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Thread: Gandolfi documentary film

  1. #1

    Join Date
    Oct 2005

    Gandolfi documentary film

    I've become interested in the history of the late Gandolfi brothers who produced the classic Gandolfi cameras. While searching the net I discovered a documentary was once made about their camera business, but I can't find a copy anywhere. Has anyone ever seen this film or even got a copy.

  2. #2

    Join Date
    Dec 2005
    Norfolk, UK

    Gandolfi documentary film

    The film doesn't appear to be available from the BFI so your best bet would be to try to contact Michael Dixon on
    ++ 44 (0)7974 679 199. The number is for a UK mobile phone so may not be still current, but it's worth a try!

    If that doesn't work you could try contacting the National Museum of Film, Television and Photography in Bradford.

    Good luck.

  3. #3

    Join Date
    Jul 2005

    Gandolfi documentary film


    you might try the museum for further information. I have no idea if the contact details for gandolphi are still current.

  4. #4
    All metric sizes to 24x30 Ole Tjugen's Avatar
    Join Date
    Mar 2002

    Gandolfi documentary film

    The contact informathin for Gandolfi is easiest to find on Gandolfi's home page.

  5. #5

    Gandolfi documentary film

    My wife and I saw this film a few months ago at The Bradford Photographic Museum in the UK, when it was being shown as a one off. There were only five people in the audience including ourselves!
    It was a marvellous experience for both myself and my non-photographic partner. The footage of the brothers at home and work was quite wonderful. I especially remember the scene where a member of the UK aristocracy rang up wanting a camera like yesterday, and being told he had to join the rest of the queue!
    I hope you track down a viewing of it, or a DVD. Please let me know if you succeed with the latter, and where you bought it from. I would love to have a copy
    John Fontana

  6. #6

    Gandolfi documentary film

    There was an earlier documentary originally made for television that I remember seeing about 10 - 20 years ago (can't be too exact I'm afraid). It was filmed whilst Fred and Arthur were still alive and the workshop was in the original location in Peckham, London. The workshop was originally a pin factory making pins for the clothing industry which was heavilly concentrated in this part of South and East London during the 19th and 20th centuries. When they left Peckham it was still possible to find heaps of pins on the roof beams and in corners.

    Shortly after the film was shown Arthur's health declined and I believe he died a short while after.

    I would guess that much of the footage for the new film has been taken from this original documentary. It was probably made for the BBC so a copy may be available from them (they seem happy to put anything onto DVD theese days if they feel they can make a pound or two from it)

  7. #7

    Gandolfi documentary film

    I have heard of the film, but never seen it. It does not appear to be in distribution in the US through any of the documentary distributors I know. A stupid question, but have you contacted the filmmakers?

    If you do find anything please let us know. I also would love to watch it...

  8. #8

    Join Date
    Jan 2006
    Devon, South West England

    Gandolfi documentary film

    Hi, If you go to the website there is all the information on the film. I purchased a VHS video of it, there was no DVD available at the time but that may have changed. Good luck.


  9. #9

    Gandolfi documentary film

    This is an article about the Gandolfi Brothers and the documentary which appeared in the Independent on Sunday two years ago .

    HeadLine A LIFE IN FULL: Two grumpy old men

    Sub-Heading For nearly a century the Gandolfi family in Southwark made the finest cameras in the world, says KEVIN JACKSON. Now a documentary about the last two brothers in the family business celebrates both their superb craftsmanship and eccentricity

    Publication Independent on Sunday Date 25/01/2004

    Byline Kevin Jackson

    As Stradivarius to the violin, as Rolls-Royce to the automobile, as Ealing to comedy ... so, certain photographic connoisseurs will tell you, Gandolfi to the camera. From the great Kodak revolution of the late 19th century to today's virtually idiot-proof point-and-shoots, cameras have always been among the most democratic and the most modern of tools - mass-produced machines for making images that can be reproduced in mass. The Gandolfi, by contrast, was and is a self-conscious aristocrat among cameras: hand- made by a few dedicated craftsmen in a modest atelier instead of by rows of workers or robots in a high-tech factory; fashioned from fine quality, highly polished wood instead of plastic and metal; stubbornly large, angular and unwieldy instead of handily compact. The handful of men who made the Gandolfi brought to their task such patient, self-effacing care that their working methods seemed more medieval than modern. If they'd had cameras in the 13th century, you suspect, they would have been made like Gandolfis.

