Historical Perspectives: The Jaeger-LeCoultre Compass Camera, An Ultra-Compact 35mm Camera From The 1930s

Historical Perspectives: The Jaeger-LeCoultre Compass Camera, An Ultra-Compact 35mm Camera From The 1930s

The Compass Camera was the brainchild of a person who, in the event that you were in an especially charitable temperament, you’d depict as “a character.” Noel Pemberton Billing (1881-1948) was a man of many interests, and nothing if not an iconoclast – he got his start in professional life when, at the age of 13, he put a match to the headmaster’s office at his school and ran away from home. Eventually he wound up in South Africa, where he maintained odd sources of income (apparently he was a very decent fighter) until he was mature enough to join the Army, and he wound up being injured twice in the Second Boer War.

Back in London after the war, he dedicated himself enthusiastically to two things: aviation and governmental issues. In the latter field that he became famous – Billing held outrageous traditional perspectives and also had many rather odd conspiracy hypotheses – yet that didn’t hold him back from becoming a Member of Parliament at the appointed time. The aircraft company he established – Pemberton-Billing Ltd. – would proceed to become Supermarine Aviation Works Ltd., and would manufacture, amongst other groundbreaking aircraft, the Supermarine Spitfire. This was some time after Billing had anything to do with the company, however he never lost his taste for inventing and in the early 1930s – as far as anyone knows because of a wager as to whether it was conceivable to make a camera that would find a way into a cigarette packet – he began work on a miniature, collapsible camera that would accept 35mm film.

35mm format film started out as cinema film and as each photography buff knows, its earliest use for still photography was when Eastman Kodak cinema film was adapted for use in still photography by Oskar Barnak, for Leitz Camera. His Leica camera appeared in 1927 and it was revolutionary, with a plan that has stood the trial of time with almost unbelievable stability (current digital Leica M cameras bear a startling resemblance to the ur-Leica from 1927).

Leica I, 1927. (Image:  Wikimedia Commons )

Given the fact that what we today would call large format film was still a lot of a professional standard in the 1930s, it took an enterprising and marginally intolerant frame of mind to find the Leica camera unnecessarily massive – it itself was a miracle of miniaturization in its day – yet on the off chance that you wanted enterprising in addition to intolerant, Noel Pemberton Billing was your boy. 

His configuration required a company with ability in miniaturization of gear trains, and instead of working with a conventional camera manufacturer, he set up his own company in London – Compass Camera Ltd. – and contracted with LeCoultre & Cie to assist with engineering and manufacturing.

It’s an enticingly beautiful little machine. Just about 4,000 were made – the principal variant utilized individual sheets of 35mm film, while the subsequent adaptation allowed the utilization of a move film magazine that added almost no mass to the camera (you could actually swap out backs and the move film magazine was offered as a free upgrade to Mark I proprietors). The strategy for using the camera was somewhat complicated, however this was as much owing to its versatility as anything else.

You would begin by opening the telescoping focal point, and loading a sheet of 35mm film into the back. Closing the back would leave one edge of the light-close paper film envelope protruding, and you would haul this out, which would leave the film ready for exposure.

Amazingly, there were three alternatives for focusing: an overlap out ground glass screen; a distance ring at the base of the focal point (with calibrations from 1 3/4 feet to infinity) and a fair to Betsy split-image rangefinder, which is even more remarkable when you consider that the main rangefinder Leica (the Leica II) had just come out a couple of years earlier, in 1932. 

Compass Camera move film back. (Image:  Wikimedia Commons )

For aperture, you had several alternatives – the focal point is f/3.5 with a 35mm focal length and there were recommended apertures, based on available light, which you could set via a dial on one side of the focal point. Channels could be chosen depending on whether you happened to utilize orthochromatic or panchromatic film. (Orthochromatic film utilizes unmodified silver halide emulsion, which is significantly more delicate to blue light than to green or red and which could deliver exceptionally misshaped contrast. This can be adjusted, somewhat, with channels. Panchromatic film could compensate somewhat yet required correcting channels, and was considerably more costly and in the 1930s both film types were broadly used.)

If you wanted to, you could also utilize an “extinction” type meter. This was incorporated into a finder on the lower right hand side of the camera; it was basically a piece of transparent material of gradually increasing opacity. You hauled it out, while looking through the finder, until you could simply see the features in what you wanted to shoot. At that point you would read off a guide number, which you could use to set aperture and shade speed.

There is an awesome YouTube video that goes into a great deal of detail on how you set up and utilize the Compass Camera.

Now, as you can imagine, shooting with a particularly small camera, and having to shuffle all the manual settings, isn’t for the faint of heart yet it’s salutary, in this Instagram age of our own, to think about what as a hassle taking an image used to be (those of you who, similar to me, are mature enough to recollect taking film to drop off at the pharmacy and waiting with bated breath to perceive what “came out” will understand what I mean). You really had to understand what you were doing, however on the off chance that you did, the engineering and optical sharpness of the Compass meant you could get very detailed images. As of late, Jaeger-LeCoultre sent a photographer out with a Compass Camera to take pictures around the world, and, as you can see, at its best, and for now is the ideal time, it was a serious Mighty Mite.

Grand Central Station, New York.

Eiffel Tower, Paris.

Open air calligraphy in Shanghai.

Gondalas dockside in Venice.

You’ve gotta love film – when you consider these photos were taken with a camera made in 1937, it’s amazing exactly how worked to-last the Compass really was. A portion of these images, incidentally, are going to find their way into the display “The Art of Behind the Scenes” organized by Jaeger-LeCoultre, which will open at the Cannes Film Festival on Friday, May 19, 2017, so look at it on the off chance that you happen to be at Cannes in May (and hello, who isn’t?). I’ve had a chance to handle a Compass and it has an amazing tactility – if by one way or another an upgraded variant were made that could handle present day 35mm film moves I speculate they’d sell quickly. Costly, high-exactness aluminum hotcakes.

Compass camera images shot by photographer Jean-Philippe Hussenet.