It was going to be a series: photos of my boys leaning on my car in front of various restaurants where we ate dinner. And I was going to use nothing but box cameras. Then I made just two photos. It’s not much of a series.
Ansco B-2 Cadet, Kodak Ektar 100, 2016
I suppose I could make more, eventually. But now that both boys are out of high school we’ll simply go out together a lot less often. And what are the odds I’ll have a loaded box camera then?
Kodak Six-20, Kodak Verichrome Pan (exp 9/1982), 2016
The boys live near an Interstate highway, so the available restaurants are the chain diners you expect to find at an exit. I have a bunch of dietary restrictions which make ordering at a restaurant tricky. But I can always confidently order the bacon and eggs.
It so happens that I sent both rolls of film to Old School Photo Lab for processing. I didn’t order prints, but they printed these two images anyway and sent them to me for nothing. The prints are truly wonderful! Far better than these scans. Crisper, more vivid. If I didn’t tell you I took them with box cameras, you’d never know.
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 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.
Fellow photoblogger Mike Connealy recently self-published a thin, charming book of film photographs he’s taken with a few of his box cameras.
You might not think that such simple cameras can be used to create fine art, but page after page Mike’s book shows these old boxes’ artful capabilities. You can look at Mike’s book online here. If you’d like to own a copy, you can buy one here for a price so nominal that he can’t be making any real money off the venture.
After viewing and enjoying Mike’s work online for years, I really enjoyed seeing it printed. It’s easy to forget in this age of digital imaging that photographs were, for most of their history, a physical medium. And in printing a photograph, you exert final control over the image, not only in its size but in its density and contrast and how it renders highlights and shadows. An image on a screen is subject to the screen’s vagaries. The screen could be calibrated in any number of ways that affect the photograph and potentially take it far away from the photographer’s intentions.
Mike’s self-publishing experiment has triggered an interest in me in trying the same thing. I’m not entirely sure what I want from it beyond seeing my photographs bound and in the hands of others. Do I just want my printed work in a few peoples’ hands for their enjoyment, or do I want to make a little money off it perhaps to fund further photography? Do I want to do the work of marketing the book, even if only through this blog and Facebook and Twitter? How would marketing my book affect the relationships I’ve built with you here? And would anybody want to buy something that’s not too different, in content and style, from what they get on this blog for free anyway? And finally, where will I find the time for all of this?
I don’t know. But what I do know is that I started this blog on a lark in 2007, unsure what I wanted from it — and with experimentation and persistence, in time its purpose took shape and people like you started visiting regularly and enjoying my work. I can take much the same approach with this venture and see what happens.
If I decide to move forward, I’ll chronicle the journey all along the way here.
When I collected cameras as a kid I ended up with lots of basic cameras, mostly Instamatics and box cameras. When I started collecting again a few years ago I decided to focus on finer equipment. But lately some of the camera-collecting bloggers I follow have been getting some delightful images from their box cameras. I wanted to join the party, so I went box shopping. I decided to look only at post-war cameras that took 120 film. Later box cameras usually had better viewfinders and you can still buy 120 film. That knocked out nearly all of the Kodaks, since most took 620 film, long discontinued. The Ansco Shur Shot became an attractive choice.
Ansco was probably second to Kodak in popularity; they cranked out basic cameras by the thousands. They started making Shur Shots in about 1935. In those days, the company that owned Ansco also owned German camera and film maker Agfa, so you’ll find Shur Shots with the Agfa logo on them, too. US companies that owned, or were owned by, German firms were ordered to divest during World War II, so later Shur Shots like mine are Ansco only.
The Shur Shot is made mostly of cardboard, with metal plates fore and aft. There’s a little wood behind the faceplate for rigidity and to hold the single-element meniscus lens. The aperture is probably about f/13. The shutter, which probably operates at 1/60 sec., is in front of the lens. Loading the film involves removing a contraption from the box and spooling film around it, as the diagram at right shows. There are two viewfinders – one on top for horizontally oriented shots and one on the side for vertically oriented shots. To frame the shot, hold the camera at about bellybutton level and look down into the viewfinder. Then to get the picture, gently slide the shutter lever down and let it spring back. And with that, I have described probably nine of every ten box cameras made.
If you like box cameras, also see my review of the Ansco B-2 Cadet (here), the Kodak No. 2 Brownie, Model D (here) and Model F (here), and the Kodak Six-20 Brownie (here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.
One sunny afternoon I knocked off work a little early, spooled some Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros into my Shur Shot, and headed for Holliday Park.
I was pleased with this shot of the walking path through the park.
On the way home I stopped by Juan Solomon Park. This building was built there last year; I think it has something to do with the sanitary sewer project in my area. It has a sod roof! But it was the contrast between the white framing and the darkness inside through the windows that made me stop for a photograph. Everywhere the sun reflected off something light colored, the camera and film couldn’t cope well, as you can see on the forward edge of the building’s roof.
If you look at these photos at their full scanned size, you can see that the images are a little hazy. Focus is a little soft; the corners are extremely soft and a little distorted. Those characteristics are typical of the entire box-camera genre. But as you can see the images are more than serviceable. For the cost, ease of use, and quality of images the Ansco Shur Shot delivers, it’s no wonder that families everywhere used cameras just like this to capture their lives for so much of the 20th century.
If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here! To get Down the Road in your inbox or feed reader, subscribe here.