¡ Wollensak Verito 9 inches

Wollensak Verito - Portrait lens - F=9 inches f4.

Verito is a cult lens. Wollensak Optical Co, Rochester N.Y. USA. was founded in 1899 with the initial intent of producing shutters. As early as 1902 it started producing lenses and it turn out very successful in this field that became their core business for many decades. Most of their lenses are sort of bread and butter using classic designs created by other lens makers. Maybe the celebrated Verito is also inspired in other's invention, but anyway, the Verito is probably the top of mind brand in soft focus portrait lens.

Above we have the scheme for the Veritar, a more recent version of the original Verito. Both were a 3 elements in 2 groups construction. From a 1957 catalog.

This topic of diffused focus in contrast with crispy images is worth a digression about aesthetics and ways we represent the world around us. In photography there was a chemical version of it, if we consider the Daguerreotypes versus the Talbotyes (impression on silvered plates against waxed paper negatives) and there was/is also an optical version of it, in regards to lens construction like Veritos and Dagors. The former known for beautiful diffused focus and the latter for acute sharpness.

The story of soft focus or allowed/intentional optical aberration, let us call it generically blur, dates back to spring of photography. The first portrait lens was developed by a mathematician called Petzval. At that time the basic need was a fast lens able to cope with Daguerreotypes, Calotypes and later, to Collodium. Those were not very sensitive to light and claimed for many seconds or even minutes of exposure in landscape photography. The Petzval portrait lens reached around f4 and hence allowed sitters for a much shorter and convenient lapse of time without moving. A reasonably bright lens even for today's standards. A side effect was a lot of aberration and only the center presented a sharp image. Around 15 degrees were covered with sharpness.

That compromise can be seen just as any technicality. A simple trade off like any other we are always facing whenever we explore the limits of anything. Bottom line seems to make sense: what really matters in a portrait is the face so why bother if the background gets fuzzy?

That last statement, as naive as it may look, is the one that bears a great deal of our current cultural setting. It was not always like that. It is interesting to observe once more that what science and technology brings forth is completely embedded with our conception about the great scheme of things that is in fashion at a given moment. Let us see how it works in a brief account of the blur in the history of image making.

Writing the story of Adam in the paradise with the animals one should not make the word Elephant bigger than the word Adam. Writing has a specific way of building up meaning in our minds in which the proportion on the size of symbols has no role at all. Of course, while representing it in visual arts, the point could make more sense. However, early christian artists, represented their iconography still largely ignoring the possibility, or the need, of giving this clue to the viewers. No concerns in making explicit that the elephant was, for sure, much bigger than Adam. For their objective was not representing how one would have seen the scene but rather bring the fact in itself that Adam was in paradise and living in harmony with all animals.

After Greek and Roman empires and a lapse when all sort representation was banished by influence of middle east culture and Christianism, images reentered the Western culture through an allowance to replace writing for the illiterates, having in mind a purely story telling purpose. That was clearly stated by Pope Gregorius the Great in the VII century of this era and officially opened the churches for decoration with themes from old and new testaments. Always as a support to religious texts.

Adam in the paradise with animals
Ivory - around 1400. Bargello Museum Florence

In that kind of representation, images, or icons are very much used like words representing objects. There is no space, proportion or perspective, and everything is arranged to be clearly recognizable and related to the event being represented. So it is not there that one should try to learn about sizes and proportions. Likeness is achieved by adding some key features conventionally represented just for recognition. The trunk and big ears were the keys for an elephant and the mane for the lion. That was not at all because artists were unskilled, but just because there was no point in representing a scene in what we would today call a photographic way . A closer examination will actually reveal that a lot of training and talent is needed to achieve such results.A great deal of information is communicated with clarity and economy of resources. Events from new and old testaments were represented in ornamental arrangements that would harmoniously fit inside the frame: intelligibility and beauty were the key priorities.

