Sabre 620, with flipped faceplate to indicate that the lens has been flipped.
The Whole Roll

The Whole Roll: Around (the Other) Durham with a Modified Sabre 620 and a Roll of HP5 Plus – By Clifton Dowell

September 25, 2022

While the venerable City of Durham nestled in the United Kingdom boasts one of the world’s great cathedrals, its humble North Carolina namesake stands out in terms of tobacco warehouses and cinematic baseball history. But before we talk about America’s Pastime and the Golden Leaf, let’s talk about an unremarkable plastic camera that not many people have heard of.

The Camera

The Sabre 620 box camera was manufactured between 1956 and 1972 by Shaw-Harrison Company of New York. Intended, I suppose, to look cute, it came in a variety of colors and sported a little plastic handle.

As the name implies, the Sabre 620 takes 620 film and produces 12 2 1/4 by 2 1/4 inch exposures per roll. There is a tiny viewfinder on the top that leaves you holding it up to your eye while attempting to pull down the clunky shutter button without joggling the camera. And when the shutter does trip, there is no appreciable sound, leaving you to wonder if you’ve pushed it down far enough.

So far, I hate it. Compare all of the above to the relative joy of using the bright waist-level finder on a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye and hearing the satisfying ‘clack’ of its shutter.

But the Sabre has a single redeeming quality (for those who don’t count cuteness). Its simple meniscus lens can be flipped, leaving the camera capable of capturing flipped-lens images that some — I’m one — find attractive.

Lens Modification

Any simple lens can be flipped if you can access it, and after that it’s just a question of whether the results are to your tastes. Not everyone appreciates the intentional distortion of images. But for enthusiasts, flipping lenses is a worthy pursuit that keeps cheap cameras in action and challenges the photographer.

Envisioning how a lens will distort and trying to match it to the proper subject matter is something you can think about and experiment with. And, of course, it never hurts to just get lucky. If you’re after perfection, flipped lenses are not for you. If you’re after creative photographic play, this is one more way to enjoy yourself.

It’s by viewing the work of others that you hear about obscure cameras such as the Sabre and decide that the look of its negatives has merit. After that it’s simply a matter of visiting an auction site. There was a Sabre on eBay the first time I searched. Harder to find here in the U.S. are cameras made elsewhere but never deemed worthy of import — the Kodak Brownie Cresta of England, for instance.

The Approach

To use the Sabre, you have to respool 120 film on 620 spindles. That’s easy enough. Cheap lenses tend to lack contrast and produce negatives without a lot of structure, so I mostly use 400 speed film and shoot almost exclusively through a red filter.

The combination of fast film, slow shutter, box-camera aperture and heavy filtration usually results in usable negatives on bright, sunny days. That’s an important consideration here in central North Carolina. The photographer who can’t devise ways to shoot creatively in full sun will spend a lot of time indoors waiting for the moody fog to roll in.

And so it was on a recent Sunday afternoon that I reached for the Sabre 620 with the goal of exposing a roll of film around the downtown entertainment district known as the American Tobacco Campus. I knew historical buildings would be a good subject for the rough and gritty negatives I like.

The Subject

The American Tobacco Campus takes in the warehouse district that was once a focal point in the international tobacco trade. In the 20th century, the Lucky Strike and Pall Mall brands were manufactured here, but Durham’s industrial tobacco history goes back further. The city’s nickname —the Bull City — comes from the popular 19th century “Bull Durham” tobacco brand.

Which brings us around to baseball.

Durham boasts the most iconic minor league baseball team in the country — the Durham Bulls — thanks to the 1988 film “Bull Durham.” Filmed in and around Durham in 1987, the movie was well received and is still popular with fans of baseball, as well as with fans of Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins.

The Bulls have their stadium in the American Tobacco Campus, but it’s not the one they used when the film was made. You have to travel a mile or so north to see that stadium, which today is used by a local college team. I intended to visit both fields.

In the Field

Into my bag went my loaded camera, along with a red filter and a yellow filter – both 55mm in diameter. I simply hold the filters in front of the lens when I shoot. (Anyone who predicts that they will see my finger in at least one shot won’t be disappointed.)

I’ve already described the unpleasantness of shooting with the Sabre, so imagine that process extended over time and punctuated by stints squinting at the small red window on the back to advance the film and you’ll more or less have the mechanics down. (Anyone who predicts that I’ll mess up at least one shot by not being careful with my winding also won’t be disappointed.)

All that remains is the intoxicating blend of aesthetics and blind luck that adds up to flipped lens shooting. Plastic box cameras embody the best of “push and pray” photography, in which the camera has no settings to speak of, so you simply have to hope for the best once you’ve decided on a subject.

