Copyright © 2005, 2012 David F. Silver



by David Silver

A rare original 1892 Folding Rochester camera in 5 x 7 inch format.

An important innovation in the evolution of photographic technology was the "self-casing" folding bellows camera popularized in the United States in the early 1890's. These American plate cameras were the first to integrate the lightweight collapsible flexibility of traditional view cameras into a supportive exterior shell that also served as a protective case and provided easier portability. Pearsall's Compact Camera of 1883 was an aborted early attempt at such a design, but it never made it past the prototype stage despite some decidedly premature advertising announcing its arrival. Two years later in 1885, the Lucidograph from the Blair Camera Company succeeded commercially and functionally with its odd "side-saddle" interpretation of an integral external case, and it remained in production for a surprising number of years, but it was always an awkward and inelegant solution that evolved no further. Another ambitious entry was the Gibbs Camera of 1888, sporting a more "European" flavor with beautiful polished "tropical" wood construction and a tripod mount built into the flip-under rear door, but once again there was a failure to generate market interest. The concept finally took root, and is most often credited today, with the Folding Kodak "satchel" camera of 1890 (initially using roll film only, then in 1892 adapted for plates as well). Further key refinements were offered in the impressive Henry Clay camera from the American Optical Company starting in 1891. Each of these models and manufacturers in turn contributed their own stylistic and structural aspects to the general self-casing concept, but it was yet another camera that followed, which is now particularly rare and nearly forgotten, that would establish the true blueprint for all the rest to come.

Three important earlier interpretations of the self-casing folding bellows camera concept, upon which the "Folding" Rochester camera improved; the Blair Lucidograph of 1885 (left), the No. 4 Folding Kodak "satchel" camera of 1890 (middle), and the American Optical Company's Henry Clay of 1891 (right).

The Rochester Camera Manufacturing Company was founded in 1891 by H.B. Carlton (the brother of W.F. Carlton, who founded the similarly named Rochester Optical Company in 1883), and immediately went into the production of standard view cameras and related accessories for professionals and advanced amateurs. Noting the success of the earlier Lucidograph series, and then the sudden impact of the Folding Kodak and the Henry Clay, the new Rochester firm sought to improve upon and emulate the self-casing design with a model of their own that would provide even lighter weight and more simplified function without sacrificing high quality professional potential. The result was the Rochester (or "Folding" Rochester) of 1892. Like its predecessors, it was internally a simple view camera, a folding bellows stretched across a focusing track between a front lens standard and a rear ground glass screen, built into an integral boxy case that provided support when shooting and immediate protection when stored. However, it incorporated the varied aspects of the others into a more logical and cohesive whole for the first time.

A later advertisement for the Folding Rochester camera, dating from 1894, listing both the 4 x 5 and 5 x 7 inch formats, and illustrating the rare "plain face" version.

The Folding Rochester was available in 4 x 5 or 5 x 7 inch format. It featured an external leather covered wood case with a large downward hinging door encompassing the entire front panel, a much smaller hinged door in the back, and an access door across the upper rear area. A button hidden under the leather at the top edge of the case released the front door, which then dropped and locked into horizontal position with a pair of simple brass braces, and provided a sturdy bed of beautiful polished mahogany with dual brass focusing tracks. Reaching into the camera body, the photographer grasped the front standard, pulled it forward along the calibrated tracks, and locked it at whatever chosen focus distance with a generous brass lever. The front standard assembly displayed more fine mahogany construction and brass highlights, wore a top-mounted waist level reflex viewfinder, and trailed a deep maroon red bellows. Another hidden button under the leather at the rear edge of the case released the top door and this exposed the ground glass assembly for loading the plate holders. It also provided access to an internal pivoting lock that released the back door so the photographer could view the ground glass when more precise focus was necessary, and there was enough room in the rear area to store two double plate holders when the camera was not being used.

The back of the Folding Rochester, showing the top door for loading or storing the plate holders, and rear door for the ground glass screen when fine focusing was required.

