As a professional archivist, understanding the context and provenance of archival material is hugely important. When I look at my camera collecting, I have applied a similar criteria to my hobby. I often like to collect cameras which are representative of a significant development in the history of photography or history in general and I am also drawn to cameras that have an interesting provenance or story. Last year, all of these criteria were fulfilled when I acquired a Kodak Retina 118.
The Kodak Retina 118
My interest in acquiring an early Kodak Retina originated from the fact that it was significant in the history of photography as being the first camera to use Kodak’s new daylight loading 35mm cassettes designed by Dr. August Nagel. Dr. Nagel also designed the Kodak Retina itself, a folding clamshell style camera first introduced in 1934 with the Nr.117 model and manufactured in Stuttgart. Nagel was a prolific camera designer who had worked for Zeiss Ikon. He left Zeiss in 1928 to form his own company Dr. Nagel Werke. In 1931 Kodak acquired the company forming their German subsidiary Kodak AG.
While the Retina 117 is sought after as it is the first Retina model, my own search was for the second model, the Nr. 118 which has an interesting association. The Kodak Retina 118 was the camera that was used by Sir Edmund Hillary to take his famous photo of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay at the summit of Mount Everest on 29 May 1953. So here is a camera model associated with an extremely significant moment in history as the two men became the first to summit Everest.
The Retina 118 was manufactured from 1935-1936 and was aesthetically the same as the 117 in regard to its black lacquered top housing and body edges and nickel plated control surfaces. The main difference on the 118 is that the film advance release lever was moved to the back of the top housing. On the 117 it had been located on the top housing next to the film advance knob.
The viewfinder of the Kodak Retina 118 protrudes from the top of the camera and serves only to help you frame the image as the camera is not a rangefinder. It is up to the user to determine the distance between camera and subject and choose the appropriate distance on the focusing scale from 1 meter to infinity. The shutter speed is set by rotating a dial on the front of the lens while the shutter is manually cocked using a small lever to the left of the lens and then released by either a plunger button to the left or a small lever to the right. The Kodak Retina 118 comes with either a Compur or Compur rapid shutter with a top speed of 1/300th or 1/500th depending on the shutter type. There is the option of a timer and bulb mode. Aperture ranges from f/3.5 to f/16 and is set by moving a small sliding knob on the bottom of the lens body. The lens is a Schneider Xenar 50mm.
I began my search to add a Kodak Retina 118 to my collection and I knew that I wanted a camera which was in good enough condition to shoot with. I came across a listing for a Retina 118 which, while not cosmetically perfect, had been serviced. The seller had proof of the service and could vouch for the fact that it was fully functioning. The camera arrived and I was instantly enamoured with its beautiful aesthetic and pocketable size.
Using a Kodak Retina 118
To use the Retina 118 you have to press a silver button on the bottom of the camera which allows you to open door and extend the bellows into position. There is a little foot on the door which can be used to pull the door down and to let the camera stand up. The first thing that strikes you when you start shooting with the Kodak Retina 118, is that the controls are tiny. I have small hands and I still found it fiddly to set the shutter speed and aperture. The second thing, as mentioned previously, is that you have to use the distance scale to focus. This is something that I have been working on learning as it does not come naturally to me. Aside from that, the camera is a joy to shoot with, compact to carry and discreet to use while out on the street.
Loading film into the Kodak Retina 118 is easy. Inside the film advance winder there is a switch, make sure this is set to A, it can also be set to R but this is for rewinding when you have shot the full roll. Open up the camera back and load in your film making sure it is secured in the take up spool. There is a little advance switch just under the viewfinder, you must use this switch each time you want to advance the film. Advance the film a little and then set your exposure counter to number one and you are ready to go. To unload your film when you have finished a roll, set the switch inside the film advance winder to R and turn the rewind knob clockwise until the roll is back in the canister. There is nothing overly complicated about using the Retina 118 once you remember to use the film advance switch under the viewfinder each time you wind on your film.
Despite my apprehension at using a camera with scale focusing, I was pleased with the results of my first roll. There were one or two blurry shots due to my unsteady hand but nothing was wildly out of focus, a big win for me. I shot the first roll on two different occasions and felt more confident in using the camera on my second attempt having become more competent at using the small controls and focusing. This also allowed me to enjoy the process more and focus on composing my shots. It is a camera I would be happy to use regularly as it doesn’t take up too much space in my camera bag and the initial results have been better than expected. I think that with more practice I could achieve better results with this little camera. I would also like to see the results of using colour film. The Kodak Retina 118 could be a contender as a travelling companion.