Like all photography, however, the camera is just one part of the process. Photographers will naturally find themselves considering light and composition, perhaps even more than they normally might with no buttons and dials to worry over.

Observations

The first thing that was obvious as I hung the film to dry is that the film transport scratches the film quite a bit. Happily, I don’t really mind since I wouldn’t be using a $5 plastic camera with a flipped lens if I wasn’t after a gritty look. Otherwise, the exposures looked fine, which was a relief. My standard developer, Ilford Ilfosol S, had turned dark brown since the last time I used it, so I reached instead for the only other developer I had on hand: R09 Spezial.

The next thing noted was that the exposures are not actually square. The height of the images is 6 centimeters, while the width loses a few millimeters on each side due to masking by the film transport guides. Again, I don’t mind. I’ll crop them square anyway because the edges left by the camera are very unkempt – and not in the cool, good-looking way.

Example of the rough negative edges delivered by the Sabre 620

The film holders I use for scanning don’t allow me to scan as wide as this lightboard image, so I end up cropping the negatives, which aren’t square anyway.

After that it’s a matter of scanning and seeing what I got. As suggested earlier, there are two obvious errors that I made. Still, there are a few negatives I like, and I do feel that the camera/film combination was well matched to the subject matter.

The Sabre 620 will never replace my beloved Hawkeyes for flipped lens work, but variety keeps things fresh and it’s hard to have too many cameras. On to…

The Images

America Tobacco Campus: Shot No. 1

Shot No. 1. One of the two tall-standing structures that make it into many American Tobacco Campus photographs.

America Tobacco Campus: Shot No. 2

Shot No. 2. The geometry of the roofline on these brick tobacco warehouses never fails to intrigue me.

America Tobacco Campus: Shot No. 3

Shot No. 3. Notice the film winding error on this one. The light band at the bottom is caused by double exposure with the top sky portion of image No. 2. You can detect the problem in image No. 2 as well when you look for it.

Shot No. 4 Sabre 620 with Ilford HP5

Shot No. 4. I used two exposures on this scene because I wanted to use both the red and yellow filters to make sure I had a usable exposure. As is often the case, film latitude would have more than saved me anyway. I would regret not having another exposure later in the roll.

Shot No. 5 Sabre 620 with Ilford HP5

Shot No. 5. There’s a lot to consider here. One normally expects a flipped lens to increase in distortion from the center to the edges. But in this image you can also see that the chimney (I’m not certain that these are chimneys) in the dead center is less in focus than the ones to either side of it. It causes you to ponder the difference between focus and distortion.

6_Sabre 620 with Ilford HP5

Shot No. 6. The first shot taking in the Lucky Strike Tower, which is the most photographed subject at the America Tobacco Campus.

7_Sabre 620 with Ilford HP5

Shot No. 7. Many nightlife plans in Durham begin with people agreeing to “meet under the water tower.”

8_Sabre 620 with Ilford HP5

Shot No. 8. For documentary reasons, I wanted to capture the pro-Ukraine signs and flags that seem to be everywhere these days.

9_Sabre 620 with Ilford HP5-

Shot No. 9. If there is an iconic American Tobacco Campus view, this one looking north is it. One problem to note is that the Lucky Strike logo features an interior field of red, which my red filter lightens at the cost of contrast. The issue is less problematic on the smokestack version of the logo, for reasons I don’t understand.

10_Sabre 620 with Ilford HP5

Shot No. 10. The Durham Bulls Athletic Park from center field. I like the geometry and the patterned mowing evidenced by the grass, as well as the contrast of the white tarp protecting the pitchers mound. I don’t like losing the massive lights on either side entirely to distortion.

11_Sabre 620 with Ilford HP5

Shot No. 11. A quandary. When I noticed the break in the clouds mirroring the shape of the infield grass, I couldn’t resist. But I had hoped to take two exposures at the old ballpark I planned to visit next. Perhaps that is what I was worrying about instead of noticing my finger inching into the frame. At least you can see one of light poles in this shot.

12_Sabre 620 with Ilford HP5

Shot No. 12. The ticket booth old Durham Bulls park where “Bull Durham” was filmed in 1987. On game days back then, the plywood covers would come off and three ladies would sit at those windows selling tickets and smoking cigarettes, with nothing but an electric fan to keep them cool.

All this seems like a lot of attention to pay to one bad camera (I take that back; there are no bad cameras), but I suppose photography is all about taking the time to focus attention on subjects that might otherwise go overlooked. Please let me know in the comments if you know of any good ‘bad’ cameras I ought to try. Thanks very much for reading.

Clifton Dowell lives in Durham, North Carolina, USA. More of his work can be found at cliftondowell.com, on Instagram at @clifton_dowell, and at Clifton Dowell on Flickr.

