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Thread: 1940's WWII Navy Darkroom Restoration

  1. #1

    Join Date
    Mar 2018
    Western Michigan

    1940's WWII Navy Darkroom Restoration

    Two Summers ago I toured the WWII battleship USS Alabama at Mobile, Alabama.
    One stop on the tour sheet said "darkroom". I looked into the compartment and thought, "Where's the stuff?!"
    A volunteer put me in touch with the curator about taking pictures. The curator told me they were looking for someone to help them set up the darkroom.
    They wanted to actually USE it again to process film and print pictures. The original equipment had been removed when the ship was taken out of service in 1947.
    The sink, counter and storage unit were still there.

    That discussion with the curator was nearly two years ago. The room is now close to being ready to use.
    The original door to the darkroom was discovered several months ago, stashed somewhere on the on one side.
    It has been re-installed and looks great. It now has a red plexiglas window so people touring the ship can watch someone printing.

    During the war, the room was used for the following:

    Recon Photos: The Photographer's Mate had to document the action during the war, including aerial photos of the combat area. Tha Alabama had 2-3 Kingfisher float planes which could be launched from the fantail of the ship. When the Alabama was engaged in action, the results were documented by the photographer.

    Some of the equipment of the time was as follows:

    The K-20 aerial camera was used for reconnaissance.
    A large, fixed-focal-length-lens camera which took a long roll of "Kodak Aviator's Film".
    There was, I believe, a vacuum back to keep the film...a 4x5 frame...tight against the film plane.
    A metal "can" was used in place of a bellows...which would have collapsed when held out in the slip stream of a moving aircraft!
    I believe the photographer sometimes hand-held this large camera in use...though it could be mounted to an aircraft.

    A Fairchild-Smith long-roll film tank: A stainless tank with a crank on top to transport the film was used for processing.

    A Smith long-roll film dryer: A Ferris wheel looking "can" dryer.

    Once dry the film was printed on:

    A Fairchild contact printer. This printer had five rows of five argon-gas bulbs (25 total). Areas of the negative which were too bright (clear) could be "dodged" by selectively turning off individual bulbs. There are OVER 25 switches on the front panel! (See attached photo)

    Kodak also had a contact printer that was a diffusion type. Strips of tissue paper could be placed on a ground glass panel above the bulbs to "dodge" the bright spots. Clever!

    Kodak AZO paper was used for contact prints. The long tonal scale of this contact printing paper worked well with the limited dodging of the two printers above.

    Press / Combat / Crew Events: A Graflex Speed Graphic 4x5 press camera was used by the Photographer's Mate.

    Smaller ships with no Photographer's Mate were issued a Kodak Medalist rangefinder camera (620 roll film).

    Crew events were photographed. At the crossing of the equator. King Neptune made an appearance and initiated you as a "Shellback"! For crossing the Arctic Circle, he dubbed you a "Bluenose", for going to the Orient a crewman received the order of the "Golden Dragon". This was all fun for the crew. A ceremony was held, certificates were given,...and of course, photographs were made.

    I was surprised to learn that an 8x10 view camera was used on shipbord due to its size and the bellows shaking in the wind, however...
    I ordered a Navy 8x10 paper negative/print sleeve from an auction site.
    Inside was an aircraft crash report from the WWII aircraft carrier, USS Charger.
    A Curtiss dive bomber aircraft had been damaged while landing. The ship's Photographer's Mate used an 8x10 camera to document the wrecked aircraft. He even shot down into the cockpit...I suppose hand-held...with the 8x10 camera.
    The 8x10 negatives and prints were in the sleeve with the report!

    To process sheet film, the wooden Graflex cut film holders were emptied and the film put into Kodak 4x5 stainless film hangers.
    The hangers were assembled as a group on a small wooden rack.
    The hangers were then lifted as a group and dipped into Kodak 4x5 hard rubber tanks for processing.

    For film, a water bath was used instead of stop bath, or "short-stop", as it was called at the time.
    You occasionally hear the term "hypo" used for fixer.

