Photography

Ansco B-2 Cadet

It’s not cynicism or resentment when I say that I can count the good memories from my marriage on one hand. We stumbled badly out of the gate and always had a rough time together.

But when we dated, it was magical. One of my favorite memories from those days is of an old box camera, an Ansco B-2 Cadet. They were made in huge numbers from the late 1930s through the late 1940s.

Ansco B-2 Cadet

This is as simple as photography gets: a light-tight cardboard box with a single-element lens and a rotary shutter. It’s probably f/11 at 1/50 sec. You peer down through one of the two viewfinders — one for portrait, one for landscape, both cloudy and dim — then slide the shutter lever and let it go. Click-clack, and you’ve got your photo. The trickiest thing about using a B-2 Cadet, or any box camera, is holding it steady.

Ansco B-2 Cadet

She was a professional photographer and my collection of old cameras amused her. They weren’t much, really — mostly everyday cameras, Brownies and such. Several of them didn’t even work. “It’s not junk, it’s gear,” she offered, kindly, as she rooted through the cardboard boxes I kept them all in. She looked several of them over before seizing upon the B-2 Cadet. “I have film for this,” she said. Turns out it takes 120, a film format still made today. “Would you like me to give you some?”

She brought me a couple rolls of Kodak Plus-X and we shot them together. I have a bunch of great photos of her and me and the young fellow who would shortly be my stepson. They ran a 5K together, and afterward I photographed them holding their medals. We photographed each other around my Indianapolis apartment and her Terre Haute home. And then she processed the film and made prints for me — real darkroom prints, the kind where you shine light through the negative onto photo-sensitive paper.

I cling to them. They record a rare great time in a relationship that quickly faltered and ultimately failed. I’m going to keep those images to myself, because I can’t imagine my ex would enjoy finding them published here for the world to see. But I did get a shot of her cat Charlie napping on the hood of my car. He loved to do that. He loved to nap in the driver’s seat even more, but this day I hadn’t left the window down. Here’s a print scan.

Charlie

It’s been ten years now since the divorce was final. I came out of the marriage with very little, and my entire first camera collection was a casualty. I’ve been building a new, better collection ever since.

It took a long time to work through what happened, but I’ve done it, and it’s nice now to remember fondly the few good times we had. I’ve come upon many Ansco B-2 Cadets over the years; they’re as common as pennies. But it’s only lately that I felt good about adding one to my new collection.

Sadly, there was no magic in this particular cardboard box.

Who knew that a box camera’s lens could be so dirty? It’s protected inside the camera, behind the shutter. But every shot I took on that first roll came back hazy.

Hazy McD's

And as I shot an entire series of fast-food restaurants along 38th St. in Indianapolis, I forgot that these cameras are meant to take photos of Aunt Martha and the kiddies at six to ten feet away. Beyond that, a subject you center vertically in the viewfinder will ride high in the resulting image.

Hazy Jack

What a waste of Kodak Ektar. Disappointed but undaunted, I cleaned the lens with a cotton swab and some rubbing alcohol. It was easy enough to get at the back of the lens: I just pulled out the film-transport insert and there it was. To get at the front, though, I had to remove the camera’s front plate and gently hold the shutter open with my finger.

I loaded a second roll of Ektar and tried again. I had lunch with my friend Rob while I had the camera with me, and he agreed to lean against his new truck while I made his portrait. This is just the kind of photo an old box camera is born to make. Cleaning the lens really did the trick.

Rob

I took the Cadet with me on a rainy-day trip to Osgood, Indiana, to meet with the Historic Michigan Road Association’s board of directors. I had learned my lesson: move closer to the subject.

Osgood

On a sunny day that soon followed, I shot the building in which I work. Our logo just went up on the front of the building. This shot shows well how sharp a box-camera photo can be at the center — and how soft in the corners.

MOBI

But then the shutter started acting sluggish, firing a half second after I moved the lever. And then on the second to last shot on the roll, the shutter stuck open. I guess I didn’t hold the shutter gently enough when I cleaned the lens. Fortunately, moving the lever to its original position closed the shutter. That shot was badly overexposed, but I tried again, opening and closing the shutter as quickly as I could. That shot was marginally usable.

Old school

I’d hoped to recapture old feelings of joy shooting my new B-2 Cadet, but it was not to be. You can’t really ever go back.

See the rest of my photos from these two rolls in my Ansco B-2 Cadet gallery.


Do you like old cameras? Then check out all of my old-camera reviews.

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17 thoughts on “Ansco B-2 Cadet

  1. You got some fine results from that box in the end. The unmagnified reflex finders on the the pre-war models are a real challenge to use, but the Agfa-Ansco meniscus lenses always seem to deliver.

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    • Thanks Mike! With the finders, I just looked at the general shape of my subject and made sure it was all in the frame. It worked out well enough. But next time I want some box-camera fun, I’ll just get out my No. 2 Brownie. It’s wonderful.

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  2. Christopher Smith says:

    Box cameras need a lot of tlc to get good results I always clean and lubricate a camera when I buy them before using them, you managed to get some good photos in the end well done.

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    • It never ceases to fascinate me, how people respond — or don’t — to my posts. It did not escape my notice that this post was live for eight full hours before its first comment. That’s not normal!

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    • If you’re really curious, I’ll send you this camera. I’ll see about lubricating the shutter lightly so that it’s reliable.

      There are so few 120 box cameras, relatively — so many of them take that damned 620.

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  3. Walter Czyz says:

    I have an old Brownie which I’ve never considered using. Part lack of bravery and knowledge of where to begin as far as purchasing and loading which film?
    I’ve always believed God has us all following our own life paths for a reason. Whether we understand those reasons or not, simply sit back and enjoy the life we have been given.

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    • What kind of Brownie? So many of them take film that isn’t made anymore. That’s why this B-2 Cadet is a good candidate to be used today: it takes still-manufactured 120 film. So many Brownies take 620, or worse, 616 or something like that. 620 is just 120 on a different spool, so you can make your own 620 by respooling 120 onto a 620 spool. Other sizes have been defunct for ages and there’s no easy way to adapt modern films to them.

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      • Walter Czyz says:

        I have 2. One is a No. 2 Brownie and the other a No.2a Brownie marked to use film type 116. I Stumbled upon your blog years ago when I bought a Kodak kit from the early 50’s which I’ve long since sold. I simply appreciate all things old rather than consider myself a photographer. My “nice camera” is a Nikon D7000 but it’s so big to lug around, so like yourself, I find myself using my phones camera too often. I rarely even use the compact zoom cameras any more. Nut back to the topic, I would be interested in trying to use the Brownie at least once, just to say and know that “I did it!”.

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        • Walter, that No. 2 Brownie takes 120, which you can still buy. Try adorama.com. I recommend Ektar 100. Then send the film off to oldschoolphotolab.com for processing!

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