Kodak’s original brochure for the Medalist II describes it as a “compact, integrated assembly”. They’re so wrong. It’s a magnificent beast.
The celebrated industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague designed the Medalist for Kodak, who introduced it in 1941. It followed more than a decade of his exquisite Art Deco designs, mostly for consumer-level cameras. Box brownies with intricate geometric shapes were a speciality. When the USA entered WWII and wanted rugged medium format cameras for the military, buying German or Japanese wasn’t an option. Hence the original Medalist I, with its massive exposed focusing helicoid instead of a flimsy folding bellows, was chosen to go to war.
You get eight 6x9cm frames from each roll of thin-spooled 620 film. It’s an odd choice of roll format, when 120 would have added little or nothing to the overall size of the camera. Some people have done that as a conversion, but I’ve stuck with 620 because for infrequent use it’s not all that much of a faff to re-spool a roll of 120. The header picture shows my rudimentary 120-to-620 re-spooler. I need to make a better one.
The aluminium helicoid (painted black on the original version) may be stronger than a leather bellows but it’s still vulnerable to impact damage and dirt. Don’t even think about taking it to the beach. The thread has to run without lubrication so it’s a bit graunchy, even without any sand in it. The camera’s party trick is to keep turning the focus back beyond infinity — way, way beyond so the lens collapses into the body almost completely. It seems useful, right up to the point where you miss a candid shot because it takes so long to wind it back out again.
The coupled rangefinder is nice to use. It’s a separate split-image magnified view of the middle of the frame, visible at the bottom of the combined viewfinder / rangefinder. You also get a focus distance indication in a dial on the top plate.
The winding mechanism is designed to transport the film along by one frame (cocking the shutter as it goes) and then stop. For all my efforts I couldn’t get that to work reliably and it would occasionally skip a frame. Now I just leave the frame counter on zero to disable it, wind manually using the red window, and cock the shutter manually using the (rather stiff) lever under the viewfinder.
For all his design experience, Teague managed to come up with a shape that’s almost impossible to grip. The front of each side of the body is angled backwards, much like an Exacta SLR, so there’s nothing to get hold of. You can try to grip it top-to-bottom with your right hand while you focus with your left hand, but it’s awkward and never feels secure. In the end I was compelled to make a separate left-hand grip out of a Stitz flash bracket and a piece of 4mm aluminium plate. As well as screwing into both (!) tripod threads on the base, it also hooks into the left-hand strap loop, making it feel pretty solid. It transforms the usability of the camera, because now you can hold it one-handed without even thinking about it. There’s still a tripod thread available, cut into the new base plate between the camera and the grip.
Mine is a post-war Medalist II, which drops the separate coarse and fine focus controls in favour of a finer pitch on the main helicoid. It still has the same five-element Ektar 100mm f3.5 lens, but now with more coatings. It’s an excellent piece of glass, renowned for its sharpness. Couple that with a camera giving you 3:2 ratio images with six times the surface area of ‘full-frame’ 35mm film, and you have a recipe for capturing unbelievable levels of detail.
The pictures below are from a trip to a boatyard at St Olaves in Norfolk, followed by an early-morning walk around the UEA campus in Norwich. A lens of this class dictates a quality of film to match, so I went with its namesake Ektar 100. Enjoy. I certainly did.
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