The Deardorff folding wooden view camera is a relic of a time when precision tools were made by hand, one at a time. The cameras were built to last, and thousands of them are still in use or in collections. The manufacturer, L.F. Deardorff & Sons Photographic Equipment, usually turned out only around 300 of the cameras a year in its near-west-side factories, and since the company went out of business in 1988 they’ve become something of a cult item.
Parts have long been hard to come by, and people who know how to repair Deardorffs are scarce. Today the two leading restorers, both meticulous craftsmen who love the cameras, are Jack Deardorff, the 69-year-old grandson of the original designer, and Ken Hough, a 50-year-old self-appointed Deardorff historian. The two men, who live just ten blocks apart in Valparaiso, have known each other for 23 years and once tried to develop a new camera together. Though neither likes to talk about it, they’ve barely spoken for years.
When the U.S. Postal Service issued a photography stamp in 1978, the camera on it was a Deardorff. It looked like an antique at the time, but it would remain in production for another decade with only minor modifications. Its 65-year run, from 1923 to ’88, gave it the longest life span of any American camera–the Kodak Brownie made it only to 63.
Laben Deardorff, the camera’s designer, grew up in Ohio among the Dunkers, a sect not unlike the Amish, and some people see their influence in the elegant simplicity and fine craftsmanship of the Deardorff, with its bellows stretched across a polished mahogany and metal frame. It’s light compared to metal view cameras, and it folds into itself, becoming its own surprisingly compact case. Photographers must drape a dark hood over their heads to see the dim image projected on the camera’s ground glass, but the front and back move independently, allowing maximum control of perspective and focus; among other things, that control keeps the vertical lines of skyscrapers from receding to a point like railroad tracks when an architectural photographer takes their picture. The resulting images are remarkably rich in detail.
More than 10,000 folding Deardorffs were made, from portable 4-by-5s and 5-by-7s (the same cameras with different backs to hold the corresponding size of sheet film) to mammoth 11-by-14s and 12-by-20s, though most were 8-by-10s. Larger, nonfolding models also were made in much smaller numbers for institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum and the U.S. Army. Deardorffs were always the Cadillac of American view cameras. In 1947 a four-by-five went for $150, in 1982, $1,650.
For much of the 20th century Deardorffs were a mainstay of busy Chicago catalog photography studios such as Grignon, Kranzten, and Vogue-Wright, whose clients included Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck. They were used by Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon, Art Sinsabaugh, and Yousuf Karsh, and they remain the tool of choice for fine-art photographers using large-format sheet film–especially landscape photographers, who appreciate their portability. Among those who use the cameras today are Sally Mann, Richard Misrach, and Hiroshi Sugimoto.
From the beginning Jack Deardorff’s father and two of his uncles worked in their father’s business, which over the years moved from warehouse to warehouse just west of the Loop. Jack started working after school in 1948, when he was in eighth grade. He never went to college, joking that he went instead to the “university of adversity.” He’d like to pass the craft on to his own son, a machinist and computer technician. “Quality is inherent in the hands of the family,” he says.
Laben died in 1952, and Jack’s Uncle Merle took over. Jack’s father, Milton, died in 1969, his Uncle Russell a year later. Merle handed the reins to Jack in the late 70s, though he didn’t retire until 1984.
Ken Hough, who bought his first Deardorff at an estate sale while he was still in high school, remembers the first time he saw the factory. It was 1982, and he was in his mid-20s, working at a Valparaiso camera store. A former classmate brought in an eight-by-ten Deardorff he’d taken apart and couldn’t figure out how to put back together. Hough has always found such things easy, and when he saw that a few parts were missing he called L.F. Deardorff & Sons. Merle invited him to come to the factory, then at 315 S. Peoria, and show off his restoration work.
“I was expecting old-world craftsmanship in the shop,” says Hough. “I was expecting to see 60-, 70-year-old men or women building cameras. And what I saw just really shocked me. They had these individual workstations set up, and each workstation had an ethnic kid in there, either black, Hispanic–there were a couple of white kids. But each one of them had a boom box turned up full volume to their music–and they’re only four or five feet apart.”
