Deardorff – Handmade in Chicago

4x5 Deardorff Made in ChicagoI used this camera to take several of the images in the Uptown portfolio as well as many landscapes.  It’s a 4×5 Deardorff, handmade in Chicago by the craftsmen at L.F. Deardorff and Sons.

Laben Fisher Deardorff founded the company in 1916, and was joined by the first of his three sons, Merle Deardorff the following year.  By the time the first Deardorff cameras were produced in 1923, Laben’s twin sons James Russell and John Milton had also joined the company.  “LF Deardorff & Sons, Inc.” made ten cameras during their first production year.  The cameras are made from mahogany and are still sold today. Though the company has moved to Tennessee, its headquarters and factory were on Chicago’s near west side when I bought this in 1976.

It was difficult to use in the field. Because of it’s size and weight, the camera required a tripod. Setting the thing up took several minutes. You had to unfold the camera, insert a lens, focus on the ground glass underneath a black cloth using a special magnified, close the shutter in the lens, cock the shutter, insert a film holder, pull out the dark slide, release the shutter, insert the dark slide, flip the film holder, and repeat the entire process for the next shot.  As a consequence, I didn’t use it much in the field, especially when photographing people. They just got too impatient.

However, the camera yielded a 4×5 inch negative, which produced glorious enlargements with rich detail and texture that 35mm cameras could never match.  That’s why it was favored by advertising photographers.  It was also favored by architectural photographers because of the swings and tilts. These allowed you to correct perspective in architectural photos.

For instance, when you point a 35mm camera up at a building, you get converging parallel lines at the top. By keeping the camera back parallel to the front of the building, you could keep parallel lines parallel with the Deardorff.  You shot up, not by tilting the camera, but by raising the lens on the front standard.

All in all, it was an amazing and versatile tool. I seldom use it today, but almost forty years later, it still produces great shots!

L.F. Deardorff and Sons stopped producing cameras in Chicago in 1988.