Wirgin Supreme

This camera is a bog-standard folding camera from the Inter-war years (for our younger readers, “Inter-war” means from 1919 to 1939). This is a German camera made in Wiesbaden in Hesse. The only name on the camera is the model name “Supreme” embossed in the leather on the back. There is no maker’s name anywhere. I know it is German because there is a small leather carrying handle which is embossed “MADE IN GERMANY”.

  • lens: Trioplan
  • focal length: 10.5 cm
  • apertures: ƒ/4.5 to ƒ/22
  • focus range: 6 feet (2 metres) to infinity
  • lens fitting: fixed
  • shutter: Vario
  • speeds: 1/25, 1/50, 1/100, B, T
  • flash: No
  • film size: 120

So how do I know which camera this is? I have several techniques that I use. I have a series of camera catalogues going back to the early 1920 and I look through them for a camera model called “Supreme” – they usually have illustrations so I can check that it is the same model. I also have copies of the British Journal of Photography Almanac going back to 1922. These have a section on new kit and again I search through these for cameras called “Supreme”. Both of these have failed me which leads me to think that this camera was made by a minor maker without a good dealer contract.

My third method is a search on the Interweb. This last is very unreliable as the Interweb is full of errors. However, needs must when the devil drives. So, a Google search (other search engines are available) for “Supreme camera” and select the images option. Well, there have been quite a few camera models called “Supreme” but this search did find quite a few images of my camera and they all called it “Wirgin Supreme”. A text search on Google confirmed that Wirgin did indeed make a folding camera called “Supreme and that it might have been made in 1938.

Wirgin are probably better known for their Edixa range of cameras made in the 1960s and 1970s. I already have articles on two of these: the Wirgin Edixa viewfinder camera and the Wirgin Edixa-Mat Reflex mod B SLR camera.

This is a fairly typical folding camera from the Interwar years. Some features are typical of the 1920s such as the shutter but these did continue well into the 1930s on cheaper cameras. The Interweb says it was made in 1938 but that was a single web page and perhaps not reliable.

The body seems to be made entirely from pressed steel. The body is covered with leather (not leatherette) with the edges of the camera bright chrome plated. These edges have significant rusty areas. The camera measures 155 by 83 by 40 mm when closed and 155 by 83 by 133 mm when open for use. It weighs 575 g.

The ‘top’ of the camera (it doesn’t really have a top as such) is featureless apart from the folding viewfinder. Lifting the top of this allows the bottom/rear part to spring up on its own. The viewfinder consists of a hole in each part – there are no lenses in either part. The holes is both frames must be lined up by the user’s eye to compose the picture.

The ‘bottom’ of the camera has more on it. On the right-hand side is a milled wheel which is the film advance. Once upon a time, this was covered by a disc of leather but on my camera this is long gone. Next to this wheel is a small nickel-plated button. Pressing this opens the lens door on the front of the camera. When new, this door would have sprung fully open under its own spring-loaded volition but on my 80+ year old camera, the lens door only opens most of the way and needs a bit of manual help to open fully.

Just to the left of centre on the bottom is a disc. This is 27 mm in diameter. In the middle of this disc is a threaded hole for a tripod. This is a 1/4 inch Whitworth thread. It looks to me as though this is a 1/4 inch slug fitted into the original 3/8 inch Whitworth socket. It is the positioning of this tripod socket that was the clue to the identity of this camera when I did the Google image search.

The back of the camera is plain. The leather is embossed with straight lines and the word “Supreme” in italic script. Towards the top left corner of the back is a red window. For those who have not come across 120 size cameras before, the film has a backing paper which keeps light away from the film when handled. On this backing paper, there are three series of numbers with different spacings. These are for cameras that produce 6 by 9, 6 by 6 and 6 by 4.5 cm negatives. These numbers are read through the red window so this red window is positioned over the appropriate series of numbers. This camera produces 6 by 9 cm negatives.

The front of the camera is dominated by the lens door. This measures 97 by 780 mm. As with the rest of the camera, this is covered with black leather. In the centre of this door there is a raised portion. I think this is basically for stiffening but it also has a decorative function. In the middle of the lens door is the hinged foot. This is nickel-plated metal – I suspect brass as there is no rust apparent. The purpose of this hinged foot is to allow the camera to stand level and solidly on a level surface in lieu of a tripod. Also on the lens door is a second tripod thread. This is, again, 1/4 inch Whitworth and, again, looks to be a 1/4 inch slug in a 3/8 inch thread.

