How 25 cents changed my life

First published 21 August 2015. It was a garage-sale find. It cost a quarter. It changed my life.

The summer I turned 9, my brother and I took our first annual summer trip to visit our grandparents at their home on a lake in southwest Michigan. We spent a couple weeks with them, fishing and drinking pop and watching late-night TV.

We spent one hot afternoon visiting garage sales. At one I found a little Kodak Brownie Starmite II, a plastic and aluminum 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 bought my first camera.

Photo by E. Magnuson, used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

I played with the camera quite a bit the rest of the time I was at Grandma’s. I figured out how to wind it, how to open 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. I was fascinated by how the camera functioned. I was impressed with all the thought and work that had gone into designing and building it.

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 prints 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 prints to the children in them, because I have only a few left. Here’s a scan of one, of neighborhood children in South Bend, Indiana, in August, 1976.

Other cameras found their way into my hands, and I enjoyed them, too. And then I started cruising more garage sales on my bicycle, buying any old camera I could find, spending many happy hours learning their intricacies. It was an inexpensive hobby: old cameras were often available for pocket change, and few cost more than five dollars.

By the time I was a young adult I had more than 100 cameras. Most them were common snapshot cameras; some didn’t even work. But I did own a few gems — a Stereo Realist that took 3D photos, a Minolta 16-II subminiature camera, a 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.

As an adult, I displayed my favorite cameras in my home. 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. During the months of separation and divorce, I ended up selling or giving away a great number of things. Many other things were simply lost. My entire first collection is gone.

As I got back on my feet, one of the first things I did was buy a few old cameras. Collecting and shooting vintage gear helped me feel like myself again. I was thrilled to find that even after 30 years I had not lost lost my fascination with things that require careful design and construction. Prices are naturally higher now, but this hobby remains affordable with many interesting and capable cameras available for no more than $50.

No. 3A Autographic Kodak

I buy most of my cameras online at auction, and occasionally I find one in an antique store. Once in a while, one of my readers sends me an old camera! Some of those have become my very favorites, including my enormous No. 3A Autographic Kodak, which took postcard-sized photographs on film that is unfortunately no longer available. It’s on permanent display on a vintage Kodak tripod in my home office. I also love shooting with the Nikon F2 and Nikon F3 that a reader sent me — they are arguably the finest 35mm SLRs ever manufactured.

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 favor 35mm SLRs, but have a smattering of 35mm rangefinders and a few medium-format cameras, too. I shoot at least one roll of film with each of them, writing about the experience and sharing some of the results here. I enjoy this hobby even more this second time around.

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13 responses to “How 25 cents changed my life”

  1. brandib1977 Avatar

    The origins of an obsession! I love how your grandma slipped you the quarter and wonder how different your life might be had she not.

    Lovely story, Jim.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It’s The Butterfly Effect!

  2. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    That is one sweet No.3a. Years ago I junked most of my big roll film Kodaks because the bodies deteriorated, fell apart, and the leather dried out and flaked off. Wonderful to find one in this shape! BTW, as a pro sheet film shooter, I realized messing with these, that the lens/shutter combo is really just put on the front with a jam nut, same way you mount a lens on a board now on a sheet film camera. When you take them off, they usually have a little pin on the back of the shutter that fits in a shallow hole on the front to position the combination, but that can usually just be unscrewed from the back of the shutter without doing anything to the unit, it’s just there for that. Using the jam nut the same way, you can then drill the correct sized hole in a blank board, and use it on a modern view camera! You get some great results using these old lenses, some way sharper than you would think, some with edge aberrations that give wonderful “looks”.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      The bellows is full of holes, but otherwise the camera works. I haven’t had it out since I moved in with my wife but I’m considering buying 120 adapters and seeing what kind of images it can give. What a terrific tip about reusing these lenses!

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        I also used to take the cameras like this I had, made sure the bellows were somewhat OK, put a piece of black tape over the red film exposure number roll, from the inside, and in the dark, just taped a piece of 4×5 film in it, and took it with me driving around to use as a “one shot” camera! A hoot, and quite an excise in “seeing” to try and decide what you were going to expend your one shot on!

  3. nwellons Avatar

    Great story. I like the Starmite II so much that I ordered one but it cost me more than 25 cents. It came in today and is really cool. But the really cool thing is your article. Thanks.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Good luck with your Starmite II!

  4. Peggy Avatar

    I think inread this back when you first published, how time flies. Love that kodak.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Time sure does fly, and I had no idea you’ve been reading my blog that long!

  5. J P Avatar

    I loved this the last time I read it too. It is fascinating how someone can get started on an interest that fills a lifetime.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Crazy, isn’t it? I’ve had lots of hobbies but only this one has endured.

  6. ANNA J KENNEL Avatar

    Such a nostalgic story!! I loved the photo of the neighborhood kids. Continue to explore that which brings you joy!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m pleased you enjoyed my story!

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