On the eastern banks of the River Severn in Gloucestershire, north of Sharpness Dock, can be found the enigmatic Purton Ships Graveyard. From 1909 until the 1960s various ships, boats and barges were beached to protect the adjacent Gloucester-Sharpness Canal which was at risk of being breached due to the erosion of the riverbank.
Prior to the advent of the motorway network the river was a vital commercial route, with ‘lighters’ (flat-bottomed barges) transporting oil from Avonmouth in the south to Gloucester Docks.
Redundant vessels were dragged to the shore by tugs and their hulls holed so they filled with silt and did not re-float. Amongst them were Ferrous Concrete Barges built during the 1940s as part of the war effort and run aground during the 1960s largely due to their ponderous handling compared to conventional steel vessels.
The ‘Purton Hulks’ hold a fascination and have become a popular destination for photographers. I first photographed there in the late 1980s and have been visiting regularly ever since.
After leaving school in the mid-1980s I was taken on as an apprentice photographer with a company that published a series of newspapers in Gloucestershire and beyond. I was fascinated by battered Rolleiflex TLRs I found in a storeroom and even bought one from the company. I’ve always appreciated the precision construction and fabulous lens quality, particularly of the ‘F’ models.
I now own three Rolleiflexes and two Rolleicords. My most recent eBay purchase was an early 1960s 3.5F with a Zeiss Planar 75mm f3.5 lens. It had been owned by a Fleet Street photographer but can’t have seen a great deal of use as it’s in good cosmetic condition. There were a few age-related niggles so I had it serviced by the excellent Black on White Camera Repairs in Bristol.
My old boss at the paper, David Ireland, taught me how to load and use the Rolleiflex – he began his career in the late 1940s with a VN Press Camera and glass plates before moving onto the Rolleiflex and later Nikon 35mm cameras. He showed me 20”x16” prints and I was drawn to the quality of the Rollei pictures and admired the way press photographers of the past had covered news and even sporting events with them.
When I received the freshly-serviced camera I loaded a roll of Ilford FP4+ and headed to Purton to try it out, relying on the built-in light meter and incident light diffuser.
Late-summer sunlight increased definition in the remains of the various vessels so I quickly shot this roll hand-held and developed it in Kodak Xtol, diluted 1:1. As a freelance photographer I’ve been using DSLRs since 2001 and it makes a pleasant change to slow down and consider each of the 12 frames on the roll.
The results from the Planar lens were as good as I expected and most pictures were taken at f/5.6 or f/8 giving sharp, contrasty negatives. The built-in meter also proved accurate. This Rollei is fitted with a split-image focusing screen which I find makes critical focusing a bit easier than with the plain screen.
I scanned the negs on my Epson 4990 flatbed scanner and adjusted them in Photoshop. The scans are ‘OK’ but I need to experiment with digitising them with a DSLR and macro lens.
You can see more of my work on Flickr
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