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Instanto Gratification

Instanto Gratification

Alex Jeffers
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Adventure photographer Henry Iddon pays tribute to the pioneers of mountain photography, shooting modern climbers with a 100 year old Instanto camera and providing a counterpoint to our social media-led hunger for instant imagery.


Instagram. All it takes these days to get you and your adventure to a huge audience is a mobile phone, network coverage and an Instagram account. It’s possible to post to social media from Everest or the Eiger and virtually everywhere in between. #lookatme

When exploration, adventure and climbing began to become popular in the Victorian era that wasn’t the case. Cameras and telephones were both in their infancy. And large plate cameras, portable darkrooms and jars of chemicals were the order of the day for the traveling photographer. Samuel Bourne photographed areas of the Himalaya in 1865, and at the same time Carlton Watkins used an 18x22 inch plate camera to photograph Yosemite. Meanwhile the Alps were being photographed by Edward Whymper amongst others, who later toured with his ‘Magic Lantern Show.’ The only thing social about the media was it being the preserve of high society.

Bouldering Champion Shauna Coxsey, The Grand Hotel’, Crescent Area,

2016 World Cup Bouldering Champion Shauna Coxsey, stood by ‘The Grand Hotel’, Crescent Area, Stanage Plantation


In the early 1900s rock climbing began to develop in the English Lake District as a sport in its own right, as opposed to just being training for the Alps. And two young men who’s father had a photography business in Keswick, Cumbria, began to take cameras on to the crags to record this new and growing pursuit. They were George and Ashley Abraham, and instead of Instagram they had various Underwood ‘Instanto’ cameras at their disposal. These cameras were manufactured by E & T Underwood at their Brunswick Works in Birmingham from 1886 to 1905. They were a popular model at the time and constructed of seasoned mahogany, brass fittings and red or black leather bellows. Exposure was judged by removing the lens cap, counting the required exposure, then returning the lens cap. One of their cameras, that used 10x12 inch glass plates, was purchased at auction by mountaineering memorabilia collector Ed Hammond, who loaned it to The Mountain Heritage Trust. I was made aware of its existence and invited to ‘bring it back to life’ and, having experience with large format photography, to see if it was possible to create some new work with it. It was at this point that I developed ‘Instanto Outdoors;’ a project funded by Arts Council England, to shoot contemporary Lake District rock climbing, landscapes and portraits of outdoor enthusiasts with a camera that was used by those who helped start the ‘action sports’ genre.

Jenny Rice and Paul Scully, wild swimmers. Glencoyne Bay, Ullswater, Cumbria.

Jenny Rice and Paul Scully, wild swimmers, Glencoyne Bay, Ullswater, Cumbria


It is possible to make glass photographic plates, but it is not a simple process and I didn’t want ‘Instanto’ to be a recreation but a fusion of old and new technologies. Fortunately once a year Ilford do a bespoke production run and I was able to order 75 sheets of 10x12 inch FP4 black and white film at a cost of £750. Having previously tested the camera and developed a working methodology we were able to get out in the field and shoot some climbing. I say ‘we’ as it was very much a two-person process - largely due to the cumbersome nature of the equipment. The camera fortunately folded down and fitted inside an F-stop Shinn rucksack - total weight 45lb. While the three dark slides that held the sheets of film for each shoot fitted inside a huge F-stop ICU and Sukha pack - weight 22lb. Plus a 13lb tripod. If two shoots were taking place in one day then I used a mobile darkroom to reload the dark slides, and box up the exposed film.

Instanto set up at Langdale Boulders with Leo Houlding

Instanto set up at Langdale Boulders with Leo Houlding


Locations were chosen to reflect the variety of modern Lakes climbing, from hard mountain routes to bouldering problems, landscapes that had a simple contemporary aesthetic, and selected portraits of participants from sports that weren’t around during the Abraham’s era. With the camera’s lens having no shutter it was also not going to be possible to freeze the action so portraits seemed a sensible option. The size and limited mobility of the camera also created the issue of not being able to angle it dramatically so routes had to be chosen where the camera could be on firm ground and directly opposite the action. The other factor was the wind. Such a large camera would easily catch the breeze and with an exposure time of one or two seconds any vibration would result in unsharp images. Inevitably there were some big days out, the trip to Cam Crag, Wasdale being one, for the image of Chris Fisher on the E8 classic ‘Nowt Burra Fleein’ Thing’ as well as Raven Crag, High Stile for the image of Davina Mouat on ‘Metamorphosis.’

Henry Iddon emerging from his portable darkroom at Whinlatter

Henry Iddon emerging from his portable darkroom at Whinlatter


The sheets of film were processed individually by hand throughout the project by Pete Guest at Image Black and White in London, and the final exhibition prints were direct contact prints from the 10x12 inch negatives using Ilford Warmtone paper. The exhibition at Keswick Museum and Arts Gallery, which ran from January to May 2017, also included a range of cameras and equipment I’ve used over the last 30 years to reflect how technology has changed, and selected images by George and Ashley Abraham, along with some items from the family archives.

Pete Gunn on ‘Full Frontal’ E5 6a, Armathwaite, Cumbria

Pete Gunn on ‘Full Frontal’ E5 6a, Armathwaite, Cumbria


The climbing images from the project are currently on show at The Stronghold, Tottenham, London

 Henry will be speaking about the project at The Chapel Gallery, Ormskirk on 9th April. 

To see more of Henry Iddon's work visit his website at


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