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