    In the Alabama's darkroom, a "tube" was still taped to the sink's water pipe...obviously for a thermometer.
    Above the sink is a small "arm" a plant hanger.
    I am assuming that the etched-glass thermometer...which has an eye in the top like a needle...hung in a water bath from the arm.
    That is a guess, of course.

    A period Navy film shows...and we now have...a GE wind-up X-ray timer.
    Pre-set the time in minutes, and in the dark reach over and crank down an arm that starts the timer.
    It is perfect for film processing!

    The tanks have floating hard rubber lids to minimize evaporation.
    "Replenisher" is added to top off the developer if evaporation has occurred.

    The Navy made its own film developer from four chemical powders, all measured out on a platform balance scale.
    The powder was mixed in an amber glass jug to make up a "stock solution".
    The stock solution was diluted in a beaker as needed to make the "working solution".
    The photographer in the film may have been Apothecary beaker! ...why not?

    In the Alabama's darkroom we put back a Simmon-Omega DII 4x5 enlarger...the 1941 model.

    There is a Wollensak 135mm Enlarging Raptar lens for 4x5 and a 75mm Kodak Ektar for roll film.

    A period "Micro-Sight" grain focuser is used for focusing.

    The timer is a Time-O-Light Model M-39. I heard by way of rumor that 39 was the year it was introduced. Don't know that for sure.

    There is a Kodak "Projection Print Scale" to determine print exposure...made for years. (I prefer the test-strip method, myself.) old Vokar dodging kit, although...they may have just used a piece of wire and some tape to dodge prints.

    There are two easels...a Leitz 8x10 easel with a wooden base and a Kodak 11x14 "enlarging mask".

    A dodging card and a piece of tempered glass for contact printing round out the enlarging tools.

    I hope to use Slavich single-weight...graded...paper to print on.
    It is new to me, but sounds like a ready replacement for the 1940's paper.

    Washing the prints was done either with a wash tray, a wash tray with a siphon, or if available, a mechanical print washer. The sink on the Alabama has an extra spigot that stands out from the wall and is turned to the right. SOMETHING sat on the right side of the sink. I looked forever for a period print washer, but ended up with a wash tray and siphon.

    An electric print dryer could be used. In this case a Lott Print Dryer. Here I am flying "blind". I don't know much about them.
    Air drying is also an option...
    ...OR as my uncle used to do in the 1940's, the wet print was slapped face down onto a chrome plated "Ferrotype Plate"...rolled not squeegeed...and left to fall off when dry. This imparted maximum luster to the print. This is also demonstrated in the Navy film. This is for fiber based prints, of course, not RC paper.

    I.D. Cards: I.D. pictures were taken with a Graflex "Photorecord" long roll 35mm I.D. camera.
    This was sometimes used with a Graflex Mobile I.D. Unit, which was a stand or cart with a light, a card for the crewman's serial number, and a "roller shade"-like height chart. There were several types.

    After Pearl Harbor, many thousands of military personnel and plant workers had to be given I.D. cards. This unit helped make that happen.
    So the crewman's PICTURE came from the I.D. camera, the negative being used full size.

    To make the CARD, one way is to load 4x5 cut film holders with Arista "Ortho-Litho" film (like old Kodalith).
    That's a whole story, as the film had no apparent ISO number. It also had no orientation notches.
    After one unsuccessful attempt, a rep from the distributor told me that the ISO number is ".5 to 1"!
    You can't get much slower than that! He also said the film can be processed in an open tray under a red safelight.
    I have yet to try it.

    The linework of the basic card is hung on the wall.
    Two "Victor" Photo Lamps are used to illuminate it.
    The card is composed full-size on the Speed Graphic's ground glass panel, and using a light exposure is made.
    The Ortho-Litho negative will be black, with clear lines and text...for contact printing on double-weight paper.
    A window will be cut in this negative and the PICTURE negative from the I. D. camera will be taped to the back, showing through the window.
    This will contact print a blank picture I.D. card (Ilford FB Matte) that can be typed-in and signed. This part is still THEORY!

    The original height chart for I.D. cards is still on the darkroom wall.
    The height lines are worn in the middle of the chart from all those heads rubbing on it!

