My parents were sure I was headed toward a career in engineering because I liked figuring out how things worked. I could hardly keep my fingers off anything with buttons or knobs. I messed up a few things as a kid by pushing buttons and turning knobs. My great grandmother had a very old TV, and behind this panel right at kid height were about a million knobs. Whenever we visited, if I was left alone with that TV I turned as many of them as I could before being discovered. This almost certainly caused her to utter choice words when she settled in that night to watch Gunsmoke. Also, I ruined my Grandpa’s new clock radio by turning one apparently important knob past its stop point. Grandma asked me many times if I did it, even years later, but I didn’t have the guts to admit it. When Grandpa got a CB radio (it was the 70s), Grandma took me aside and said, “Jimmy, now, if you turn that knob,” pointing to the one labeled SQUELCH, “it will explode!” It was several years before I figured out that was a scam.
The summer I turned 9, my brother and I took our first annual summer trip to Camp Grandma. We spent a week or two at their retirement home on a little lake in southwestern Michigan. One day we were out riding in Grandma’s truck from Cassopolis to Dowagiac stopping at garage sales. At one sale I found a little Kodak Brownie Starmite II, an inexpensive plastic fixed-focus camera from the early 1960s that took roll film. I picked it up and turned it over and over, very curious. I’d never really handled a camera before, unless you count one day when I was about 4. I picked up Mom’s camera and took about 10 photos of a hotel room in Binghamton, New York — the doorknob, the corner of the bed, the wall, and so on. I felt so grown up with that camera, but when I was found out I was on restriction for quite some time. Anyway, that memory wasn’t even in my mind as I tried to figure out that Brownie. Grandma came by and saw me playing with it and asked, “Do you want that?” I was quite embarrassed to have been noticed, actually, and I stammered something noncommital like, “Oh, no, I don’t know, not really.” Grandma noticed the 25-cent price tag, looked me square in the eye in that way she did that said firmly, “I see right through you,” and silently handed me a quarter. Now I was both embarrassed and relieved, because I really did want that camera.
I played with the camera quite a bit the rest of the time I was at Grandma’s trying to figure it out. I learned how to open it and how to wind it. I pressed my eye to the open bottom of the camera and pressed the shutter to see light flash into the camera for a fraction of a second. I looked at the camera’s face, pressed the button, and saw the shutter open and close almost imperceptibly. I was fascinated with the camera’s intricacy and with all the thought and work that had gone into designing it.
When I got home, I bought a roll of film and tried it out. The neighborhood kids made me the center of attention; they all wanted to be in a picture. They also all wanted to hold the camera and look at it and take pictures with it, though I drew the line there since my roll of film held just 12 exposures and I had spent a month’s allowance to buy it. When we next went grocery shopping, I dropped the exposed roll off at Hook’s Drugs for developing. When the photos came back what seemed like nine months later, the developing set me back a dizzying three or four months’ allowance! But I was the neighborhood’s center of attention again when I brought the developed photos home. I must have given most of the photos away, because I have only 4 left. Here’s a picture from that first roll of film, from August, 1976. If you recognize yourself as one of the kids from my old neighborhood, I hope you don’t object to being published.
I owned other cameras. A twin-lens reflex Brownie Reflex Synchro Model with flash holder found its way into my hands. Then Dad bought me a new Instamatic knockoff that took Magicubes, a kind of flash cube. Later, Grandma and Grandpa gave me a new Polaroid Super Shooter instant camera for Christmas. But I didn’t start to deliberately collect cameras until I was a teenager and could go find them.
My Saturday mornings became filled with garage sales. I used to ride my bike all over South Bend’s southeast side — sometimes outside Mom’s approved boundaries, which she always suspected, I learned recently. I started doing this just because it was something to do. But then one day I came across an Argus A-Four 35mm camera that, as a manual-focus camera, had more stuff to figure out on it than I’d ever seen. I parted with the painfully dear sum of four dollars to buy it, but felt like I had scored the coup of the century. It took me quite some time to figure that camera out, with help from a friend who showed me a little about setting the aperture and focus. Eventually I filled it with film and shot a few rolls. It became and remained a favorite camera, reliably taking nice photos.
Through my teens and early 20s, I actively sought and bought lots of old cameras at garage sales and antique shops. I could not wait until the giant antique sale that used to be held at Howard Park every 4th of July, because that’s where I found the neatest and oldest cameras. Whenever I got a new camera, just like with my original Brownie Starmite at age 9, I’d spend happy hours playing with it, figuring it out. By the time I was 25, I probably had 100 cameras — a bunch of Brownies, a few movie cameras, a dozen Polaroids, some box cameras, several very old folding cameras, too many crappy Instamatics, and others. I took photos with some of the cameras. Other cameras’ picture-taking days were clearly over.
After I married and had children, I displayed all of my folding cameras on the fireplace mantle. My sons used to ask to look at them, and although I was reluctant at first, I eventually relented, and found that they liked looking at them and treated them well. So I got out my boxes of cameras for us all to play with. I showed the boys how they worked — how to open them, set them so that the shutter would fire, put their eye up to the opening to watch light flash into the camera when they pressed the shutter. I saw that they couldn’t hurt most of the cameras, and none of my cameras was worth so much that any kid damage would really matter anyway. Over the years, we spent many pleasant hours on the living room floor playing with my cameras. When I’d buy film for one of them to try it out, I’d be the center of their attention as I’d go around the house and yard taking photos. Just like when I was 9, they clamored to be in the photo.
I sold my entire collection one day about four years ago, along with most of the rest of my personal possessions, a sad story I might write about someday. Unexpectedly, I have not missed most of what I sold. Of the few things I do miss, certain cameras rank the highest. I’m thinking about the Argus A-Four, a Stereo Realist a friend gave me, a Kodak Duaflex II that took lovely square photos, a Minolta 16-II that a man just gave me when I bought a couple other junk cameras at his yard sale, an early-60s Kodak Automatic 35F 35mm camera that took some great photos on a trip to the Tennessee mountains, and a very old folding Autographic Kodak I got for Christmas from dear family friends. Even after 30 years, I have not lost my fascination with things that require careful design, and even the cheapest camera still seems intricate to me. I can still spend hours playing with an old camera.
So I decided to start a new collection. This time, instead of collecting whatever cameras I find, I’ll specialize in rangefinder and viewfinder manual-focus 35mm cameras, common twin-lens reflex cameras, and folding cameras. This time, I want all my cameras to be in good mechanical and cosmetic condition, and I want every camera to work. Ultimately, I’d like to shoot a roll with every 35mm and TLR camera I buy. The folding cameras are a lost cause; those films have been discontinued for decades. I just think they look cool.
eBay has dramatically changed how I can collect cameras. Every day, hundreds of vintage cameras are available. I have already bought two. The first is a Kodak Automatic 35F to replace the one I had before. It came with its original box and a filter and lens hood.
I learned one sad fact from buying this camera: Always buy from someone who can describe the camera’s condition in detail and can intelligently answer your questions about the camera. The best bet is to buy from a serious collector or a camera store. The extra cost is worth it. Many things can go wrong with even the simplest camera. This 35F arrived with a broken light meter, which makes the camera essentially useless. But my old 35F’s light meter worked fine, and here’s a photo to show the results.
I just bought a Minolta Hi-Matic 7, a rangefinder camera from 1963. I bought this one from a collector who described it in good enough detail that I believed it to be in good shape. It looks like it should take photos very well, and I look forward to trying it.