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.
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.
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.
To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader six days a week, click here to subscribe!
To get my newsletter with previews of what I’m working on, click here to subscribe!