An Interesting Provenance
As much as I enjoyed shooting with the Kodak Retina 118, the real joy of this particular camera comes from its interesting military provenance. When I purchased my Retina 118 I noticed something interesting about the camera case. There was a name embossed on a patch stuck to the inside of the lid, Wing Commander P.R. Casement. Much like Alice in Wonderland, I subsequently fell down a rabbit hole and discovered the fascinating story of my camera’s one time owner.
Peter Reginald Casement
Peter Reginald Casement was born on the 22nd of May 1921 at Ballycastle, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Searches on The Peerage indicate that he was born into a family with a long history of military service and achievement. His father, Edgar Reginald Casement, served in the First World War and gained the rank of Captain in the Royal Engineers. He worked as the deputy Chief Engineer for the Indian State Railway and a ship passenger list from the S.S. City of Nagpur in December 1923, shows a two year old Peter arriving back to Liverpool with his father, mother and sister.
Out of curiosity, I also looked into the family’s connection to another famous Casement. Sir Roger Casement was a diplomat and Irish nationalist who was hanged on the 3rd of August 1916 in Pentonville prison on the charge of treason. He was arrested in Ireland upon his return from Germany where he had been attempting to secure German support for the cause of Irish Independence. Peter Reginald Casement and Sir Roger Casement were indeed related, Sir Roger’s grandfather being a half brother of Peter’s great grandfather.
Peter was educated at Marlborough College and began his flying career in 1939 when he learned to fly Tiger Moths in Coventry. He flew solo for the first time after just 11 hours and 30 minutes of training. In 1941 he joined No. 61 Squadron which had originally been formed as a fighter squadron of the British Royal Flying Corps during the First World War. It was re-formed in March 1937 as a bomber squadron of the Royal Air Force and Peter would become one of the very few pilots to have seen service throughout the Second World War.
In the summer of 1942, No. 61 Squadron was twice loaned to the Royal Air Force Coastal Command for anti-submarine operations in the Bay of Biscay. On July 17th 1942 during the Battle of the Atlantic, a crew captained by Flight Lieutenant Peter Reginald Casement flying Lancaster I R5724, became the first Bomber Command crew to bring back photographic evidence that they had destroyed a U-boat at sea. In his book Deep Sea Hunters, Martin Bowman describes in detail the sinking of U-751 and Peter’s role in it. Having survived initial attacks, U-571 resurfaced and Lancaster R5724 piloted by Casement was orbiting overhead. Bowman writes:
“U-751 was drifting helplessly on the fringe of an oil patch larger than a football field. Just before two o’clock in the afternoon, as Casement ran in to attack, U-751 returned fire with all her guns. At two o’clock, according to his log, he bombed the submarine again. The Lancaster dropped ten close Mark VIII depth charges and then a string of ASW bombs. The U-boat was now so low in the water that at times it disappeared in the wash of the bombs. At a minute past two the submarine’s crew jumped to the deck gun and fired at the Lancaster. A minute later the aircraft replied. Two minutes later Casement bombed again. After another six minutes U-751 began to slide stern first beneath the sea and the crew threw themselves overboard ‘some of them shaking fists in defiance’ reported the Lancaster crew. The bow of the U-boat rose vertically and she sank.”
Peter had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in October 1941 and his role in the sinking of the U-boat led to his being awarded the Bar in August 1942 and a Distinguished Service Order in December 1942. The London Gazette from Friday 28th August 1942 which issues notices of medals awarded states:
Air Ministry 1st September 1942.
Acting Flight Lieutenant Peter Reginald Casement, D.F.C. (44185) No. 61 Squadron.
Flight Lieutenant Casement is an outstanding captain and pilot. He has completed numerous operational missions, during which he has attacked highly important industrial targets in Germany; he has also completed several patrols over the Atlantic and has assisted in the destruction of a U-boat. Throughout his operational career, this officer has displayed great efficiency and devotion to duty which have proved a source of encouragement to his fellow captains.
After World War Two, Peter was posted to Amman in the Middle East and then returned to the United Kingdom in 1948. In 1951 he was awarded an Air Force Cross (AFC), a military decoration awarded for “an act or acts of exemplary gallantry while flying, though not in active operations against the enemy“. In the same year he was appointed to the rank of Wing Commander. In 1960 he was awarded the rank of Group Captain and his later career featured stints at RAF Binbrook and at home in Northern Ireland where he was attached to HMS Eagle. He also worked with Nato submarines, at RAF Mountabatten in Plymouth and RAF Topcliffe in Yorkshire. He retired in 1968 having flown 3,800 hours in twenty seven different aircraft during an extraordinary career. Following his retirement he moved to South Devon with his wife where he remained until his death on the 12th December 2016.
