I bought this Ansco B-2 Cadet to reconnect with one of the few good times of my first marriage. It’s not cynicism or resentment when I say that I can count the good memories from my marriage on one hand. A day with an Ansco B-2 Cadet was one of them.
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.
My first wife 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 my stepson. They ran a 5K together, and afterward I photographed them holding their medals. 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.
It’s been a long time 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; Ansco made them in huge numbers from the late 1930s through the late 1940s. But it’s only lately that I felt good about adding one to my new collection.
By the way, I’ve reviewed a bunch of other boxes: the Kodak No. 2 Brownie Model D (here) and Model F (here), the Agfa Clack (here), the Ansco Shur-Shot (here), the Kodak Duaflex II (here), and the Kodak Brownie Hawkeye (here). You can also see all of the cameras I’ve reviewed here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.