While the Lucidograph was awkward to assemble, the Folding Kodak was unnecessarily bulky with its non-camera "satchel" appearance, and the Henry Clay was overly complex with superfluous track sections, the Folding Rochester offered extremely easy opening and set-up, a lighter no-frills external casing, and a much simplified bed and track. It was also advertised with a selection of shutters that were similar to the others (made by Prosch or Bausch & Lomb), including one that was designed specifically for the Folding Rochester and complemented its unique personality. This was "The Rochester" shutter, a spring activated mechanism with an external flying wing sector that fired with a most satisfying clang. Outwardly similar to the Folding Kodak's original sector shutter, "The Rochester" was more compact, much easier to use, provided a range of five speeds with a simple tension adjustment, and even had a provision for time exposures. It was mounted as the barrel section between the elements of a superb Gundlach Optical Company Symmetrical lens, the lens of choice on all the Folding Rochester cameras, and was fitted with a revolving aperture wheel providing four stops.

"The Rochester" shutter, which was unique to the Folding Rochester series.

Although more commonly illustrated in their period advertising (no doubt because it required a much simpler line drawing!), a more scarce "plain face" variation of the Folding Rochester, in both 4 x 5 and 5 x 7 inch formats, featured a larger wood front standard concealing an integral enclosed spring driven rotary shutter. A thin brass plunger on the side set the shutter with a single push, and a simple pivoting trigger released it. The tensioning spring protruded from the other side, where a slotted channel provided three different speeds. To date, the author has only seen three complete intact examples of these enclosed shutter variations, but they are extremely handsome cameras. Some of the earliest period advertising also described a special split-body model, in the 5 x 7 inch format, similar to the Folding Hawk-Eye cameras from Blair, that provided a limited degree of rear swings and tilts. This version was never illustrated, it was apparently only available directly from the factory by custom order for a significantly higher price, and no complete intact example of this variation has ever been seen [Note: not until the author finally acquired one in 2012, and it's now pictured at the end of this article!]. Furthermore, there were notes in the Rochester literature suggesting an intent to provide a roll film holder option for the 5 x 7 cameras by means of a removable focal plane frame section, but very few of the known Folding Rochester cameras exhibit this hidden internal feature, and the Rochester roll film adapter has never been seen.

A very rare, and very beautiful, "plain face" version of the Folding Rochester, with the enclosed shutter in the fancy finished wood front standard.

The year 1892 was noteworthy for the number of other self-casing designs that entered the market, including the Folding Premier from the Rochester Optical Company and the previously mentioned Folding Hawk-Eye from Blair, but it was the Folding Rochester that initially brought together the most logical aspects of the concept for the many models that would follow. While it may not have been the very first such camera, it was certainly the formulation upon which American photographic firms would base their own further designs. The Rochester Camera Manufacturing Company produced the Folding Rochester for only about two years, although they continued to sell the remaining stock well after that, and meanwhile introduced an improved series of highly successful self-casing plate cameras, called the Poco, in 1893. The rival Rochester Optical Company introduced a similar competitive line, the Premo, around the same time. These were soon followed by a massive wave of self-casing American folding plate cameras that swept through the photographic market for years to come, culminating in the classic press style cameras, such as the Graflex Speed Graphic, that dominated the world of professional photography decades later.

Two typical common examples of the many immediate descendants of the Folding Rochester; their own Poco A of 1895 (left), and the Rochester Optical Company's Pony Premo No. 6 of 1898 (right), both in typically common 4 x 5 inch format.

Today the Folding Rochester is perhaps the most rare and coveted, and certainly the least known, of the early self-casing American folding plate cameras. It was an expensive item, probably very few were produced in its limited two years of manufacture, and since the original publication of this article in 2005 the author has personally recorded or accounted for only about fifteen complete and intact examples, the great majority in 5 x 7 inch format, and all except three [Note: now four with the split-body model the author acquired recently.] with traditional external shutters on the front standard. Most of these examples exhibit dry and peeling exterior leather (oddly enough, a problem also seen with the Henry Clay, its primary competitor at the time), but the camera's overall value due to its rarity and historical significance outweighs the impact of this single cosmetic flaw. As the least known yet most important progenitor of the American self-casing concept, the Folding Rochester certainly deserves its legendary status as an enigmatic classic and a vital link in the evolution of 19th century photographic technology.

The only known complete intact example of the exceedingly rare "split-body" version of the Folding Rochester camera, acquired by the author in 2012, with thanks to fellow collector Frank Marshman!

The proud ROCHESTER brand, stamped inside the camera's top door.

Copyright © 2005, 2012 David Silver. All rights reserved.

This article was originally published, edited for length and content, in the July 2005 (issue #157) Camera Shopper magazine. It's presented here, in its full intended form, with additional updated text, notes, and images added in 2012. If you're interested in reprinting this work, or wish to solicit new works, please feel free to contact the author, David Silver, at, thank you!


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