    It should be a matter of subdued national pride that - since the Italian name was an inheritance from ancestors who arrived here generations ago - the family which created these grand objects was as British as boiled tripe. For just over a hundred years, until the firm was sold into younger hands, the men of the Gandolfi family worked almost unceasingly at their uncommon craft: hence the title of a new documentary feature film, Gandolfi - Family Business, which is about to have its London premiere at the National Film Theatre. Put together on the slenderest of shoestring budgets over the past 20 years, the film is mainly set in the early 1980s, at a time when the last two camera-making Gandolfi brothers, Frederick and Arthur, decided that they were finally too old and frail to carry on the business themselves. Both men have since died, Frederick in 1990, and Arthur in 1993; neither married or had children.

    A directorial debut by the prominent stills photographer Ken Griffiths, Gandolfi - Family Business is a quiet and necessarily rather elegiac piece (the End of an Era, the Last of the Line ...) which gives way to wholly unexpected bursts of comedy, thanks largely to the cantakerousness of Arthur Gandolfi, who is not only given to speaking his mind in uncompromising terms - he mercilessly parodies Lord Lichfield's attempt to pull rank and jump the customer queue, for example - but stubbornly refuses to play along with the usual documentary artifice and pretend that the camera isn't filming their every movement. In one sequence, you can hear him having a long and bitter argument with Griffiths about whether or not they needed to shoot everything twice; Arthur hadn't quite grasped the principle of non-synchronous sound.

    The film's writer, Laurie Lewis - himself a noted photographer, whose work appears regularly in The Independent - recalls that this comic element was wholly unpremeditated. "We originally thought of doing something that would be suitable for a one-hour slot on television, and spent endless hours trying to cut around Arthur's complaints about being filmed and recorded. But we found ourselves laughing so much at his grumpiness that eventually our editor said, `look, why don't we use all this funny stuff instead of trying to dump it?' And that's when the film started to take on its final shape."

    In addition to its obvious charm as a character study of admirable English eccentricity, lightly seasoned with Pete-and-Dud-style inconsequential dialogue and monologue, Gandolfi - Family Business has many other virtues. Its filmic style is unusually, arrestingly static, partly as a nod to the still images produced by Gandolfi cameras, and partly in homage to a particular style of British film-making: "When we were preparing the film," Lewis recalls, "I got Ken to look closely at Listen to Britain [the magnificent Second World War documentary, directed by Humphrey Jennings in 1941] and write out a complete shot-by-shot breakdown of the film, to see how that kind of montage can work. By today's standards, Jennings doesn't move his camera much: but it seems to me that if you have the two dimensions of movement inside the image, and movement from shot to shot, then you don't really need that third dimension of having the camera itself move. It overloads the image, and keeps you from concentrating on details."

    For Ken Griffiths, the whole project simply began as an attempt to create a straightforward historical record of two irascible old men and their unusual vocation. "I've been using Gandolfi cameras ever since I graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1971, and I'd say that a good 90, maybe 95 per cent of my work ever since, whether for advertising campaigns or in reportage, has been done with Gandolfis. I began my career doing shots for Vogue, and for The Times, and then I won an award from The Daily Telegraph to go to Russia and Georgia, where I was arrested by the KGB on suspicion of spying ... by the time I'd done all that, I knew that I'd always want to keep on working with these cameras.

    "But I came across the Gandolfis more or less by accident. I knew that I wanted a large-format camera, but I was skint, and I found a secondhand camera shop in London where they were virtually giving these things away; no one wanted them in those days. I think I paid something like 50 quid for my first Gandolfi. It needed to have its back adjusted to take more modern types of film, so I took it down to their workshop - as you can see in the film, it's a tiny little place, not really much bigger than a garage - and they adapted it for me - pounds 13.50. And that's how I got to know them ..."

    Did you become friends? "In a way ... they were very private, basically a couple of grumpy old men. But I really admired the way they had kept their business going, really just through sheer bloody-mindedness, at a time when so many other British camera firms had gone to the wall. One of the things they represent for me is a very British tradition of craftsmanship, a unique tradition, really, which isn't always backed up by good business sense. I've often thought that the British camera industry has been a bit like the British motorbike industry ..."

    In this regard, the film also acts as a kind of invitation to outsiders to share an enthusiasm that has, thus far, mainly been confined to specialists.

    Other professional photographers had started to use the cameras in the 1960s - David Bailey, Duffy - and within a few years of Ken Griffith's happy purchase in a second-hand shop, the collectors woke up to the potential of Gandolfis and prices began to rise, then soar. Fully to take up the invitation to the Gandolfi fan club, however, demands a bit more effort than simply watching the documentary, since Griffiths' film doesn't really explain just why it is that professionals can be so mad for Gandolfi cameras. The craftsmanship and sheer elegance of the things are obvious; but what sort of images do they produce?

