa and his colleagues in 1947.
Publication of McElroy’s report led to the overnight re-editing of that video, with the faked negatives now clearly labeled as photo-illustrations. In the new article below McElroy turns his attention to a notable feature of Capa’s surviving D-Day negatives, demonstrating inarguably that what curators at the International Center of Photography have claimed as evidence of that fabled darkroom disaster in fact signifies something entirely different. Part 2 appears below; click here for Part 1. — A. D. Coleman]
The Slipping Cassette:
Dispelling the Robert Capa Sliding-Emulsion Myth (continued)
by Rob McElroy
[In the first part of this report, McElroy described the origin of the sliding-emulsion myth, provided a logical mechanical explanation for it, and showed that the phenomenon wasn’t unique to Capa’s film. Click on the illustrations to view larger versions. — Editor]
The technical explanation of the sprocket-hole intrusion phenomenon seen on the edges of Robert Capa’s famous 1944 photographs from D-Day is as follows:
If a photographer in the mid-1940s or early 1950s chose to load his Contax camera with prepackaged Kodak film, now sold only in the new industry-standard 135-size cassettes (Kodak’s 235-size daylight spools for Zeiss Ikon cameras having been recently discontinued), the resulting negatives would more than likely not have their images perfectly centered between the film’s sprocket holes, due to Kodak’s cassette being slightly shorter than Zeiss Ikon’s.
Zeiss Ikon made a reloadable cassette for their cameras, as well as selling two types of film loaded onto prepackaged daylight-loading spools (see Part 1 for explanation): Panchrom and Orthochrom. When a Zeiss Ikon reloadable cassette, or a daylight spool of prepackaged Zeiss Ikon film, was loaded into a Contax, gravity would cause the bottom end of the film spool to rest on the bottom plate of the camera as the film was being advanced. (See the two round cassette-supports built into the camera’s baseplate in the photo below.) The taller Zeiss Ikon cassette or daylight spool, designed specifically for their cameras, kept the film in perfect register — exactly centered within the 24mm height of the camera’s 24mm x 36mm opening as it was being transported from the cassette side of the camera to the take-up spool.
In contrast, Kodak’s shorter cassette would not rest on the camera’s baseplate when a photographer properly loaded his film, but instead would float slightly above it. Gravity would then have a tendency to pull the unsupported cassette downward toward the baseplate, dragging the film along with it (see illustrations below). The camera’s sprocket gears would still engage the now-misaligned film coming out of the shorter cassette, but instead of the individual teeth of the sprocket gears being centered within the film’s sprocket holes, the teeth would have been forced to the top edge of each sprocket hole. This would cause the top line of sprocket holes to become partially exposed to the incoming light from the lens.
In other words, the slipping Kodak cassette caused Capa’s film to become misaligned within his camera, resulting in exposures that weren’t perfectly centered between the film’s sprocket holes.
Reloadable cassettes, while economical if a photographer was loading and processing his own film, were not practical for photojournalists working in the field, who commonly shot many rolls of film while on assignment — which then needed to be shipped back to their respective newspapers or magazines. Also, reloadable cassettes were not commonly returned by the commercial labs that processed film, so they were just not a feasible solution for Capa and most other professional photographers. Instead, the use of prepackaged 35mm film was the standard among photojournalists.
With reloadable cassettes impractical, and with daylight spools of Kodak’s film for Zeiss Ikon cameras discontinued several years earlier, Capa’s options for a fast film for his Contax on D-Day were limited. Kodak Super-XX was his film of choice, and he either never realized or didn’t care that the Kodak cassettes were slipping down within his camera and causing the misalignment.
(See red arrows in photos below, which compare the relative position of the cassettes and film when loaded in the camera.)
Because all lenses project an upside-down image onto their film (or digital sensor), objects at the bottom edge of your original scene will be exposed upside-down onto the top edge of the film as it sits in the camera, and objects in the top of your original scene (such as the sky) will be exposed onto the lower half of the film. Since film is entirely coated with light-sensitive emulsion from edge to edge, light striking it anywhere, even around the sprocket holes, will cause an image to be formed.
Thus, when Capa loaded a store-bought roll of Kodak Super-XX film into his Contax, the emulsion around the sprocket holes running along the top edge of the film (as seen from the back of the camera) was recording the bottom edge of the scene Capa saw framed in his viewfinder. That corresponds exactly to the sprocket-hole image-intrusion effect seen on all of Capa’s negatives. It’s always the lower edge of his horizontal images that manifests the problem. Never does the sky area in his photographs display the sprocket-hole intrusion, because film cassettes can never ride higher within the camera — their weight can only force them lower.
If you look closely at the sprocket holes shown in the comparison photographs above, you will also see that the sprocket holes showing within the camera are slightly smaller on the left side than they are on the right. This is due to the fact that the film isn’t being transported perfectly parallel across the camera’s 24mm x 36mm opening. The take-up spool (seen on the right when looking at the open back of the camera) is in its proper position (centered within the 24mm width of the film gate), while the Kodak cassette, on the left, has descended just a little. This puts the film on a slight angle as it’s being transported, resulting in more of each sprocket hole getting exposed to light when located near the side with the Kodak cassette, and progressively less of each hole getting exposed as the sprocket holes get closer to the take-up spool. This matches exactly what is seen in Capa’s negatives.
Hopefully, this will put to rest any further claims that Capa’s surviving negatives from D-Day were ever the subject of any emulsion sliding or melting. There is no evidence whatsoever to support such a fiction. The facts and illustrations above prove that the slight image displacement on Capa’s film resulted from a mechanical problem commonly experienced in that era: Kodak’s shorter film cassettes caused the film to get transported slightly lower in the camera — exposing the emulsion around the lower edges of the top sprocket holes as they passed over the film gate.
If, instead of using prepackaged Kodak film, Capa had bulk-loaded his own film into Zeiss Ikon’s reloadable cassettes or purchased the prepackaged film that Zeiss Ikon sold, his images would have been perfectly centered within each frame and this sprocket-hole sliding-emulsion myth would never have arisen.
(Thanks to Tim Fuss of Rochester, NY for his loan of a Contax II camera for the illustrations used in this story, and to Maurice M. Greeson of Syracuse, UT for his gift of the Zeiss Ikon cassette. Thanks also to A. D. Coleman and J. Ross Baughman for their helpful advice and suggestions when editing the story.)
Text copyright © Rob McElroy 2015. All photographs © Rob McElroy 2015 unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.
(For an index of links to all posts in this series, click here.)
Based in Buffalo, NY, Rob McElroy has been a professional photographer since 1980, shooting primarily photojournalistic, commercial, advertising and magazine assignments. He has extensive experience and thrives on photographic challenges both technical and artistic. In his early years he honed his skills working full time for the Associated Press and shooting sports for the NFL, all the while continuing to shoot industrial, commercial and studio jobs to get experience in all of photography’s genres.
For the past 15 years, McElroy has turned his attention to mastering the art of the daguerreotype process, and he is one of only a handful of practicing daguerreotypists. For a Flickr portfolio of his daguerreotypes, click here. Click here for a 2009 interview with him about his daguerreian activities.
He’s also a photo historian, having researched and co-written two books on local photo history. His extensive photo-history library, along with his large study collection of early photographic materials, keeps him actively involved in photo-conservation research projects, often in collaboration with various institutions. To contact Rob McElroy, click here.