Well, but it happened that, somewhere back there in time, our culture started to change in the direction of representing things from the viewer perspective rather than based on the subject nature. Far from an isolated artistic problem the whole Western culture slowly and firmly moved from a more Ontological to a more Phenomenological approach or, from essence to appearance of things, from concept to visual impression. That is nicely illustrated below in Durer's drawing machine. This duality of sensorial against conceptual is as old as philosophy and has been the focus of passionate debates ever since. It is something that touches very deeply our daily life, the way we see the world around us, our ethics and beliefs. But let us concentrate in here only in some aspects of how this affected the representation through images.

Durer - 1525, Drawing Machine Woodcut Vienna 8x22cm.

With different speed, techniques and styles, many schools and artists started then moving from concept to visual impression. So artists developed the observer point of view and painting became a window to real or imaginary world. Geometric perspective with vanish points on the horizon, colors getting a feint hue at the distance, framings cropping objects, space organized in more planes than only foreground and background. Giotto (1267-1337) was one of the first ones to ask himself how would that look? and introduced a lot of new ways to render likeness in his biblical scenes. What is interesting is that although concerned with a naturalistic approach the conceptual presence of each object remained a constant in those early or pre-renascence days. The Siennese painter Sasseta, active in early XV century, is a good example of that. In the painting below, each tree is a tree no matter how close or distant it is. Every object is an object of creation and that is what the painting is all about. However, differently from the purely iconic organization of elements, we have here many more visual indications. The fact that the head of St Paul is hidden (although we can glimpse his aureole) is an important artistic license in the direction of bringing earthiness to a sacred event. We can already very much imagine the scene in real space and that was absolutely new if we compare with arrangements like the above mentioned ivory.

Sasseta - Meeting of St Anthony and St Paul

Rogier Van der Weyden - St Ivo.

Specially in northern Europe, touched in a different way by the new humanism, artists kept more of this iconicity of representing each and every object with great detail and took it to the extreme. Many indoor scenes present a window through which we can see a landscape. Like this St Ivo from Rogier van der Weiden. What is happening outside is like another painting on its own. Large canvas were worked with a loupe and we can observe so fine and amazing details that unfortunately are not yet possible to render in a computer screen on the web at the time of this writing.

A new threshold in subjectivity was trespassed with the introduction of the blur. That meant men taking total ownership of the represented world that became, first and foremost, his interpretation, at his entire discretion. Blur can be seen as if it was about editing the God's creation by denying the identity to certain parts of its tangibility. Merging them in masses of light and color. If we come back to Adam and the animals and reconsider that there was no point in making the word elephant bigger than Adam it would make no sense as well to blur a passage in the narrative. Make it difficult to distinguish or kind of partly erased. Again, that is a resource that has no effect in writing/reading. But in its long pilgrimage from icon to artists interpretation, images were first arranged in an imaginary space by using perspective. They also acquired volume by introduction of shadows and modeling. Tactile impression with techniques that rendered texture. Time of the day and the season by adding whether and sunlight features. Blur was introduced, in many ways, to mimic how we see things (in a sort of early impressionism) or simply because the artist wanted that way in order to drive our attention to what he considered important. It was, from that point onwards, his decision to highlight, finish, unfinish, hide, blur... whatever was in the painting. No more big concerns about how things actually were or should be in their essence. Like rhyme and rhythm in poems, the blur is a noise, or a counter action that works against immediate understanding. It constitutes the artist's hallmark and invite us to a subjective interpretation of the artwork. With all the care in representing all the tiny detail the works of Flemish painters lack naturalness when compared to the sfumatto from Leonardo da Vince. It is certainly not possible to gauge in objective grounds the degree o likeness of one or another. The fact we can observe is that a society like ours, much more driven by the appearance than by the nature of things, feels completely at ease with artworks that suggest rather than actually mark every conceptual entity being represented. The fat man portrayed by Campin is a collection of things we can name, from individual hair to the sub-set we name eye and set we name head. Compared to it, the Gioconda is like a phantom. Blur, since the sfumatto till the impressionism, is a representational tool that shows more about the artist than about the subject in itself.