    Well, for one thing, they produce very, very sharp images. "Technically speaking, the Gandolfi is what is called a Field Camera," Laurie Lewis explains: "Precisely the same sort of camera that Julia Margaret Cameron or Lewis Carroll would have used in the late 19th century. You put a big plate in the back of them, and they produce just one image at a time. They also tend to need quite a long time for exposure - sometimes as long as half a second even in good light, though you can leave them open even longer for special effects - and that means that if you're doing portraiture with them, it tends to give a very formal effect. But because the image is being imprinted on a much bigger area than usual, it gives you a degree of clarity and definition in the developed print that you don't find elsewhere.

    "Now, you could say that that's also true of any type of field camera, not just the Gandolfi. So one of the things that makes the Gandolfi really special is that it has an adjustable back, and you can manipulate it in such a way as to cheat focus. For example, if you're taking a shot of a large building with any ordinary camera, the picture that you get will usually look as if the walls are bending over. With a Gandolfi, you can adjust the image so that they look upright. Or say you want to have a composite image, with a pearl or a flower or something small in the foreground and a range of mountains in the background, both in equally sharp focus. The Gandolfi lets you do a Gregg Tolland [that is, achieve the kind of deep focus effects which Tolland famously acheived as cinematographer for Orson Welles on Citizen Kane.] Nowadays, of course, you can achieve the same kind of effects using digital photography and computers, but there are still photographers who prefer to do it the old-fashioned way. Which is why you have this wonderful phenomenon of a 19th-century technology still being used in the 21st century."

    There are, to be sure, also a number of disadvantages to such a veteran technology, and those who use it will often incline to a particular aesthetic. Photography has dozens of major traditions but, just as you might roughly and conventionally divide film-making into the school of the Lumieres (that of striving after reality, or the carefully contrived illusion of reality: Ken Loach) and the school of Melies (the cultivation of ostentatious high artifice: The Matrix), so most photographers will incline towards the poles of spontanaeity or calculation.

    An outstanding proponent of the former school, which encompasses everything from war reportage to informal portraiture, would be Henri-Cartier Bresson, with his Zen archer's attitude to catching time as it runs and his inconspicuous, lightweight Leica slung loosely round his neck. Key mantra, known to all Cartier-Bresson devotees and disciples: the "Decisive Moment". (When I asked Laurie Lewis if he had ever used a Gandolfi in his own work, he replied "No - it has nothing to do with the Decisive Moment ...")

    The latter school, to which both Julia Margaret Cameron and Lewis Caroll added their early contributions (think of her "angels", or of his jokey portrait of a man standing next to a chimpanzee skeleton), deals in the premediated and the highly wrought: formal portraiture, painterly compositions, elaborate conceits. A leading example in our own time, Lewis suggests, might be Irving Penn, who, even when he took photographs of tribesmen, carefully stripped his images of documentary value by posing them against a white backdrop and bathing them in diffused light. And, Lewis believes, it is for this latter type of work that a Gandolfi camera is sublimely well suited.

    Ken Griffiths agrees, but only up to a point, since he has proved to himself how well the cumbersome Gandolfi can be deployed for purposes of journalism, in such dangerous zones as Anglola - where the Red Cross mobile surgery helped him mend the wooden Gandolfi camera case with prosthetic glue - in Beirut, in Cambodia and in other battlegrounds. (He also points out that Cartier-Bresson was not quite the purely spontaneous image-catcher of popular myth: "He quite often asked people to do things again, or set them up in certain ways.") Summing up his working method with the Gandolfi, Griffiths explains that: "It's a matter of selection in advance instead of selection afterwards. With your standard 35 mil camera, you're often tempted just to spray off shots and do the choosing later. With a camera that makes just one image at a time, you have to plan out what you want to do carefully, and you have to really want to do it ...

    "It's a completely different attitude, but one that appeals to me a lot. Say you're driving in a rainstorm and see something that you think you might want to shoot. With a 35 mil you'll just stop, jump out, shoot and get straight back in the car. With a Gandolfi you know that you have to be reconciled to a soaking. But the image will probably be that much more concentrated, that much more special. And the sheer clarity of the image can be just astonishing. In the Himalayas, I once left a Gandolfi with its lens open all through the hours of darkness, and went back and closed it just before dawn. The result, lit by the stars and the moon, was amazing."