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13 Comments

  • Reply
    Keith Devereux
    September 25, 2022 at 12:11 pm

    À great article, and some fabulous images. Flipping a lens is something that I have fancied trying for a while, and this is certainly an inspiration to do so. Thanks.

    • Reply
      Clifton Dowell
      September 25, 2022 at 2:24 pm

      You should! There are so many repeating variables in photography it’s fun to have a brand new one while simultaneously simplifying the rest.

  • Reply
    Eric
    September 25, 2022 at 12:44 pm

    Great write up and images. Also great to see another photographer/contributor in central NC. I often capture images around the American Tobacco Campus and had a post Friday with photos taken at Duke Gardens. Again, great work.

    • Reply
      Clifton Dowell
      September 25, 2022 at 2:28 pm

      Thanks, Eric! I sometimes have to work to get excited about photographing the same old thing, but once you get going there really are a million approaches to take.

  • Reply
    Kevin L
    September 25, 2022 at 1:05 pm

    These are really good. I know the subject well because I used to have an office overlooking the old ballpark and have done many photowalks around the ever evolving American Tobacco district. Reading the intro I wasn’t expecting much that would interest me. But I was wrong. Think what you would have to go through to produce these images on a digital camera! And maybe we should explain that going back 100 plus years, Durham literally monopolized worldwide cigarette production and this industry made Durham into a thriving city. The industry built warehouses and factories in central Durham that were well engineered and well built and are actually quite beautiful. They now have been repurposed and continue into their second century as offices, condos and retail. The history of tobacco’s huge historic influence on the city is celebrated but not the poisonous golden leaf itself.

    • Reply
      Clifton Dowell
      September 25, 2022 at 2:34 pm

      Thank you, Kevin. I appreciate your comments. It has taken me a long time to understand how busy the streets of Durham used to be. Part of the oddness of Downtown, especially 20 years ago, is how empty it can be. But you can tell by all the buildings with storefronts that there must have once been a ton of foot traffic.

    • Reply
      Clifton Dowell
      September 25, 2022 at 2:34 pm

      Thank you, Kevin. I appreciate your comments. It has taken me a long time to understand how busy the streets of Durham used to be. Part of the oddness of Downtown, especially 20 years ago, is how empty it can be. But you can tell by all the buildings with storefronts that there must have once been a ton of foot traffic.

  • Reply
    Stewart Waller
    September 25, 2022 at 1:52 pm

    Lovely seeing my stomping grounds from a new perspective. I’ll likely do something similar with an Agfa CLACK soon. I learned the “chimneys” on the roof lines are actually wall vents to cool the former tobacco warehouses. When I first moved to Durham in 1993 to raise a family, the smell of curing tobacco still permeated the air, and the downtown was a ghost town. Fifteen years later I divorced and moved into the then-new downtown West Village loft apartments, where I lived in and worked a photo studio for five years, in a renovated factory building among the converted Ligget and Meyers warehouses. I live and work in Raleigh now, but visit Durham almost every weekend. Great shots; I’m inspired!

    • Reply
      Clifton Dowell
      September 25, 2022 at 2:43 pm

      Thanks for commenting, Stewart, and for letting me know about the wall vents. We have similar but inverted trajectories, in that I’m just getting to know Durham. Despite living here for more than two decades, all that time I was commuting to a job in downtown Raleigh. Now, I have the same job but can work from home (post pandemic), so I’ve rented a neat little office above a shop in downtown Durham to serve as my base of operations. Wish I had a studio, but am not sure what I’d do with it…

  • Reply
    Stewart Waller
    September 25, 2022 at 10:10 pm

    My pleasure, Clifton, what a joy to find a fellow Durhamite on 35mmc! I saw on your linkedIn that you also graduated from UNC, which was how I ended up in NC. My dream now is to retire and open a vintage camera & repair shop in downtown Durham somewhere near Through This Lens gallery. How cool would that be? But learning repair is a slow process for me. Anyway, sometime we should have a coffee or pint in Durham. Cheers!

  • Reply
    David Hume
    September 25, 2022 at 10:51 pm

    Hey Clifton – irrespective of any lens flipping I think this is a nice set and holds together well as a series, which is not often the case in a “whole roll.” Partly aided by the centre sharpness/edge softness I guess, but the composition and feel of the series with the square format, central subjects and nostalgic feel really drew me in. Nice work! Cheers.

    • Reply
      Clifton Dowell
      September 25, 2022 at 11:08 pm

      Thank you very much, David. Much appreciated!

  • Reply
    Scott Gitlin
    September 30, 2022 at 4:53 pm

    Great write-up and mission accomplished.

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