What’s left of the St. Paul Building Aires Viscount Ilford HP5 Plus LegacyPro L110, Dilution B 2021
Some years ago Margaret and I visited Manhattan. We walked from our hotel on 56th St. near Central Park, out to the Hudson River and then south along the walking paths all the way to the World Trade Center and the Financial District. We lingered at St. Paul’s Chapel and its memorial to 9/11. Read about it here.
From 1898 to 1958, an early skyscraper named after the chapel stood across the street. The St. Paul Building had 26 stories and was 315 feet tall — and was regarded by many as ungainly, even ugly. Few tears were shed upon its demolition.
This is its facade. Look closely, and you can just make out ghost letters spelling ST. PAUL BUILDING over its columns. It stands in Holliday Park, a large, lovely park on the Northside of Indianapolis. It’s part of an installation called The Ruins, which recently completed a renovation.
When you think of Japanese 35mm rangefinder cameras from the 1950s and 1960s, names like Canon, Yashica, Konica, and Minolta come to mind. But the Aires Camera Industries Company made a series of well-regarded rangefinder cameras in the 1950s, as well. The 1959 Aires Viscount was one of the last the company made before it went out of business.
Looking at this camera’s specs, two things stand out: its fast 45mm f/1.9 lens, and its fairly fast 1/500 top shutter speed. Not bad for a leaf shutter (a Seikosha-SLV, to be precise). Other than that, the Viscount is fairly simple. It focuses from 2.67 feet (.8 meters) to infinity. There’s a frame counter above the winding lever on the top plate. There’s an accessory shoe. This camera is all mechanical and has no onboard light meter, so you don’t need a battery to operate it.
An 85mm accessory lens was available; it screwed into the filter threads. If you look into the viewfinder, you’ll see two full frames, an outer one for the attached 45mm lens and an inner one in red for the 85mm accessory lens. (Amusingly, they used a red filter to color the inner frame, and the one in my Viscount has slipped out of position.) There are also marks on the outer frame to correct for parallax when you focus within 3½ feet. A rectangular rangefinder patch is in the middle of the viewfinder.
Setting aperture and shutter speed takes a little getting used to, and it’s the one thing that keeps the Viscount from being a thorough pleasure to use. The aperture ring is at the end of the lens barrel. An exposure value (EV) ring is behind it, and the shutter-speed ring is behind that. The aperture ring turns independently. The EV and shutter-speed rings turn together, however, and when you turn them it’s difficult to not also turn the aperture ring at the same time. The Viscount biases toward using EV for exposure. I don’t naturally think in EVs, so I set the shutter speed first, and then aperture. Sometimes I reached the end of the EV scale before I reached the shutter speed I wanted. When this happens, I turned the aperture ring the opposite direction enough stops to let me reach my shutter speed.
The Viscount is heavy and solidly built. It’s a hair taller but noticeably narrower than a standard Japanese rangefinder from the 60s, such as my Konica Auto S2. The Viscount’s body design is less modern, but the S2 is six years newer. I hear that the Viscount has pot metal parts inside, but the camera has a reputation for sturdiness and reliability.
All of Aires’ cameras did. It’s a shame the company’s life was so short: it was founded in the late 1940s and was gone by 1960. It made TLRs at first, but shifted to 35mm rangefinders and stayed there through the rest of its short life.
If you like rangefinder cameras, then check out my reviews of the aforementioned Konica Auto S2 (here), as well as the Yashica MG-1 (here), Electro 35 GSN (here), and Lynx 14e (here); the Minolta Hi-Matic 7 (here), the Argus C3 (here), the Kodak Retina IIa (here) and IIc (here), the Canon Canonet 28 (here) and QL17 G-III (here), and the tiny Olympus XA (here).
My Viscount was donated to the Jim Grey Home for Wayward Cameras, and it was filthy. I assumed it would be broken. But it cleaned up nicely (except for a couple odd spots of corrosion on the front of the lens barrel) and it functioned. The slowest shutter speeds were clearly running long, but the speeds above about 1/8 second sounded right, to the extent my ears are any judge of a shutter.
That shutter is nearly silent! It makes only a tiny snick sound as it fires. The shutter button has a satisfying, almost luxurious feel. The shutter fires at almost the top of the travel, but if you stop there you won’t be able to wind. Press the button all the way down to release the wind lever.
The rangefinder on mine isn’t reliable. The patch is dim, and sometimes the rangefinder image doesn’t appear. I found that pressing my finger into the golden glass area on the front of the camera, and moving that glass around a little, eventually fixes the problem — for a while.
The focus ring has a big pip on it that’s supposed to aid focusing, but I always struggled to find it while my eye was at the viewfinder.
I tested this Aires Viscount with a roll of Ilford HP5 Plus, using a meter app on my iPhone to read the light. I developed the roll in LegacyPro L110, Dilution B, and scanned the negatives on my Minolta ScanDual II.
The Viscount came with me to Holliday Park in Indianapolis, a place I’ve tested many cameras. I go there less now than I used to since I moved to the suburbs. But on this day I had an appointment nearby, and brought the Viscount along.
Temperatures were in the 40s, too chilly for many of my old cameras, but not the Viscount. I wonder if it would work as well as temperatures approach freezing. It’s good to have a few old cameras I can use even in cold weather.
The negatives looked a little dense, which led to low-contrast scans. I had to heavily boost contrast in Photoshop to avoid these images looking flat and lifeless. But the lens delivered good sharpness and detail.
Framing was easy enough with the Viscount, even up close with the parallax-correction marks. Every frame contained what I framed in the viewfinder, and nothing more.
I also made a few photos along Lafayette Road on the way home from an errand. The great Wrecks, Inc., sign is a frequent subject. Notice that the left third or so of the frame is lighter than the rest of the image. This happened on two other images. I wonder if there’s some sort of light leak. The Viscount doesn’t have foam seals, but rather relies on deep channels around the door to block light. So I’m not sure where light would get in.
But this camera has been on a collector’s shelf, unused, for many years. It’s a testament to how hardy Aires made its cameras that this Viscount works this well after more than 60 years.
The Aires Viscount was a pleasant surprise. It’s pleasant to use and packs a good lens. If you require an onboard light meter, it’s not for you. Otherwise, it contends very well with any 35mm rangefinder camera from the 1950s and 1960s and is worth your consideration.
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