From a very young age I’ve been fascinated with anything that has buttons or knobs. I love to figure out how things work.
The summer I turned 9, my brother and I took our first annual summer trip to visit our grandparents at the little Michigan lake to which they had retired. We spent a couple weeks with them, fishing and relaxing and watching late-night TV. We spent one hot afternoon visiting garage sales and at one I found a little Kodak Brownie Starmite II, a plastic fixed-focus camera from the early 1960s. I turned it over and over, very curious. Grandma saw me looking at it, noticed the 25-cent price tag, and silently handed me a quarter. And so I got my first camera.
I played with the camera quite a bit the rest of the time I was at Grandma’s. I figured how to wind and shoot it. I removed the film transport, pressed my eye to the camera’s open bottom, and pressed the shutter to see light flash into the camera for a fraction of a second. I was fascinated by how the camera functioned and by all the thought and work that had gone into designing and building it.
When I returned home I loaded the camera with film. The neighborhood kids made me the center of attention – they all wanted to be in a picture. I shot the roll in an afternoon. When I brought the developed photos home from the drug store I was the center of attention again, as everyone wanted to see themselves. I must have given most of the photos away, because I have only four left. Here’s a picture from that first roll of film, from August, 1976.
An early-1950s Brownie Reflex found its way into my hands and I enjoyed it, too. So I started buying other old cameras at garage sales, spending many happy hours learning their intricacies. Old cameras were often available for pocket change and few that I found cost more than $5, which made this hobby affordable. By the time I was a young adult I had more than 100 cameras. The majority of them were common snapshot cameras; probably a third of them were broken. My collection did contain some gems – a Stereo Realist that took 3D photos, a Minolta 16-II subminiature camera, an Polaroid Model 95 that had belonged to my dad’s father, a Polaroid Super Shooter my grandparents gave me one Christmas (read that story), and a Kodak Automatic 35F that took some great photos on a trip to the Tennessee hills.
I displayed my favorite cameras in my home as an adult. My young sons were curious about my cameras, and we spent many pleasant hours on the living room floor playing with them. When I loaded film into one, they clamored to be in the photos just like the children in my old neighborhood. Then my marriage fell apart. In the process I sold or gave away a great number of things, and other things were simply lost. My entire first collection is gone.
Five years ago I started buying old cameras again and was delighted to find that even after 30 years I had not lost my fascination with things that require careful design and construction. Prices are naturally higher, but this hobby remains affordable with many interesting cameras available for as little as $10. I typically pay $20 to $40 for my cameras with a soft upper limit of $50, which I have broken on rare occasion. And so once again the fireplace mantle and many spare shelves in my home are lined with cameras. But this time, instead of collecting whatever cameras I find, I generally limit myself to working cameras that use film that can still be purchased. I shoot with as many of them as I can, writing about the experience and sharing some of the results here. I am enjoying this hobby even more this second time around.