Laban Fisher Deardorff was born to farm couple Samuel and Cynthia Deardorff in Preble County, Ohio, on December 31, 1862 (although some records list his birth year as 1863).The fourth of five siblings, he learned self-reliance at an early age as a member of the Dunkard religious sect (Church of the Brethren). Shortly after graduation, the young man bought himself a suit, and on a whim, had a photograph taken proudly wearing the new garment, an act of indulgence frowned upon by his devout family. A chastising aunt scolded, "Those photographer fellows go into a darkroom when they do their work, and people that's honest do their work out in the light." This, however, failed to dim Mr. Deardorff's enthusiasm for the art of photography.
After serving a mill apprenticeship, the 20-year-old moved to Chicago, where he worked in an insurance office while taking a course in business. Following a brief tenure with an elevator company, Mr. Deardorff made the fateful decision to work as a camera repairman for photographer Gayton Douglas. The repair work quickly evolved into invention when Mr. Deardorff combined parts of Scovill and Adams cameras, which after being sent to Scovill Manufacturing Company, was marketed as the Scovill Triad. Another of Mr. Deardorff's innovations was subsequently sold to the Rochester Optical Company, and manufactured as the 6-1/2 X 8-1/2 Premo View camera, which continued being produced until 1910, several years after Eastman Kodak bought out Rochester Optical. Eastman Kodak later contracted the budding inventor to refigure lenses and to modify their best-selling Eastman and Seneca view cameras. With his career on the upswing, Mr. Deardorff married Isabelle Huke on January 25, 1888, with whom he would have nine children, which included future photographer Merle S. Deardorff.
From 1885 until around 1900, Mr. Deardorff worked for several camera and equipment manufacturers, including E. & H. T. Anthony, and Sweet, Wallach & Company. Lenses became his primary focus, and his input enabled Bausch & Lomb to utilize their Zeiss series II lenses for photoengraving, and he also invented a Petzval portrait lens that was patented by Ernst Gundlach. However, Mr. Gundlach turned over the patent to the inventor, which he made and sold at a profit for several years. These lenses were used to take portraits of prominent attendees of the 1903 World's Fair in St. Louis. Mr. Deardorff's respect for the lens was evident in his address to the Photographers' Association of America convention in 1903, in which he observed, "The finest instrument in the world will not make music unless you know how to play it. Neither will a lens make the best picture unless you know how to use it."
During the early twentieth century, Mr. Deardorff became a supplier as well as a commercial photographer. In 1917, he was joined by his son Merle, and later his sons James and John joined the family business. L. F. Deardorff & Sons was born. Their cameras were considered the finest of their time, guaranteed to last for three decades. Their Chicago factory specialized in manufacturing 8 X10 and 5 X 7 commercial cameras. The plant relocated to a larger facility at 11 South Des Plaines Street, where they contracted with the U.S. Air Force to sell cameras and equipment during and after World War II. Laban F. Deardorff died a successful entrepreneur on February 25, 1952, and his business continued on without him for the next several years, with its last known headquarters at 315 South Peoria Street. The name Deardorff still stands for durability, and many of his first cameras from the early 1920's are still being used today.
1964 British Journal of Photography, Vol. CXXXI (London: Henry Greenwood & Company Limited), p. 353.
2017 Deardorff Cameras (URL: http://www.largeformatphotography.info/deardorff).
2010 Deardorff Company History (URL: http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2010/12/deardorff-company-history.html).
2013 Laban Fisher Deardorff (URL: https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=105296223).
2016 Samy's Cameras: The Deardorff 8×10 Field Camera (URL: http://blog.samys.com/samys-cameras-deardorff-8x10-field-camera).
1990 Teaching the Elephant to Dance by James A. Belasco, Ph.D. (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc.)
1903 Wilson's Photographic Magazine, Vol. XL (New York: Edward L. Wilson), pp. 380-383.
Copyright © 2002 - 2019 Historic Camera