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Roger Fenton, Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, Robert Capa... James Mason!!!
Honouring a Landmark Figure in the World History of War Photography

Battlefield Camera - James' camera was a Kodak No. 2, Model A, Folding Pocket Camera.

In 1899 it was the latest word in the new collapsible pocket cameras that Kodak was introducing, which made cameras more portable than ever and put affordable photography in the hands of ordinary folks.

This version bears an early patent date of 1885. Its latest updates were patented Aug. 30, 1898.

It features a slim, rounded, and a light weight profile. When folded it slides into a very portable leather case, that is far less bulky, even, than the cases holding the supposedly modern Nikon and Cannon cameras carried by modern amateurs. It weighs less and is made of wood.

it takes a 3 1/2 x 3 1/2 inch film.

The front lens panel of the camera holds the mechanical parts of the picture taking apparatus.

The viewfinder top right has only a single prism because the picture taking format is 3 1/2 inches square. (Cameras with oblong formats, like with postcard dimensions, had another prism on the side, for which you would flip the camera on its side.)

Killer Mold - The dangers that can afflict old memorabilia items are illustrated here.

Over the years destructive mold has attacked the leather covering of the camera and the bellows.

Unless checked the fungus will eat holes into the leather and ultimately destroy the artefact.

Careful washing with water, and a soft cloth, will remove most of the mold, but you must renew the cloth to keep from redistributing the mold to new areas. Stubborn areas can be cleaned with mild soap. Never use detergents or alcohol.

The Camera in Action - To take a picture James normally would have to hold the camera at waist level, bend over, and look down into the prism, and carefully compose his picture.

Then he would press the shutter release button, top left, which would quickly open and close the shutter. For time lapse photography, James would, instead, press the time lapse release at the side. The shutter would stay open as long as he held this lever down.

At the bottom is the spring loaded clip mechanism. When finished taking pictures, James would pinch the clip and slide the lens board back along the track, into the body.

The Camera at Paardeberg - We do not know how James took his death-defying picture in the midst of the Battle of Paardeberg. But let's figure it out.

Would he have stood, or knelt, braving rifle fire, then looked down into the viewfinder, take his exposure, and then dive for cover? This is the best way to get a good picture quickly. But not the safest.

Or did James lie down, hold his camera, arms extended into the air, peering up into the viewfinder, risking getting his hands and camera shot up?

This, at the best of times, is not an easy way to get any kind of straight picture. Try it with any camera sometime; you will find it impossible to keep a straight horizon, let alone compose properly for content. Then ask yourself how well you would do if you were also being shot at...

James' picture is a carefully composed photo, with a straight horizon, and the picture elements properly distributed in the frame.

So we can be absolutely certain that James stood up, or at least knelt up, to take this picture in the usual way, even though it meant exposing himself to unwelcome attention from Boer snipers.

In all likelihood, he jumped up, adrenalin pumping, and carefully composed and grabbed the shot while standing, fully exposed to Boer rifle fire, and with bullets whistling around his head.

A letter home makes clear whether James lay down or stood up to take his picture.


We do know that shortly after, as the company charged, James was wounded, shot through both shoulders and the lungs.

James shot only one such action picture while under fire at Paardeberg. Perhaps he thought it was suicide to try for more? Not true; James was made of sterner stuff than that. There is a more accurate explanation. Within less than an hour of taking the photo - according to his diary - he was shot while in the front of the Canadian charge alongside the Cornwalls on Bloody Sunday. He would spend months in Cape Town recovering from a severe wound. In July, when he was able to rejoin his regiment, the war would largely be considered over, with the taking of Pretoria in June. The God of War intervened to make sure James and his camera would not be exposed on the firing line again. Next time, he might not be so lucky when he rose to take a picture...

But then one good one is all it takes to establish a reputation...

We note that National Geographic generally uses 10,000 exposures from which to select the few keeper images it wants for one story. With motor drives and sheer volume, one ought to come up with some good images.

One must remember that only one picture established Robert Capa's reputation - however faked it was, and only a couple of his D-Day pictures are iconic. He went ashore on the Normandy beaches with only one job to do - shoot some pictures, then jump back on to a ship, and get safely back to England. Which he did while the soldiers remained to carry on the firefight; thousands died.

Of Capa's D-Day photos only eleven photos survive, including a couple of memorable ones. The rest of his D-Day rolls were destroyed in the darkroom back in England.

So James, with his one iconic picture, is in good company.

And we must remember that unlike a Capa, who could run for safety, James was a fighting soldier with a leadership job to do. He was a multi-tasker engaging in two dangerous professions at once: war photographer and combat soldier. With no place to run and escape.

James took only one try - and he connected...

Below the original wooden roller still survives, on to which James' trembling fingers threaded his camera film.

When he pressed the release the lens opened up to reveal men at war...

The roll film took 3 1/2 inch x 3 1/2 inch pictures as illustrated. The exposed part of the film matches the opening at the rear of the bellows.

Different cameras were made that produced larger pictures including post card size. But this made the camera more bulky.