    Griffiths also believes that the blatant anachronism of the Gandolfi's appearance also has its advantages. "People tend to feel sorry for you, having to manhandle all this stuff - it's not actually all that heavy, but it is big and awkward - and that tends to put them at their ease for a portrait. And it looks so odd that ... Well, you can stop traffic in Oxford Street because people will just pull up and stare at you."

    The firm was founded in 1885 by a 21-year old Londoner, Louis Gandolfi, whose family background was part-Scottish and part-Italian. He began his apprenticeship to the cabinet-making trade at the age of 12, and in 1880 joined the pioneering camera makers Lejeune Perkins and Co, setting up on his own once he had mastered the basic mysteries. His original business premises were in Westminster, at 15a Kensington Place. It was a lively time for the British camera industry, which in that decade led the world, and Louis Gandolfi's innovative designs for cameras and accessories, many of which he patented, soon drew the attention of potential customers. Before long, he was under contract to supply several government departments, at home and throughout the empire.

    By 1913, the company had expanded to the point where it needed new premises, and moved south of the river to Peckham Rye, initially to Hall Road, and then, in 1928, to a former hat-pin factory at 2 Borland Road. (Today, Southwark Council's website is proposing the Gandolfis as worthy of commemoration by a 2004 "People's Plaque" - an honour which puts them in the company of eminent Southwarkians including Blake, Browning, Donne, Orwell, Ruskin ... and Tommy Steele.) As soon as they came of age, Louis brought his three sons - Thomas, Frederick and Arthur - into the business.

    The boom of Louis's young manhood was short-lived: the deepening economic crisis of the 1920s and 1930s was particularly hard on the British camera industry, which was often priced out of the market by cheap foreign imports. Many companies folded. To survive, the Gandolofis had to diversify, and devoted some of their skills by going back to Louis's roots and making cabinets once again. On a more positive note, they also took orders for one-off camera designs: Lord Carnarvon, for example, provided Gandolfi cameras for Howard Carter's archeological work in Egypt, which ultimately led to the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb. The company was also asked to make a special lens to take shots of the dolls' houses belonging to Queen Mary.

    In 1928, Louis retired and left the business to his sons (he died in 1932). Frederick handled the administration, Thomas, who had trained as an engineer, took over camera design and metal work, and Arthur was in charge of hand-polishing. Gradually, as the Depression eased, the company began to regain some of the fortune it had lost. The Gandolfis won the lucrative contract to supply all Britain's prisons with the cameras used to take the full-face and profile mug shots of convicts; and, in the 1940s, the War Office called on their skills to provide specialised cameras for military use.

    Forty years after the resignation of their founder, in 1968, Thomas Gandolfi also died: Frederick and Arthur - the heroes of Griffiths's documentary - carried on alone, making fewer cameras, often designed for the requirements of a particular customer. Recognition of their rare talents by the cognoscenti slowly spread to wider circles, and by the late 1970s, demand for their hand-crafted work had become so intense and the waiting list so long that orders could easily take up to three years to complete. In 1980, their century of contributions to the world of photography was commemorated by an exhibition at the Science Museum.

    But they were getting on, and when, in 1981, Frederck had a minor car accident, the brothers decided it was finally time to think about partial retirement. A new business, still bearing the Gandolfi name but with no blood connection, was set up in 1982 - this is around the point where the documentary begins - and Fred and Arthur spent two years training a team of much younger craftsmen in the skills they had developed over the decades. In 1998 the company moved to a town near Salisbury. Neither Fred nor Arthur survived to see this most recent chapter of the story.

    But the ending is a reasonably happy one. Gandolfi Ltd is thriving in its new home, and can still supply you with a handsome, hand-made, large- format field camera in all the traditional sizes, from 4 x 5 inches to 11 x 14 inches, or to any new format of your own specifications; prices for the cameras alone, sans accessories, start at just below pounds 3,000 and go up to around pounds 6,000. And, thanks to Gandolfi - Family Business, that modest duo, Arthur and Fred, have become the recipients of something that photography has promised since its earliest days: a measure of immortality. m

    `Gandolfi - Family Business' will be shown at the National Film Theatre on Saturday 31 January at 4.10pm. (020 7928 3232; More information at

  10. #10

    Join Date
    Sep 2003
    Harbor City, California

    Gandolfi documentary film

    Calling the Gandolfi "the Rolls Royce of cameras" is not to say that they were always expensive. In the early days they represented outstanding value for money as compared to other makers who were able to work to similar high standards. Sinclair, Adams, Watson and Newman & Guardia were much more expensive.

    I find it hard to imagine such a long period of time of family operation with only two generations.

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