In the course of my research on Peter, I discovered that his personal archive including his medals, uniforms, photographs, log books and documents were sold at auction in 2019 by Chilcotts Auctioneers. Articles regarding the auction state that his log books documented the RAF’s nightly missions while his notebooks provided insight into the airmen’s night-time battles with the cold, poor visibility, navigation problems, sickness and enemy searchlights. All of the photographs in the archive were taken from the planes that Peter flew and provide a pilots view of other planes and locations that he flew over. Chilcotts website states that the collection sold for £21,000 in June 2019. I was unable to find out where the collection has ultimately ended up, but as an archivist, I hope that it will be preserved with the utmost of care and consideration given its historical significance.
More than just a camera
Uncovering the story of Peter Reginald Casement has been an absolute joy and has added another layer of interest to my Kodak Retina 118. I will likely never know if this camera ever flew in a plane with Peter, but it is no longer simply a camera, an object for making images. It is linked inextricably to history through its association with a gentleman who deserves to be better known than he is. It is fitting, I think, that a camera which was once owned by the pilot who brought back the first photographic evidence of a U-boat sinking, should end up in the hands of an archivist and camera collector. In telling Peter’s story, I hope that it is apparent that sometimes a camera is so much more than just a camera.
Thanks for reading.
You can find me on Instagram and at my website.
Imperial War Museum
Traces of War
No. 61 Squadron
WW2 Hero’s medals to go under the hammer
Coe, Brian, Kodak Cameras: The First Hundred Years, 1988.
Bowman, Martin W., Deep Sea Hunters: RAF Coastal Command and the War against the U-boats and the German Navy 1929-1945, 2014.
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34 thoughts on “Kodak Retina 118 – More Than a Camera – By Lisa Murphy”
Lovely to be informed about the camera and the man.
Wow! What a fascinating life, and you own a piece of it.
I’ve tried to do the same with cameras I collect. My last big addition was a Leica M3 and some lenses. The owner was a school teacher and naturalist. I have the original sales receipt, all her repair service records and a biography of her life I got from the executor of her estate. It makes the camera so much more valuable to me, knowing I’m caring for something she likely cherished and recorded her life with.
Congrats on an excellent article.
Thank you for the kind comment Tom! And great to hear that you have also found a camera with an interesting past. It definitely adds that extra something special knowing a little of its previous life!
Wow- this is great. Film cameras were extraordinary tools of the military and of Empire and I often wonder what some old cameras I’ve used could tell me. The Roger Casement connection is especially interesting- he was a very divisive figure, portrayed as a hero in “King Leopold’s Ghost” (a book about the Belgian Congo that I recommend reading if you haven’t done so). Thanks for your writing!
Thanks Michael so glad you enjoyed the article. Roger Casement definitely led a very interesting life! Thank you for the book recommendation.
I look forward to the daily 35mmc posts, but in this case, your post Lisa, was extraordinary!
Like many of us, I have GAS, (Gear Acquisition Syndrome), and have assembled an eclectic collection of cameras and lens. I’m also a student of history. But never have I been able to find anything such as you’ve described in your article today. The provenance of your camera and the history of it’s owner was to me, almost more interesting than reading about the camera itself!
Thank you for sharing!
Hi Dan thank you so much for your comment. I’m delighted you enjoyed the article. I really enjoyed discovering more about Peter and his life. As you say, his story is more interesting than the camera itself and it’s so nice to know a little of the cameras past life.
This is a GREAT read!!
I’d bet the printing of some of your pictures could be improved-but that is just a quibble. Thanks
Thanks Kurt, I’m glad you enjoyed it!
What excellent sleuthing! So interesting how a simple object can so illumine.
Thanks Gil, glad you enjoyed it!
An amazing story. We never know just looking at an old camera, what sights it has recorded. And by whom.
Thanks for your searching revealing an interesting man.
Thank Carlton, I’m glad you found it interesting!
Wow, such an amazing story. This is what film photography is all about, the cameras themselves are as much of the story as the pictures.
Thank you Aldo, I so agree. It’s so nice to know a little of the life a camera lived before we acquired it!
A most interesting article and a fascinating life story. But one always expects that from Lisa.
The list of references/resources is worth its weight in, well, gold.
I note the 118 had the (then very advanced for its time) Compur-Rapid shutter and speeds to 1/500. Most unusual for a camera of its time – most on offer in the 1930s usually went up to 1/300 or even 1/200.
In 1972 or 1973 I bought two later Retinas, the number escapes me after all those years, from a pawn shop in Sydney. I now recall the year was 1972 as I took this gear with me to Bali, along with my Rolleiflex, and photographed all and sundry things that came my way, on Kodak Tri-X and Agfachrome. I sold many of those images, as one could do then, and they were published in magazines of that era, including the Economist, as one-column images at the end of articles. The money paid for my entire trip – I was away for three months and visited seven or eight Asian countries, including Japan, which drained half my travel budget in two weeks.
