Why I collect cameras

27 comments on Why I collect cameras
4 minutes

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.

Neighborhood kids, August 1976

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.

Some photos from cameras in my first collection can be found in this post and in this post.


27 responses to “Why I collect cameras”

  1. ryoko861 Avatar

    So you have your grandparents to thank! And .25 for that Brownie! OMG, what a bargain! I don’t really collect cameras, they seem to find me. My son is into the Polaroids so I’ve been keeping an eye out for them. Of course, if I see an old camera at a garage sale I know enough to check it out and purchase it if the price is right.

    And now…..I think of you when I see an old or vintage camera.

    1. Jim Avatar

      I have mindshare! Yes!

      Back in the 70s, old snapshot cameras were considered junk and went for next to nothing.

  2. Lone Primate Avatar
    Lone Primate

    It must be nice to still have stuff you were shooting so long ago! I don’t have much of my own earlier than the late 80s, and even then, not much.

    I was reading in The Toronto Star on the weekend that Kodak across the lake in Rochester is on the ropes and fusing its silicon by selling off its patents to cover the bills as it prepares to go supernova; the story detailing its missteps on the road. It’s really affecting. Who’s left producing film now? Fuji?

    1. Jim Avatar

      I have every negative and most of the prints (I gave away some). It’s amazing that I managed to keep all that stuff during the rough years; I lost/gave away/had to sell so much.

      I’ll look up that Toronto Star article. Kodak still makes film, as does Fuji. There are some European manufacturers too. I used Kodak film 90% of the time when I was young (I occasionally used 3M film too — that’s what all the store-brand stuff was back then). But I’ve switched to Fuji now, mostly because for my purposes the cheapest 200 speed film is what I buy and today, that’s always Fuji.

      1. Lone Primate Avatar
        Lone Primate

        Sorry about that–I should have included a link. The article is here: http://www.thestar.com/business/article/1112090–the-last-picture-show

        Interesting that Fuji has managed to straddle the fence so well while Kodak hasn’t. People can still buy Fuji’s film–it’s the first name that comes to mind for someone like me these days–but also buy their digital cameras. They came out with the first digital 3D camera that I know of, the FinePix W1 (I think there’s now a W2). I wish Kodak had managed that. Digitally speaking, I started out with Kodak; my first four digital cameras were Kodak; I later had a fifth for just carrying around before I switched mostly to Canon.

        1. Jim Avatar

          Fujifilm is just one of many Fuji businesses; I wonder if that plays.

          My first digicam was a Kodak and it was excellent. Not as good as my S95 but I’d still take it on a road trip quite happily.

      2. Lone Primate Avatar
        Lone Primate

        The first digital camera I thought was a “real” camera… the first that felt like they’d stepped up and at least matched the level of the P&S film cameras most folks used to carry around on vacation, was a Kodak; my fourth digital camera (all of them Kodaks), the DC4800. It was the first megapixel camera I ever owned: 3.1 MP, giving a passable 4×6. It had a flash, zoom, review LCD, rechargeable batteries, variable EV, and some neat little tricks like in-camera B&W and sepia toning. It was a bit too big to carry around, and had a neck strap instead of a wrist strap, but it was still a wonder to me. I used that thing every few weekends for about 4 years. Kodak made that possible. So I’m sad to see them passing.

  3. Tori Nelson Avatar

    Jim, I think this is my favorite post of yours. It’s cool to hear how the photo magic started!

    1. Jim Avatar

      Thanks Tori!

  4. mj monaghan Avatar

    Isn’t it interesting, Jim, how we start down a certain road. Something so small, like a quarter from your grandma! Blessings my friend.

    1. Jim Avatar

      From tiny beginnings…. Thanks!

  5. Laszlo Avatar

    Hi Jim, I have been following your blog for a few weeks now, but I have to say I really enjoyed this post. It is also amazing to still have pictures from the first roll you ever shot. I bet you could share lot of memories just by looking at any of those old pictures. :-)

    1. Jim Avatar

      Hi Laszlo, and thanks for reading! My family moved away from the neighborhood two months after I shot the photos on that roll of film, so I treasure them extra.

  6. saigon Avatar

    first you lose them and regret, then again rebuy them. but i guess those are new cameras , not the models you somehow lost.

    1. Jim Avatar

      I have re-bought a few cameras I had before — the Argus A-Four, the Kodak Brownie Starmatic, and the Kodak Automatic 35F.

  7. Ted Kappes Avatar

    My youthful experience with cameras is similar to yours. Although I think in me that fascination lay dormant for a few years. Once it reawakened I was glad that I still had some of my old cameras around and since have gotten more. Have enjoyed discovering your blog.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Ted, thanks for stopping by. I blog about a bunch of things here, but cameras are certainly a mainstay.

  8. zorgor Avatar

    You know, this makes me remember a painting I bought at a garage sale for 25 cents when I was a kid… Hmmm… Kids really are impressionable I guess. So I think it’s high time my daughter gets her first camera! The only question is, can I wait 6 months until her birthday? :)

    Btw, the painting is of a completely undeveloped section of Miami Beach in 1938, at sunset.

    1. Jim Avatar

      How we cling to the happy parts of our childhoods!

  9. rsmithing Avatar

    Very cool post! There’s a lot to appreciate about cameras… I think they’re an art form unto themselves, having to achieve a goal (photography) in a certain way (conveniently, effectively), with a certain set of rules (workable by human hands). The more I explore photography, the more I’m drawn to these classic designs as a way of connecting with history.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog – glad I discovered this!

    1. Jim Avatar

      Thanks! These classic designs are absolutely a link to history. Imagining what the world was like at the time one of my old cameras was new is part of what makes me collect!

      1. nick Avatar

        Jim you spur a thought in me: “a link to history”.
        This is so true. Analog pictures will survive centuries whereas digital formats will be lost whithin a decade.
        I’m so happy to have infected my boys with analog gear. They will be able to share these same warm memories when they will be our age.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Way to keep the flame alive, Nick!

  10. […] on Down The Road, a blog by Jim Grey in Indiana. He did an excellent post earlier this year on why he collects vintage cameras, and I re-read it again today. Since that time, I’ve taken the above photo, and have become […]

  11. Toni Avatar

    I have a late 1800s Brownie camera…..i display it on my desk….it even smell like th 1800s…or what I think the 1800s smelled like..lol…….it has all the info on the camera as well Rochester I think NY….not sure (don’t feel like walking down stairs)…lol
    Oh I love the story about your summers with your grandparent…when ever I feel blue I read it and it cheers me up.

  12. Toni Avatar

    Jim,..one last thing ……im a few years older than you…….So hopefully you can relate to this story…..do you remember the water wiggle by wamo?……well one summer it almost strangled me to death..lol….no kidding……about 10 of us were playing in my backyard when all of a sudden the water wiggle started choking me…the harder i tugged at it the stronger the grip…..I was about to pass out,when my aunt saw the desperation in my eyes and turned off the water hose ….true story….a year later a kid was strangled to death…and the water wiggle was banned……..

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I do remember the water wiggle thing. It was advertised endlessly on TV when I was a boy. Didn’t know it was so dangerous!

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