    A number stand for the crewman's serial number is placed in front of the crewman as the photo is shows at the bottom of his photo.

    The information above was gleaned from several sources...The 1945 Navy Photographer's School Manuals Vol. I and II, two 1948 Navy films on Developing the Negative and Printing the Positive, which can be seen online.
    Sadly, I have not found a veteran Navy photographer to talk to. I missed one by 9 months and what a career he had!

    If you tour the USS Alabama, there is a lot to see on a battleship...but stop by and see the darkroom!

    If you know where we could find a small Graflex Mobile I.D. Unit or just the camera stand...or just the measurements, I would appreciate the information.


    Attached Thumbnails Attached Thumbnails IMG_1891.jpg   IMG_9738.jpg   IMG_9764.jpg   IMG_9767.jpg  
    Last edited by Michael_Fuller; 18-Mar-2018 at 20:10. Reason: shorten and remove too much detail

  2. #2

    Join Date
    Feb 2008

    Re: 1940's WWII Navy Darkroom Restoration

    You should be very proud of that project, Mike.
    Good for you!
    Real cameras are measured in inches...
    Not pixels.

  3. #3
    Nodda Duma's Avatar
    Join Date
    Nov 2014
    Brookline, NH

    Re: 1940's WWII Navy Darkroom Restoration

    That's awesome!
    Newly made large format dry plates available! Look:

  4. #4
    Tin Can's Avatar
    Join Date
    Dec 2011

    Re: 1940's WWII Navy Darkroom Restoration

    Very cool!

    I will visit Alabama just to see this.


  5. #5
    Join Date
    Oct 2010
    South Dakota

    Re: 1940's WWII Navy Darkroom Restoration

    Wow, this is incredible stuff.

    Kent in SD
    Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris,
    miserere nobis.

  6. #6's Avatar
    Join Date
    Dec 2012
    Winona, Minnesota

    Re: 1940's WWII Navy Darkroom Restoration

    The K-20 aerial camera was used for reconnaissance.
    A large, fixed focal length lens camera which took a long roll of "Kodak Aviator's Film". There was, I believe, a vacuum back to keep the film...a 4x5 frame...tight against the film plane.
    I think the film was pressed against a Réseau plate by a spring-loaded pressure plate controlled by the film advance.

    Thank you for the excellent article and good news.

  7. #7

    Join Date
    Jul 2008

    Re: 1940's WWII Navy Darkroom Restoration

    Excellence in the making

    Pictures of the restored Navy darkroom facility?


  8. #8

    Join Date
    Nov 2016
    Middle Georgia

    Re: 1940's WWII Navy Darkroom Restoration

    Michael, it's folks like you taking your expertise to these historic sites to accomplish projects like you've involved yourself in. Your efforts will help people see what some aspects of ship's life were like during the operation of the vessel. These ships had the necessary facilities for activities of battle and living aboard, including mess, medical facilities and a barber shop among others.

    Groups can schedule an overnight adventure on the Alabama and I've done that twice with the Boy Scouts. It was an experience spending the night on the bunks in the crews' quarters for the boys and the adults on the trip.

    If anyone is near Mobile, Alabama, this tour is definitely worth the trip. There's also a submarine that can be toured also along with a few aircraft. Another great place in Alabama is the Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham, Alabama, where you can have basically free reign wandering around the old blast furnaces and support structures and equipment. It's a great place for photography.

  9. #9
    Join Date
    Oct 2010
    South Dakota

    Re: 1940's WWII Navy Darkroom Restoration

    Quote Originally Posted by morecfm View Post
    Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham, Alabama, where you can have basically free reign wandering around the old blast furnaces and support structures and equipment. It's a great place for photography.
    That place has been on my "list" for several years now.

    Kent in SD
    Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris,
    miserere nobis.

  10. #10

    Join Date
    Mar 2018
    Western Michigan

    Re: 1940's WWII Navy Darkroom Restoration

    Quote Originally Posted by Two23 View Post
    Wow, this is incredible stuff.

    Kent in SD may know, the USS Alabama is a South Dakota class battleship! Sister of SoDak... Mike

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