The Schneider Xenar lenses on those Retinas gave superb tonal rendition and were ultra-sharp. they were in every way a most advanced camera for their era. I believe they paved the way for a new revolution in 35mm photography which suddenly became financially affordable to a new generation of amateurs who until then had been using roll film folding cameras. Also not a few professionals, I recall old academics in the 1950s who travelled widely in the ’30s and all took Retinas with them. If one couldn’t afford a Leica or a Contax (and most couldn’t), then the Retina was the way to go. There may have been a few 35mm cameras to match them in their price range, but in quality terms I believe they were the best available, after the two German ‘Top Dogs’…
I hope Lisa will regale us with many more articles of this excellence. Many kudos to the author and to 35mmc for having posted it!!
From Dann in Melbourne
Hi Dann, thank you so much for your comment. I’m really delighted that you enjoyed the article. It was such a joy to write it and gives me even more joy to share it! The Retina cameras really are wonderful. I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed using it. You can really feel the quality when you hold it and I was delighted with the images (despite not being a wonderful photographer!). I could definitely see myself using it again and not just leaving it on the shelf. Thanks again for the lovely comment!
A great story about a great man. (He would have denied it, of course!) Thank you!
Thank you Rich, glad you enjoyed it!
Fantastic story Lisa, well told.
That’s a great story!
Wonderful article. I have a Type 118 myself but with nothing of the provenance your’s has. It seems that back in the day when cameras were a more “personal” article people put their names in the case or on the camera itself. In the digital age it seems, not so much so.
That’s a great story, thanks for sharing (and researching) The other day there was an early Canon post war rangefinder on sale in the online Goodwill auction site. It was one of less than one hundred made from spare parts in the first year after WWII. I would have loved to know the story behind the camera and the (probably) serviceman who had brought it back from post war Japan. Unfortunately it will probably sit unseen on some collector’s shelf and we’ll never know. Appreciate you taking the time to gather “the rest of the story”.
Thanks Mike, glad you enjoyed it. I think if it’s possible, then it’s worth taking the time to uncover the provenance of our cameras. Of course it isn’t always possible as we often don’t know where they came from and some stories will remain uncovered. But if this post inspires even a few people to delve a little further into the story of their cameras, then I think that’s awesome!
Interesting. And a reminder that great photos don’t necessarily require high tech cameras. I wonder what film stock Sir Edmund used?
Thanks David glad you enjoyed! Interesting question about the film stock, I must do some further reading and see if the answer is out there!
The film used by Sir Edmund Hillary on the Summit of Mt. Everest was Kodachrome. That data can be found in “THE PICTURE OF EVEREST” by Alfred Gregory published in 1954.
I very much enjoyed this piece! I find it fascinating that you have managed to collect all the information not only about the camera and what made it significant, but also about its owner! As of today, I have not endeavored to find out about the provenance of the cameras I collect. Usually, there was no starting point as many came from professional vendors who wouldn’t ask these details from the sellers. Many came from prviate hands and I didn’t think of asking what the camera’s history was. But now I have acquired one Contax II which came with a ready case. That has a paper sticker in it saying “Oberregierungsrat Dr. Odomar Gugenberger” and gives an address in Vienna. Now, I will have a little go myself and see…
It was also fascinating to learn about Dr. Nagel and the history of the Kodak cameras. I love the way you have put all this together! And thanks for sharing your pictures as well! I find that using these machines is living history. Keep up the good work!
Thank you Stefan for taking the time to comment. Really happy that you enjoyed the article. I feel it was a very lucky find to acquire a camera whose previous owner had such an interesting history. I don’t know that I will ever be so lucky again but I’m glad I got to share the story with others!
Interesting article! Thank you.
I recently acquired a pair of Retinas, one from the mid-1930s (Model Nr. 126) and another from the mid-1940s (Model Nr. 010).
Both are fun to use, and take/make great photos, especially the Nr. 010. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the Retinas
were in a different league than other Kodak cameras, and still have enthusiastic followers who appreciate their unique qualities, history, and advanced capabilities.
Hi Lisa, I enjoyed your story! But while Peter clearly owned that camera, I do not believe it was used for those combat areal shots. The image format isn’t correct, and the military issued special equipment for that.
A most beautiful and captivating story.
Great article. Really interesting to read about the provenance of the lovely Retina. As someone above said, it really makes you think about the hands that our beautiful vintage cameras have passed through, and the pictures they have taken. Please keep writing, Lisa!