Jack Deardorff, then in his mid-40s, gave Hough a tour of the factory. To Hough’s surprise, Deardorff sent him home with several cameras to restore. Over the next few years Hough visited the factory three days a week to learn how the cameras were made and came to think of Deardorff as his “hero of camera mechanics.”
Hough says, “Every camera from about ’82 until they closed I refurbished.” Deardorff says Hough was never on the payroll. Hough agrees but says he was paid in parts, which he needed for the business he’d set up restoring Deardorffs. He often had a hard time getting parts from the manufacturers. “There were years I could get parts and years I couldn’t,” he says. “Back then it cost a lot to get parts made. Most of them were made on a stamping press. And they didn’t want to make 50–they wanted to make 500.”
That the company gave Hough work when he’d come just to visit indicates that things weren’t going well at L.F. Deardorff & Sons. According to several accounts, the company’s last move, in 1975, had been a big setback, and by the late 70s it was behind on repairs and couldn’t keep up with the demand for new cameras–it was turning out only about 200 a year. In 1976 a Tribune reporter noted that Merle wouldn’t take out a loan to help boost production. In-stead he eliminated models and refused half the orders he got.
American demand fell off during the recession of the early 80s, but demand was rising in Japan. The camera was a status symbol there, seen as superior to the local knockoffs.
Hough recalls just when he realized that L.F. Deardorff & Sons was in serious trouble. “I needed top corners, and they were out,” he says. “I knew who made the part, so I called the company up and I asked, ‘Why can’t we get that part?’ And he says, ‘Jack owes me x amount of dollars, and I’m not going to make that part until I get paid.’ Then Jack suddenly had the part. He’d gone to another company to have it made. This other company had of course heard of Deardorff cameras, and they thought, ‘Oh wow, this is a very prestigious company. Sure we’ll make parts for them.’ They created the part and didn’t realize they owed another company for the same part. So in some cases Jack had two companies–the old-line company that made the part for 40 years and a new company–that made the same exact part. And he ended up owing both of them.” Deardorff says the story’s true. “You’ve got to keep going,” he explains. “No parts, no cameras.” He also says someone in his stockroom was hiding parts from him.
In 1989 L.F. Deardorff & Sons was up for auction. Komamura, a Japanese camera distributor associated with a dealer that was owed a large shipment of cameras it had already paid for, walked away with the right to use the company name and to build the latest Deardorff designs. According to John Mitchell–president of MC Photo, a Tennessee manufacturer, and the man who acted as Komamura’s agent during the buyout–Komamura paid just $10,000.
Komamura planned to change the designs, so Deardorff was able to buy back the remaining parts at the auction. Paul Schutt, president of Helix, says he gave Deardorff around $20,000 to help him buy the parts and to get back into production. Deardorff says the sum was closer to $10,000.
Deardorff, who also lost his house in Lombard and is still paying off some old company debts, remains bitter about the sale. He’s always maintained that the business failed because a Nigerian bookkeeper he won’t name, who he says has been deported, embezzled $40,000 in payroll taxes and sent the money, along with other company funds, abroad.
“There’s never been anything to substantiate that,” says Mitchell. “It seems incredibly far-fetched.”
Shortly after Deardorff lost the family business he set up a new one, Deardorff Photographic Products International (DPPI). He rented a warehouse in Aurora, intending to start making a new camera. But then he got a spinal infection and spent months in the hospital.
Komamura slightly redesigned the eight-by-ten Deardorff, then set up a factory in Tennessee. But it had production problems, and when the Japanese economy crashed in the early 90s it lost much of its market. By 1994 the factory was closed, having made only a couple hundred eight-by-tens. Deardorff says it didn’t have enough experienced help. “They didn’t fine-tune their dimensions on those drawings like we did,” he says. “We looked at a drawing and we knew, OK, from experience making the camera, you tweak this and you tweak that. They took all the drawings verbatim.” Other industry watchers say the company had solved its quality-control problems and simply made a business decision to get out.
After his illness Deardorff gave up the Aurora warehouse and in 1990 moved to Valparaiso, where Hough found him a workshop with an attached apartment. The two men planned to build a camera based on a four-by-five design Deardorff was working on, which they thought would do better in the American market than Komamura’s eight-by-ten. There was no money in it for either of them, and Deardorff says he got by mostly by doing repairs until he started collecting “social insecurity.”
