MERIDIAN 45A & B
My attraction to the 4 x5 World War II vintage Meridian grew out of my growing frustration with a lack of back movements of my Super Graphic. Like many 4x5 users who have a foggy notion of how to exploit all of the movements of their view and technical cameras, I was set straight by an article by Doremus Scudder in the January/February 2007 edition of View Camera and a visit to Scudder's personal site to see his work easily convinced me that there was much that could be learned from his article on movements. In Scudder's view, the common wisdom that movements aren't necessary in landscape work, often comes from an ignorance of how movements work and how it is possible to exploit them with cameras used for landscape work that often support only limited movements. Once you begin experimenting with equipment you can use regularly, you find routine techniques that you've been missing for decades.
Minimizing weight and insuring camera stability are an important criteria for my mobile 4x5 kit. I've appreciated the robust, protective design and quick setup of the Super Graphic and been less impressed with these features in the lighter, under $1000 wood field designs. But at a little over 4 1/2 lbs., the Super Graphic is right at the limit of what I am willing to tote around. In new cameras, the Wista VX (new $1800, used $800) and the Toyo 45AII are 1 to 11/2 lbs heavier and, while the features are attractive, the weight and cost give cause for pause. Used Technikas in this price range are usually more expensive and may be heavily worn. There are at least two earlier cameras made on the Technika model--the Micro Precision Products (MPP) 4 x 5s made in London and the Meridians made in New York. Both have backs that support tilt and swing with a design similar to that used by Technika. I don't have production dates for the Meridians; MPPs were introduced in the mid-1940s and continued into the 1980s. The largest supply of MPPs is in England and the cost of shipping to other countries is often high. This makes Meridians and attractive alternative in the $300-500 class.
There were two Meridian models--A and B--which have many differences, but only a couple that are very significant functionally. The A model has an elegant looking front lens standard with a round lens board with a bayonet mounting scheme that fastens the board to an substantial cast octagonal Deco lens frame. Original lens boards are virtually impossible to find. A machinist could make a lens board out of flat aluminum stock and perhaps a photographer wanting to develop a lens kit for a Meridian could negotiate a good unit price for several boards. The B lens standard is the largest difference between the two models. The lens board frame was completely redesigned so that the B model accepts 4 x 4 lens boards of the type used on the Graphic View and which are commonly available. A previous owner of my A model had a machinist make a milled square frame that is attached to the A hex lens frame using the standard threaded holes. This preserves the original lens board, but when in place this new square frame accepts flat Graphic View lens boards. Both models have two part racks--one in the case and one on the bed--that move independently. The B model has a separate focusing knob for the inner case-based rack; with the A model, you move the front standard by finger pressure. The A has two vertical standard bars with slots that support rise and tilt, with two sets of control knobs. The B model has a small knob controlled rack that controls rise. The support standards on the B have a kind of nested design that extends the rise and the tilt. To me the A version seems more substantial, while the B version supports more refined adjustments.
The backs on the A and B have slightly different construction, but are functionally similar. They rotate and the ground glass frame is of the Graphic Spring style--that is, not removable. They will accept duplex sheet film holders and Grafmatics (though there are reports of problems with the latter), but cannot accept either Graphic- or Calumet-style rollholders, but for different reasons. Graphic rollholders require a removable focusing frame; the focusing frame isn't made to be easily removable on the Meridian. The film gate portion of the Calumet rollholder can be inserted under the Merdian's viewing frame, but the cast "ears" used to draw back the focusing frame for film holder insertion get in the way of the part of the Calumet which houses the film spools. Several Meridian owners have commented that the only way to use rollfilm would be to grind off these ears and there is a general aversion to this for preservation reasons. I've also noted that this would interfere with smooth insertion of sheetfilm holders, since I use the ears for leverage to open the gape. There may be other "skinny" rollholders whose structure is more congenial to Meridian use.
There appears to be some structural difference between the A and B backs. I have a both A and B models, but my B has an A back that was heavily modified to mount a Graflok back. I was told that the modification did not appear to be possible using the B back because of casting differences. This is an ideal conversion for me because I want to use rollfilm, but this isn't an easy conversion to make. If you are content to use 4 x 5 sheet film or redipacks, you can ignore these back design issues.
Front movements are very generous except for swing which is inexplicably limited by the design of the rather substantial clamping mechanism for the front standard. Substantial front shift is convenient since there is no back shift. Rear movements are managed by unlocking some combination of the four rods on which the back is mounted, allowing tilt and swing and back extension. The rods terminate in the back with ball joints to avoid torque problems when the rod locks are engaged. The rods that remain locked act as leverage points for those that are unlocked. It is relatively easy for the locking knobs to loosen allowing the rods to move from the intended position, so rechecking the locks before shooting is advisable. Back movements are smooth, though there are no metrics provided. While it might be possible to simulate axis pivots with the back half extended on all rods as a starting point, the more common starting point is with the back flush against the case. Tilts and swings from this position are base, top or side referenced, requiring refocusing as the plane of sharp focus shifts.
Meridians are very wide-angle friendly. The bodies are wider than those of Super Graphic and about as tall, but there is no rangefinder in the top part of the case, leaving room for modest movements in both directions even when the front standard is still on the case-based rack. While there is space for movements, there is not for fingers, so rise and shift have to be done by extending the front standard out past the case, making and locking the adjustments, then returning the standard to the inner rack for focusing.The bellows material is synthetic leather and reasonably supple. I have only experimented with a 65mm Angulon on a recessed board and an 80mm Wide Field Ektar on a flat board, both of which can be focused at infinity. There is clearance in the bellows for a tub with an outer diameter of about 2 3/4 in, so it is possible to make a custom recessed board or perhaps even find a manufactured recessed board that fits. Rack extension is about 13 inches, with another 11/2 inches by extending the back. I'd like to try my 14 inch Commercial Ektar, but the #5 shutter won't clear the rack. At full extension there is still enough bellows to support full movements.
Meridians appear to have been sold with either Kalart or Hugo Meyer rangefinders. Since the attraction to me of the Meridian was the articulated back, I removed the rangefinder on my B model since I do a significant amount of lens swapping.
Build quality is on a par with Pacemaker Graphics, with a sturdy chrome rack and front standard mount. The case is an alloy that is light but strong and the extruded baseboard extends out at the center to allow lens/shutter depth of about 11/4 inch. A models had a black cloth cover; B models got upgraded to goatskin or embossed calf. Bellows material is synthetic and both of my cameras are still lighttight. Focusing is still smooth.
The Meridian is a very pleasant camera to use for those familiar with press and technical cameras. Rack movement is smooth and the inner focusing rack does away with many of the workaround solutions necessary with cameras like the Super Graphic. Meridian designers, most of whom are probably at permanent rest have the satifaction of knowing that photographers are still appreciating their efforts.