Campin - Portrait of a fat
man - 1430

Leonardo da Vince - Gioconda,
1503 - Louvre

So it was a long journey in which the thing being represented yielded to the artists perception per se. After all the achievements in that direction implemented by medieval artists, the renascence continued in the same path and introduced the sfumatto, the sprezatto and the materiality of the medium. The brush stroke, for instance, another noise on the way to the subject, in many cases was not concealed anymore but rather onstensively left in a sort of very coarse finish. Masses of color got independent from drawing and surfaces got rid of borders and lines. Preparatory studies grew in importance, they were kept and traded as pieces of art as well. Unfinished works were praised for they indicated the idea, the master's intention, that was at the end, the heart of the artistic work. Not long before, during the Middle Age, altarpieces were sold by the size and amount of gold and color used on it. Unfinished works were valuable like an unfinished chair.

Frans Hals - Malle Babe - 1633

In 1839, when the Daguerre invention became public and extremely quickly also popular, in the artistic scene, impressionism was about to spring. Patches of light and color representing the impression caused by whatever subject in a given moment. A train station assumed the same value as a biblical theme and worth the attention of painters and demanded a place for exhibition side by side with the old masters. Very often denyed, it is true, but that was just a matter of time for the critics to digest it. Art was not anymore about themes, or subjugated by themes, not about 'what is represented' but fully on the 'how we represent it'. It was not a train station but the artists perception that was the subject.

That was the mindset of those who would assess the value of a Petzval lens and the portraits that could be made with it. The blur was not an intruder but rather a good and old companion. In Renoir's Madame Henriot only the face is focus as if he had used one of such lenses.

Ever since, soft focus never left photography. More than a trade off in lens construction in order to get more light, as it was the case in the Petzval design, the intentional blur is a mean of expression. Later when optics evolved and much sharper lenses where made possible, many lens makers, kept or developed in their catalogs the diffused focus lenses, or Portrait lenses that superimposed to a sharp image a second one, with a higher degree of aberration in order to produce the local confusion. Pictorialists photographers looking for an artistic rendering of their subjects were always the ones praising the most that kind of lenses. There was also, from the very beginning what would be called later 'straight photography'. For their advocates the image should be as sharp as possible all over. Like clear and unbiased reproduction of what one would have seen in the photographer's place. Today even photos from the police deparment showing suspects and criminals are seen as having artistic predicates. It is hard to imagine a straightest approach. So the point is not whether blur is more or less artistic than sharpness, both are resources like many others to convey our messages. They trigger different ways in our interpretation. Ways that we learn and share with others like a vocabulary allowing communication and understanding.

Today it happens that there is a lot of talk about Bokeh and diffused focus lenses. Even in digital retouching many filters and masks introduce noise in the very often stubbornly sharp digital images. So it seems that subjectivism is somehow appealing again and has grown in importance in image making. It is time to a CLA (Clean Lub and Adjust) of old tools, like Veritos from Wollensak, for the old trick.

Verito in Wollensak literature

These reproductions from Wollensaks catalogs, and a lot more from other lens/camera makers, you can find at the Camera Eccentric website. Excellent online source.

It is interesting to read the argumentation in favor of diffused focus. Things like:
Verito prints are not mere mechanical reproductions, showing with wiry definition every mole and freckle. Rather do they correctly portray the texture of the skin, suppressing unnecessary detail.

1903 catalog. Note the painter's palette at the upper right corner.

1903 catalog showing special Waterhouse f stops aimed to control the blur while allowing less light.

1922 catalog.

Yet another catalog from 40/50's.

More close-ups

This lens has a studio shutter in which the shutter blades are also iris blades that open accordingly to the set aperture. From f4 to f32
The black tape in front of the shutter is covering the Waterhouse f stops slot (mentioned in the 1903 catalog above) in order to avoid dust getting in,

The soft focus effect is maximum with f4. Beyond f11 the lens yields a normally sharp rendering.

There is no built in flash synch and a cable release is needed in order to shoot because there is no lever for that.

In the first twp pictures below, I used f8 so the effect of diffused focus is almost concealed. The rendering is different from any sharp lens but the halo at f8 is really discrete. The other two were shot with f4/5,6 and the diffused focus is much more prominent.
If you want to see the effect of different apertures on the amount of blur , using the same subject, click here


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