You might think this post’s title is the dumbest I’ve ever written. If you’ve read this blog for more than a week, you know I love cameras! But this post is a rerun from March of 2007, when this blog was just a month old. With it I introduced vintage cameras and film photography to the blog. I’m a better writer now than then, so I edited the heck out of it for this throwback.
My parents were sure I was headed toward a career in engineering — I simply couldn’t keep my fingers off anything with buttons or knobs. I wanted to know what they did!
My great grandmother had a very old TV, and behind a panel right at kid height were about a million knobs. Whenever we visited, if I was left alone with that TV I turned as many of those knobs as I could before being discovered. This almost certainly caused her to utter choice words when she settled in that night to watch Gunsmoke.
My button-pushing and knob-twisting ways were so known to my grandparents that when they got a CB radio — it was the 70s, after all — Grandma took me aside, pointed to the SQUELCH knob, and said, sternly: “Jimmy, now, if you turn that knob, it will explode!” It was several years before I figured out that was a scam.
My parents knew better than to leave me alone with gear of any sort, but they slipped up on one family trip when I was 4. I found Mom’s camera in our hotel room and took about 10 photos — of the doorknob, the corner of the bed, the wall, and so on. I felt so grown up with that camera, but when I was discovered I was on restriction for quite some time.
My camera dreams came true the summer I turned 8. I was with Grandma browsing at a garage sale when I found a little Kodak Brownie Starmite II, a simple fixed-focus camera from the early 1960s that took 127 roll film. I picked it up and turned it over and over, very curious. Grandma aked, “Do you want that?” I was quite embarrassed to have been noticed, and I stammered, “Oh, no, I don’t know, not really.” Grandma noticed the 25-cent price tag and silently handed me a quarter. Now I was both embarrassed and relieved, because I really did want that camera.
Through trial and error I discovered how to open it and how to wind it. I pressed my eye to the open bottom of the camera and pressed the shutter to see light flash into the camera for a fraction of a second. I looked at the camera’s face, pressed the button, and saw the shutter open and close almost imperceptibly. I was fascinated with the camera’s intricacy and with all the thought and work that had gone into designing it.
It took me a long time on my 50-cent allowance to save enough money for film and processing. When I loaded that first roll of Kodacolor II into the Brownie and took it out into the neighborhood, the kids flocked to me. They all wanted to be in a picture! When the prints were back from the drug store I was the center of attention again as all the kids wanted to see themselves. I must have given most of the prints away, because I have only four left. Here’s one print from that first roll of film, from August, 1976.
Other cameras found their way into my hands: a Brownie Reflex Synchro Model with flash holder, a cheap Instamatic knockoff, a new Polaroid Super Shooter instant camera for Christmas.
But I didn’t start to deliberately collect cameras until I was a teenager. I’d get on my bike each Saturday morning and ride all over town to garage sales, for something to do. But then one day I came across an Argus A-Four 35mm camera that had more stuff to figure out on it than I’d ever seen — aperture and shutter speed and focus. To help me figure it out, a friend who was taking a photography class in school gave me a roll of film from the school’s stash. It became and remained a favorite camera, reliably taking nice photos.
By the time I was 25, I had accumulated about 100 cameras — a bunch of Brownies, a few movie cameras, a dozen Polaroids, some box cameras, several very old folding cameras, too many crappy Instamatics, and more. I took photos with some of the cameras. Other cameras’ picture-taking days were clearly over.
After I married and had children, my young sons used to ask to look at my cameras. I was reluctant at first, but I eventually relented and found that they treated them well and genuinely enjoyed them. I showed the boys how they worked, all the things that fascinated me as a boy — how to open them, set them so that the shutter would fire, put their eye up to the opening to watch light flash into the camera. Over the years we spent many pleasant hours on the living room floor playing with my cameras. And one time I bought a roll of film for a camera I wanted to try. My sons followed me everywhere, wanting to be in the photo.
As my first marriage crumbled away I found it necessary to sell my entire collection, along with a great deal of my other personal possessions. It was a very sad time in my life. But unexpectedly I have not missed most of what I sold, and only a few of my cameras.
But as the divorce years ended and I turned 40 I decided to start a new collection. I actually have money now and can buy cameras in good mechanical and cosmetic condition. I’ve also put film through every camera I’ve bought for which film remains available. I haven’t kept every camera I’ve tried. I’d say 250 cameras have passed through my hands, and about 100 remain. And now I’m even reducing that number to the 20 or so I’ll use regularly.
That’s not to say I won’t keep buying new-to-me old cameras, though. I’m sure this is one fascination that I’ll never lose.