Posted 8 months ago
The variety of camera designs and model variations always surprises me. My preference is for early wood cameras that are simple in design with expanses of carefully assembled and polished wood trimmed with lacquered brass. They have a particular type of beauty whether sold as inexpensive “beginner” cameras or offered with advanced features for professionals.
I also appreciate self-casing, leather covered cameras from the 1890s onward even though polished wood and metal hardware are hidden inside of the bodies. It was only upon opening the cameras did makers’ construction know-how get put on full display. As time went on, the cameras became somewhat “utilitarian” as opposed to objects of beauty. Advanced features and construction using higher quality materials differentiated top-of-the-line apparatus from lower end models, but everything started looking the same.
By 1902, the first appearance of the Premo Supreme, the Rochester Optical Company (ROC) had already created a vast range of self-casing, folding plate cameras since the early 1890s. Not only were the camera model names similar (Poco vs. Premo), the cameras themselves were practically indistinguishable if not for their badges and makers’ labels. And when reviewing the company’s catalogues, I have to reread the listings several times to fully understand model differences.
But somewhere in all of this, ROC decided to create the ultimate top-of-the-line self-casing camera. Something that stood out from the competition with a combination of desirable features, highest quality materials, and decorations & details validating the maker’s expertise / craftsmanship. It’s similar in concept of comparing top-tier haute horology timepieces to basic wristwatches; while they all tell time, the most expensive watches are often made with precious metals, extraordinary complications, constructed and decorated to microscopic detail, and certified to a precision level of timekeeping (i.e. COSC).
Similarly, ROC must have wanted to make a statement with its Premo Supreme (1902 to 1908). Construction and material quality are first rate with desired features and rarely seen decorating details. While decorating details don’t make better pictures, having all of these features together on a single camera must have made owners feel special or even privileged.
Although made for just about seven years, the Premo Supreme is scarce-to-rare and this specific camera is one of the rarest versions because it was made with brass hardware. According to ROC’s catalogues, 1902 was the only year “rococo lacquered” brass was offered. Of the few known Premo Supreme cameras in collections, this appears to be the only example of a 1902 model. Cameras made from 1903 to 1908 have nickel-plated brass hardware.
Visually, the camera has lots of mechanics which gives it a complex, steampunk appearance that would fit into an alternate reality sci-fi story. The look is further heightened with hardware decorated using a hand-applied, engine-turning technique known as “perlage,” the same as what is seen on better watch movements. Perlage decorating is on all hardware surfaces (both sides) and does not appear on any other ROC camera to this extent. The catalogues do not mention if the work was done inhouse or by a third party. Regardless, it is unique to the Premo Supreme and labor intensive.
Another rare feature, but not unique to cameras, is the Premo Supreme being sold with two separate shutters. The camera seems to say: “I am serious about picture taking.” An engine-turned brass Volute diaphragm shutter (posted separately here on CW) is mounted at the front and a removable Thornton Pickard (TP) focal plane shutter is positioned between the body and focusing ground glass. The purpose of the TP shutter is for photographing fast moving subjects that cannot be captured clearly with the Volute’s top speed of 1/150th of a second. I have several TP focal plane shutters in my collection and for some reason the version mounted on the Premo Supreme baffles me. I’ve not cracked its operational mysteries.
High quality leathers are used on the camera. The body is covered in a durable genuine seal leather. In contrast to the vast majority of 1890s to early 1900s self-casing cameras with red-leather bellows, the Premo Supreme bellows was only made with black leather. This is probably because red-leather was thinner and quickly wore out. Catalogues note the bellows as “Black Persian Levant Leather.”
Other features include a bed with accessory rail that drops low for wide-angle lenses, a precision Bausch & Lomb Iconoscope viewer, and several lens choices.
Price for this level of quality was not cheap. In 1902, this 4x5 inch camera was listed for $146.00 with the brass Volute shutter and Goerz Double-Anastigmat Series III lens option. This equates to $4,365 when adjusted for 2019! The 1903 price dropped slightly to $140.00 for the nickel-plated hardware version, which works out to be roughly $300 less when adjusted for 2019. Still a princely sum.
Very high prices for Premo Supreme cameras might be a reason they are rarely found today. Regardless, its the steampunk look that attracts me and makes it stand out when displayed next to other cameras.