In the early 90s Hough was restoring old Deardorffs for a Chicago dealer, Jeff Trilling, who was selling them primarily in Japan. When Trilling heard that the Komamura plant was going to close he decided he wanted to buy back the L.F. Deardorff & Sons name and hire Deardorff and Hough to manufacture the classic camera again.
At first both Deardorff and Hough seemed to like the idea, and Trilling began lining up investors. But then Deardorff declared that he didn’t want to work for someone else. “I want to be my own company,” he says. Ever since, there’s been no love lost between him and Trilling. Hough, who still faults Deardorff for losing the family business, was so upset he quit working with him. Deardorff complains that Hough brought in Trilling, then “jumped ship.”
A few years after the Tennessee factory closed Hough bought out its inventory. Thinking he might be able to manufacture cameras himself, he tried to buy the Deardorff name back from Komamura. He never got a reply.
Hough has always worked out of his home, which is full of Deardorff parts and paraphernalia and other old photographic gear. Triage and assembly take place on the sofa or at the kitchen table, woodworking and metalworking in the basement, lacquering in the garage.
He’s convinced he’s better at restoring Deardorffs than anyone else, and older models he’s restored regularly fetch a premium on eBay, which has become the principal marketplace for the cameras and their accessories. A four-by-five in great condition can go for more than $2,000. But he readily acknowledges that he’s not the best businessman and often gets behind on orders. “There are times I have had 35 cameras lined up to refinish,” he writes on his Web site, which includes information on L.F. Deardorff & Sons. “Each takes a week if I have the proper parts. This leads to delays. I do run out of parts and have to spend a lot to get them. I have to wait till my suppliers make them, which can be months, then clean and plate them.” He also drives a school bus part-time, is a volunteer science coach, and has had health problems. Irate photographers have sometimes threatened to take legal action, and Deardorff says that frustrated camera owners have often turned to him. “In the last few years Ken has not been a reliable repair source,” he says. “It’s a shame.”
Hough says he’s turning cameras around faster these days, now that his health has improved and he can get parts faster because his suppliers use new laser cutting techniques. “I never have a complaint from the customer when they have the camera,” he says. “I have the complaint of the customer because I’ve taken too darned long to get them the camera. But when they get it, they’re like, ‘Oh my God, I’m sorry.'”
Photographers eventually realize that Hough loves the cameras as models of craftsmanship, that his connection is with their makers, not their users. “I keep telling people that I really don’t care what they take the picture of or how they take it,” he says. “I just want their camera to work perfect. I want it to be flawless. It’s a well-made piece of machinery that, in the hands of a competent photographer, can make wonderful images. The better the tool, the better the image.”
For comparison he points to a popular metal studio camera made by Sinar, the parts of which are milled using a computer. “I don’t think there’s the personality in a Sinar that there is in a Deardorff. Because with a Deardorff, when you talk to Jack or you talk to me you’re talking to the person who actually made the camera–built it or did the repair. And with a Sinar, I guarantee you’re not talking to the little Swiss guy who did the work.”
Ten blocks away Deardorff lives in the same crowded efficiency apartment Hough once found for him, which is just big enough for him and his golden retriever. Behind the apartment is a series of rooms given over to woodworking, lacquering, bellows making. “In this business you’ve got to be a chemist, a metalworker, a machinist, a tool-and-die maker,” he says. “I do it all.”
The cramped corridor is lined with boxes of unfinished mahogany parts going back to 1923. “This is what’s left of L.F. Deardorff & Sons,” he says, spreading his arms. Outdated camera drawings that he held onto when the company was dissolved are stacked in a metal flat file. He never removed the label that says, “This lock can be opened by Jack Deardorff on court order.”
A year or two ago Deardorff quietly began selling new four-by-five cameras again. He redesigned the nameplates and other metal parts to avoid any copyright conflicts with Komamura, though he adapted some old Deardorff parts to keep overhead at a minimum. But he’s redesigning the entire camera under his DPPI name. “They bought my grandfather’s name and my dad’s drawings, but they didn’t buy me,” he says. “The fact that I can’t make the camera I used to is a blessing in a way. Now I can do what I want.”