To open the lens door, you need to press the small plated button next to the film advance wheel. Originally, the spring will have snapped the lens door securely in place but on my 85-odd year old camera a little manual assistance is required. When open, the lens door is held in place by three metal struts on either side. Two of these are nickel plated and one is painted black. Incidentally, I can tell that it is nickel plated and not chrome plated by the colour. Nickel plating has a softer shine than chrome and has a subtle but definite blue tinge. Nickel plating also has a tendency to corrode with a blue/green colour.

When opened, the lens door is held solidly in place and the shutter/lens assembly is parallel to the film plane. The shutter/lens assembly is connected to the camera body by leatherette bellows.

The shutter is a Vario by Gauthier. Gauthier are better known for their Prontor shutters but they always had a series of simpler and cheaper shutters available. This Vario shutter offers 1/25, 1/50 and 1/100 seconds plus B and T. Nearly all cameras, including modern digital cameras, have B available. This is where the shutter stays open while the shutter release is depressed. The letter ‘B’ is short for ‘Bulb” and refers to the pneumatic bulbs used in the 19th century as shutter releases.

‘T’ used to be very common on cameras – it is available on my 1973 Nikon F2 SLR. ‘T’ stands for Time. With ‘T’, the shutter opens when the shutter release is depressed and stays open until the shutter release is depressed a second time. This is for very long exposures and was useful in film days when ISO 3,200 was fantastically fast.

This shutter is an old-fashioned shutter in as much as the speed selector is a dial above the shutter housing rather than a ring around it – technically, a dial-set shutter. The change over from the two styles centred on 1930 but dial-set shutters lingered on well into the 1930s on cheaper cameras.

The dial has initials under the name Vario: DRP and DRGM. DRP stands for Deutsches Reichpatent and DRGM stands for Deutsches Reich Gebrauchsmuster and they indicate that the design is patented (and made before 1945).

Looking at the lens, to the left side of the shutter selector dial, is the shutter release lever. This is a thin piece of nickel plated metal. To the left of this lever, on the side of the shutter housing, is a threaded socket for a standard cable release. This shutter is an Everset type so there is no cocking lever. Underneath the speed selector is the legend “Original Gauthier”

Below the lens are two scales. The upper scale, in yellow, has 6, 7, 10, 15, 30, ∞ which are distances in feet – this is the focus scale. The lower scale, in white, has 4.5, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22 which are ƒ/numbers as this is the aperture scale. Below this lower scale is a moving pointer to adjust the lens diaphragm. On my camera, the diaphragm blades have come loose from their fittings and the aperture can no longer be adjusted.

In the centre of the shutter housing is the lens. This is a Trioplan made by Meyer Görlitz. This is a triplet lens (it has three pieces of glass) and it has a focal length of 10.5 cm (measuring focal lengths in mm started after 1945). This is a ‘normal‘ lens for a medium format camera. This is a focusing lens (not a given on cheap cameras) and is front cell focusing which means that only the front piece of glass moves to focus rather than all three pieces.

On the top right of the shutter housing is a small Brilliant viewfinder. These, at best, give a vague idea of the composition – I really don’t like them and much prefer the larger folding viewfinder. This Brilliant finder is on a swivel allowing the camera to be used in either portrait or landscape orientation.

Closing the lens door is simple if not immediately obvious. To unlock the holding struts, you press in at the top of the rear-most strut on either side. The lens should be focused on infinity and the Brilliant viewfinder in the portrait position or it will foul on the side of the camera body. when collapsing. It is then a simple matter of pushing the lens door into the closed position.

On the right hand end of the camera is a small leather handle. This is stamped “MADE IN GERMANY”indicating that this was an official export version (distances in feet suggest this as well). Beneath this handle is a small nickel plated lug. Sliding this down releases the catch on the back. The back opens on a hinge revealing the insides.

Inside the back itself is a 70 by 90 mm sprung pressure plate. This is to keep the film flat against the film gate. Inside the camera body is the film gate. This measures 57 by 87 mm. The film (size 120) measures 60 mm wide so there will be 1.5 mm margin around the exposed portion of the film. Either side of the film gate is a chrome roller to allow the film to move gently over the metal parts without scratching.

At either end of the body is a chamber for the film spools. These chambers have hinged lugs to hold the film in place. My camera has lost two of these but it is clear where they were. The new roll of film goes on the left and the take-up spool goes on the right. The take-up spool is the empty film spool from the previous roll of film.

When loading a new film into a size 120 film camera, you need to wind-on a considerable amount of backing paper before the film itself it revealed. You need to be looking into the red window while doing this – as the first frame approaches there is a series of dots or circles of diminishing size just before each frame number.. After the last shot – number 8 on this camera – you need to wind-on a further considerable amount of backing paper before opening the camera back to remove the film. The end on the backing paper has a self-adhesive tag to keep the end of the backing paper in place.

Given the price of 120 film and the costs of development, I will not be trying this camera with film.

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