In fact very many Boer War soldiers had cameras that took smaller pictures than James' camera took. Many of these photos were annoyingly small of the two to 3 inch variety.

James would have placed a new roll of film in the left well, pulled it across and slipped the tongue into the take-up roller on the right. Then closed the back.

After an exposure, James would wind a knob connected to turn the take-up roller and advance the film to save the picture just taken, and put a new negative in place.

James watched markers on the film, which he could see through a red plastic window in the back of the camera cover, to tell him when to stop turning because unexposed film was in place.

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
What a fabulous discovery is the camera that Lt. JC Mason took with him to South Africa in 1899, and with which he captured so many important scenes of Canadians on their first ever military expedition overseas.

He proudly had his name and that of his regiment printed on the case.

Some may say it was done to prevent theft. That would be wrong. More than anything James did it for pride.

As a long time Canadian militiaman - amateur soldiers banded together to protect Canada from foreign invaders - James did it to express pride, to give the lie to those who said his countrymen were mere amateurs, playing at war.

The Royal Canadian Regiment was giving notice to the world that its men were second to none in their willingness to to serve their country with skill and passion.


#2 Model A Kodak Folding Pocket Camera - Lt. JC Mason, DSO RCR, 1899
Orig. camera and case - Size - 12 x 17 x 4 cm
Found - Cambridge, ON

The Paardeberg Camera - Kodak No.2 Folding Model A - 1899

Copyright Goldi Productions Ltd. 1996-1999-2005

Late in 1899, when James Mason was looking for a camera with which to document his Boer War adventure, these were the Kodak ads that he would have seen. They were in the Illustrated London News where they were sure to catch the attention of all the important people, especially officers looking for binoculars, razors, cameras, to take with on campaign to the war that had just broken out in South Africa.

The two cameras we feature on this page were the most commonly advertised Kodak cameras of the time.

The Kodak 1A Folding Camera, shown above and advertised right and below ended up taking probably the lion's share of the candid photos during the war.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Kodak was still advertising the camera James ended up buying, the #2 Folding Camera top, as new in June 1900. Ad right.

It publicized his largish square format and the ease with which the camera could be folded up. The case that was available can be seen beside James' camera top, but few of these still survive.

The same year the extremely cheap - 5 shillings instead of over 2 pounds - Brownie box was also advertised as "efficient" but it had a tiny format and a boxy shape not great for packing into a kit bag or carrying on the person without it getting crushed.

Soldiers opted for the folding model almost universally.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kodak had revolutionized photography for common folk by producing the Brownie box camera in the 1880s. Though extremely popular it was bulky and hard to pack around. The folding camera, which Kodak produced in the 1890s, solved the problem. Now anyone could pack a camera, anywhere. These two cameras did the bulk of the candid photography in the Boer War.

Above the two folding cameras side by side, illustrating how, depending on what kind of picture dimensions you wanted, you selected a different camera shape. The one one the right is James Mason's #2 Model A Folding Camera which produced the square format shown up front featuring the photographer in camp at Belmont. The #1A Folding Camera on the left produced an oblong picture like the one above.

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure


An old workhorse of the Boer War is this Kodak 1-A Folding Camera.

Far more of these were in South Africa than the newer 2-A Folding Camera that James Mason used.

Instead of having a track, the 1-A used strong nickled struts to support the bellows and the lens board,

It also had metal feet which could be extended - as shown here - to support the camera for long exposure times.

Since its format was 2 1/4 x 3 1/4 inches, it had two viewfinder prisms for a vertical or a horizontal views.

Below a horizontal format, where the camera would have been flipped on its side using the prism here seen on the left side.

Many of these amateur views would have the cameraman's shadow in them.

Below a Canadian is hunched over his viewfinder taking a picture of the Canadian wounded after the Battle of Faber's Put, in May 1900.

Because of the folding Kodaks, the Boer War became the most photographed war in history. Yet in spite of that, it was rare to find battle action shots that were not faked.


Kodak 1-A Folding Camera - 1897-1898
Orig. camera - Size - 10 x 20 x 5 cm
Found - Rochester, NY
Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

Letter Home, by Lt. James Cooper Mason, after the Battle of Paardeberg, Feb. 1900
Orig. letter - Size - 21 x 34 cm, 5 pages
Found - Cambridge, ON

A fabulous eye witness account of the most disastrous British charge of the entire Boer War. It describes the war photographer and warrior's account of the circumstances under which he made his historic photograph above and during which he was shot shortly after (ed - our yellow underline.)

James' two letters were written on different days but were of the same incident.

Since James was wounded through both shoulders he could not write, and had someone type the letters for him in the hospital tent at Paardeberg. It is his hand that did the penciled corrections.

Canadian RCR Chaplain Father O, Leary, brought James a cigarette in the hospital.

Understanding the horrific nature of the battlefield makes one appreciate the extremely dangerous conditions under which James took his historic picture.




Lt. James Cooper Mason DSO, RCR - 1875 -1923 - 2 - The Camera

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