35mm and Bantam (828) film was relatively new and photo enlargers were typically large, wooden monsters in the late 1930s when Kodak introduced the Portable Miniature Enlarger made extensively of plastic. Since the cameras were smaller, why couldn't enlargers be smaller and precise? In an era when half of our world is made of plastics, it is hard to imagine the novelty of this design. Although Kodak doesn't specifically identify the material it used in these products, it is seems like Bakelite, an early hard plastic that was strong enough for small stuctural projects like this. It withstands heat and is hard enough to support threaded sockets for machine screws. In 1934, Kodak had introduced the first plastic-bodied Kodak--the molded Bakelite Baby Brownie designed by Walter Dorwin Teague. A material that wouldn't oxidize must have seemed very desirable for darkrooms.


The body of the Portable Miniature Enlarger echos the Baby Brownie in both style and materials with its Deco accents. It is about the size of a small brick and sits on a sturdy cast aluminum arm that moves on a nickled steel column with a coin-in-slot control for height. The body houses the condenser lenses which fits into molded slots. A 50-watt Miniature bulb sits above the condenser and a piece of heat-absorbing glass and exhausts its heat through a lightproof and relatively dustproof baffle in the top of the housing. The negative carrier is a plastic drawer with a hinged nickled frame; the drawer travels on lightproof grooves molded into the body. Film cups screw onto the sides of the housing, making uncut rolls the most attractive alternative. The column slides into a metal base bracket and is solidly set with a thumb screw. Dovetail slots are cut in the laminated, veneered wooden base to allow the travel of three paper clips. The base fits precisely in the top of the carry-all case and can be removed or used while still in the top built with hinges that can be disengaged from the bottom.

Standard 50mm lenses are mounted in a heavy plastic (probably Bakalite also) sleeve molded with a spiral focusing groove that engages three metal fingers each with a domed bearing surface. Kodak offered the Portable Enlarger with 50mm Ektars or Ektanons, but any 50mm lens with a standard mount could be used. The Enlarging Ektars were some of the best lens that Kodak produced and a shoot out with much more expensive setups would be very surprising to some.

  The carry-all cases vary in configuration, but in general provide a compartment drilled so that the body of the enlarger can be secured with one of the sexy red knobs. Another long compartment stores the mounting arm. One compartment has a lid useful for loose accessories. The column is secured transversely with leather straps. Kodak suggests that empty compartments could be used to store solutions. I'd prefer to store them separately. No compartment is large enough to carry 5 x 7 trays, a good choice for quick proofs in the motel bathroom. Travel weight is about 12 pounds and the case is about the size of a portable typewriter case (remember portable typewriters that all of the great 20th novels were written on?) ... and the striped case just screams, "Take me with you on the 20th Century Limited."

There is not much about this little enlarger that would prevent using it as a permanent choice for 35mm B&W work. Focusing is smooth and accurate. Unsprung height adjustment is basic, but hasn't been a problem. The 2.5x to 9x baseboard range allows 8x10s with moderate cropping. Loading the negative carrier with individual negatives is a little cumbersome. Paper handling could be easily improved with a separate easel. It's a perfect space-saving solution for the digital photographer who like to occassionally dabble in 35mm B&W.

What can be more fun than shooting a roll in a 70-year old Ektra and making sharp prints with this little unit in a budget motel in Nevada? Some childhood dreams do come true!



11/08/2008 1:18