One of the world’s greatest private collections of cameras, one that the Smithsonian Institution would drool over with covetousness, started with a car break-in. Jordan Patkin had always had a fascination with photography and when he went into the army air corps in World War II, his father gave him a top-of-the-line Zeiss Contax camera to record what he saw.
Patkin used the camera throughout his service as an air-sea rescue pilot in the Gulf of Mexico, where he was stationed as a flight and radar instructor. He once rescued the crew of a Mexican freighter torpedoed by a German submarine. When the war was over and he came home to Massachusetts, he, one day in 1950, left the camera on the seat of his convertible when it was parked in Cambridge. Someone sliced open the rag top and took the camera. Ultimately, the photos he had taken with it were also lost in a house fire.
Patkin couldn’t quite get over the loss and started looking at sales and pawn shops where he hoped the camera might turn up. That got him collecting
“I read a news story about a [camera] show and I didn’t say anything when I found my camera there, but I bought it. The dealer had bought it from another dealer at the show. The police followed up on it but couldn’t find anything.”
Today, his basement in Ivy is a virtual museum, with part of his collection of 800 cameras, including pristine examples of all cameras made since the origins of daguerreotypes through 1970, on display in handsome wood cases and glass shelving. The house is protected with security systems.
Patkin, now 87, for years owned a small private plane, a Beech Bonanza, that he flew everywhere until forced to retire his license at age 60. “I’d go back to flying if I could. There’s freedom to looking at everything from above.”
His father had been a mechanic and after leaving the army, Patkin got into the automobile dealership business, ultimately owning several in New England, which allowed him to afford his camera-collecting interest. He also had a keen interest in public service. He created an organization in Boston named the Bridge Over Troubled Waters that helped young people with alcohol and drug problems. “I gave 10 years of my life to it,” he said. He was also a three-term selectman for his town, Topsfield, and served on its school committee, too. He was a scoutmaster for an all-Black scout troop and he has been a member of the Lions Club (now in the Crozet club, as “tail-twister” or joke teller) for 58 years. On Halloween, he joined other Lions in front of the Crozet Great Valu to sell raffle ticket to raise money for charities the Lions support. “Lionism has been a very important factor in my life. Lions are helping a tremendous number of people in a very quiet way.”
He came to western Albemarle about 25 years ago after his daughter Loi settled in Greenwood. A second daughter now lives in Fredericksburg.
After recovering the stolen Zeiss, Paktin became interested in early wooden cameras and Kodaks, then German cameras and next cameras from the Civil War. He has detective cameras, too, small cameras that would be worn behind a vest with a small lens protruding so that subjects would not be aware they were being photographed. “Many people were very superstitious about having their picture taken,” he explained.
The first photo was a daguerreotype (named for Frenchman Louis-Jacque-Mandé Daguerre, who discovered and refined the process in 1837), a silver or copper plate that was exposed to iodine fumes, which made the plate respond to light. Next the plate was exposed to mercury fumes, which fixed the image to make it permanent.
Daguerreotypes took a one-minute exposure time and portrait subjects would sometimes be put in head clamps so they would remain perfectly still that long. A Philadelphia photographer inadvertently took a double-exposure (it was not understood at that time that such a thing was possible) and one image on the plate was of his wife, who had since died. The image set off a boom in “spirit photography,” based on the belief that the process could capture images of the dead, and five years went by before the explanation for double exposures was deduced. Meanwhile, Patkin said, “all sorts of stunts were used to create spirit images.” Spirit contact was a rage in the 1830s and newspapers such as the Banner of Light purported to publish letters sent to them from souls beyond the grave.
“The daguerreotype camera was my most exciting find,” Patkin said. “There are still some cameras I’m looking for, but not many. I am just a collector. Every camera here is an original and they are in close to mint condition. Every camera works. I’ve tested it.”
Patkin even made his own stereo camera that can produce 3-D images. He combined two Minoltas into one. “It took only two years of work at night,” he said. “The lenses weren’t perfectly matched. I contacted Minolta and they sent out a man who looked at what I had made and they sent back two pairs of perfectly matched lenses—at the same distance where your eye sees 3-D. I realized they can make some damn fine lenses. But they don’t sell them to the public. The sharpness is incredible.” He used the camera to take aerial shots of his home town. He shot out an open door of his plane as a slipstream vacuum held it open about 10 inches.
His biggest disappointment in collecting was his a failure to find a stereo daguerreotype camera. He has an image taken by one. “A few weeks after I moved to Charlottesville, a neighbor came over with two lenses. He said the camera was pretty well rotted and he had throw it out. The lenses were from a stereo daguerreotype camera. I was ready to dig up the whole dump.”