He shows how his new cameras offer wider swings and tilts when the bellows are retracted to handle a wide-angle lens, a test of any view camera. The springs holding the ground glass in place are long enough to accept thick digital backs–an effort to keep the camera current. He points to his drawings and says, “I’ve redesigned every part of the camera, but it’s 100 percent interchangeable with every camera we’ve made before.” The family name and resemblance are clearly major selling points. “The original Deardorff family,” announces the set of photocopied sheets that serves as a catalog.
For the past several months George Espravnik, a friend from church who’s also a former steel-mill electrician, has been helping Deardorff without pay. So far they’ve made 13 four-by-fives, 6 of which Deardorff has sold himself. The rest were sold by Jim Andracki, the large-format salesman at Midwest Photo Exchange, which is listed in Deardorff’s catalog as a dealer.
“If you could hop in a time machine, these are it,” says Andracki. The cameras, which Deardorff first showed publicly at a February meeting of camera collectors in Skokie, cost just over $2,500 apiece. Andracki says he’s taking advance orders, though he saved one camera for a May trade show in Massachusetts. He also hopes Deardorff will soon deliver an 11-by-14 model, which Andracki has already sold. The price without lenses? “Six grand,” says Andracki.
The other dealer mentioned in the DPPI catalog is Helix, but Martin Cheung, the large-format specialist listed as the contact there, says he’s yet to see one of the new cameras. “I’d be more than happy to sell you one if I could only lay hands on it,” he says. “I haven’t even seen Mr. Deardorff in over a year.”
“I think he owes us 30 cameras,” says Clay Bannister, head of the rental department at Helix, still hoping his company’s investment will pay off. Helix’s Paul Schutt says he received an information packet from Deardorff months ago but hasn’t bothered to open it. “When he actually has something to sell we’ll certainly show it and put it on the Web site and try to sell it,” he says. “As mad as you can get at Jack, you still always wanted to see him succeed. Maybe it’s the sentimentality of the thing.”
Samy Kamienowicz, who owns Samy’s Camera, a major west-coast chain, says he too invested in DPPI in the early 90s, hoping his $5,000 would result in some cameras to sell. Kamienowicz says he hasn’t heard from Deardorff since, though he’d still like to. “I always loved the camera,” he says wistfully. Deardorff, who agrees that Kamienowicz gave him money, says he plans to send cameras to all the dealers who put up funds as soon as he can get production up.
Enthusiasm in the small world of big cameras is running high. “We have a new Deardorff resource,” a photographer announced with evident relief on the Large Format Photography Forum, an online gathering place for professional photographers and serious amateurs who believe you’re not doing photography unless you’re focusing on a ground glass that can be measured in inches and who are willing to brawl over the word digital. “Is this a case of romance overcoming practicality, or am I missing something?” one photographer recently asked on the forum, confessing he didn’t understand the “cult surrounding Deardorffs.” Someone wrote back, “If you have to ask, you would never understand.”
Once again, Deardorff can sell cameras faster than he can make them. Some people are skeptical about his long-term prospects. MC Photo’s John Mitchell says, “If he wasn’t able to make a go of the business when he owned the name and had all the dealer relationships, I don’t know how he could hope to now, at a time when such equipment is of little other than curiosity value.”
“If Jack’s doing all the stuff, he’s liable to get in trouble because he’s taking on too much,” says Hough. “The problem is time. When you’re a one-person shop, and you’re kind of selfish and bullheaded, that’s a fault. I just do repairs. I’m not building a new camera.” He adds, a little pensively, “We both do good work.”
Deardorff is optimistic. He’s already written a statement for his next catalog: “My grandfather created a reputation, which my Dad carried on. It had a personality. I may not have that personality. Some will not like me for stepping in. But that’s OK. I have a job to do, hopefully in their honor and mine, and still carry on.” He’s also firmly convinced the photographic industry operates on a seven-year boom-and-bust business cycle. He thinks the high-water mark was in 1956 and ’57 and says 1988 was a bad year. But he figures his time has come again.
Would there be a place for Hough in this new enterprise? Deardorff pauses. “In many ways and at many times I had wished that Ken would say, ‘I screwed up. Let’s get back together, and let’s make it go.’ If he would say that I think I’d almost get him back.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Stephen Longmire.