Outside what used to be his darkroom and is now an office (he fought the switch from film to digital images valiantly but finally succumbed a couple of years ago, though he still pulls out his Hasselblad occasionally) are 15 feet of shelves holding binders crammed with his highly organized research on cameras and photography. That is the documentary basis of the expertise, which approaches an exhaustive knowledge, that he is bringing to bear in a new history of cameras and photography that he is at work on now. He has written about 200 pages and for illustrations he’s using a Canon 50D to take shots of cameras in his collection. (He said he prefers the earlier 30D model.) He said he has become so exasperated with the errors in existing histories that he feels obliged to write a book that will explain things accurately. He hopes to be able to finish the book in about six months. It will be a large format book so the illustrations can be large too.
One of his favorite cameras is an original Currier and Ives camera that dates to the turn of the century. It’s a simple wooden box that is focused by sliding the lens along the box. The camera separates into two boxes, making it easily portable. “You took three images through the red, blue and green filters. The camera was the work of a very brilliant individual and I’ve taken a lot of pictures with it.”
He has loaned cameras to the Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, and consulted for them. “The first Kodaks couldn’t be opened,” he said. “There were 100 images on a roll of film and when you had filled up a roll, you sent the camera to Kodak and they charged $10 to refill the camera.”
He has a special admiration for Leica cameras, made in Germany. Their lens-manufacturing process is a company secret and produces lenses with an absolute minimum of distortion. Leica somehow figured out how to get light passing through the lens to strike the film perpendicularly. In most lenses there is still a slight angle to the light as it strikes.
He once loaned a camera to photographer Sally Mann and she mentioned it in a lecture she gave at U.Va. He regretted it because the next day students were calling him asking to borrow cameras. He and Mann have keep up a correspondence.
Forty years ago at an auction in Bennington, Vermont, Patkin bought three images that originally belonged to the family of a photographer, one Levi Hill. Hill had been a minister in Plattsburg, New York, but lost his voice and couldn’t speak, so he went into daguerreotype photography, which resulted in only a single copy of the image. It proved difficult to use for portraiture until a switch to chlorine and bromide vapors shortened exposure times.
“In 1850, Hill claimed he had developed a process that could produce color daguerreotypes,” Patkin said. “Samuel Morse [the inventor of the telegraph] examined the method. Hill wrote a book that was supposed to explain how the process worked, but in fact the book was a hoax in that he did not actually reveal how he did it. The public gave up on daguerreotype because they believed it could never do color.”
Last month at an international conference on daguerreotypes held at the Smithsonian Institution that drew 300 experts from around the world, researchers from the J. Paul Getty Museum reported that their analysis of the images Patkin owns proves they are color images.
“Hill’s images are metallic,” Patkin explained. “The Getty experts concluded that he did do what he said he did.”
One image is of a house across the street from where Hill worked. Hill, who died in 1865, would later say that the image resulted from “an accidental combination of chemicals” and that he couldn’t remember how he had done it. It may have been that Hill was trying to keep his discovery secret, since it was potentially so valuable, Patkin said, or it could be the truth, since Hill was constantly exposing himself to toxic chemicals that may have destroyed his memory.
Whichever is the case, the Getty’s extensive chemical analysis of the plates and its metals has settled their authenticity. Getty experts believe the process required high temperatures, but no one has an idea of how Hill accomplished that, Patkin said. “Everything is contradictory,” he summed up.
Meanwhile, everyone at the conference was agog at Patkin’s images. Attendees insisted that Patkin write an article about his images and he is now waiting for the publication of the conference’s transcripts.
Patkin, an inveterate collector of camera-related antiquities, once even owned a copy of Hill’s autograph, which he discovered in a book, but he sold it to a friend, the president of the Daguerreian Society. Patkin also discovered, again in Bennington, a brand new daguerreotype camera, packed in a box with straw and apparently never used.
Among the 100 daguerreotypes Patkin has collected are rare images of famous people, such as Daniel Webster, circa 1845. “That’s when photography was just a hobby. That’s all,” Patkin explained.
He has a rare plate showing Abraham Lincoln wearing glasses. Lincoln normally would not allow himself to be photographed wearing glasses. He has an 6.5 inch by 8.5 inch plate, the largest that could be made, of a wedding couple. He has an ambrotype (the technique that followed daguerreotypes, which had the drawback of causing mercury poisoning) that shows a Civil War widow holding her dead husband’s rifle and their child wearing his father’s hat.
He said he wants to go back to Plattsburg to research locations shown in Hill’s daguerreotypes, and assemble a corroborating set of facts.
“I have a feeling no one wants to give Hill credit because he wrote a book that deceived everyone,” Patkin said. “He had been breathing mercury fumes and he could have lost his memory of how he did it. We’re sitting on mystery. Is this the first color photography?”
Patkin had formerly tried to keep his collection quiet, but there has been such interest internationally from camera experts that he has begun to share it more. “It was challenge [to collect] and I’ve made many friends over years,” he said.
Patkin’s collection will pass on to his children. “I’ve had a number offers to buy it. It’s my life. If I sold it where would I be?” And meanwhile he needs it to help write his book, which is essentially a connoisseur’s tour through his collection.