Collecting Cameras

Remembering the Perma Matic 618

It would have been about 1970 when Mom bought the camera that she used to record our family for the next 20 years. It was a Perma Matic 618, a point-and-shoot camera that took 126 Instamatic film cartridges.

Mom told me the story once of how she came to buy it, but my memory is fuzzy. Maybe she bought it from a door-to-door salesman, or maybe she traded green stamps for it. But I remember clearly that Mom chose it for its built-in flash, which was a novel feature then. No more fussing with flashcubes — and, crucially, running out of them with photos still to make at a family event.

Photo credit: Etsy user JuniperHome

Never heard of the Perma Matic, you say? You’re not alone. There’s next to no information about the Perma Matic on the Internet. I found a mention that said its suggested retail price was $59, which is equivalent to about $450 today. That’s an awful lot of money for a 126 camera!

Everything else I know about the camera I know from inspection. It packs a 40mm f/5.6 Tosicor lens. As I’ve researched Tosicor lenses, they seem always to be fitted to cameras by Japanese maker Taron. The camera bottom is stamped “Made in Japan,” so I’m willing to bet this is a Taron camera.

A selenium light meter is next to the enormous flash. I’m not sure how the autoexposure worked — was the lens’s aperture fixed, meaning the camera adjusted the shutter speed? Could the camera stop down from f/5.6? What was the range of shutter speeds? There is no way to set focus, and autofocus hadn’t been invented yet, so this camera’s focus had to be fixed. I am guessing that the in-focus range was five feet to infinity, because a label on the back declared that the flash was good from five to 15 feet.

The shutter button is on the camera face, to the left of the lens. Push it down to activate the shutter. The winder is a lever nearly flush with the body, on the back at the bottom. Also on the back was a switch to turn on the flash, which emitted a shrill whistle while it charged. When the flash was ready the whistling stopped and a red light on the back glowed. I have no idea how the flash was powered — from photos I find on the Internet, I see no battery door anywhere on the body.

A black, zippered leather case with a strap came with the camera; “Perma Matic” was printed on the front in silver letters. Mom always kept hers in the case. Here she is holding it at Christmas in 1984. She was not pleased that I was photographing her. (Yes, people smoked in their homes then.)

This camera was enormous. It was larger in every dimension than a contemporary 35mm SLR body. This page is one of a very few on the Internet about this camera, and it shows the Perma Matic next to a Canon FX SLR from the 1960s.

This is the first camera I ever used to make a photograph. When I was about four, my family took a trip to New York State. When nobody was looking, deep curiosity about how this camera worked drove me to pick up the Perma Matic and make a few photographs of our hotel room. My mom caught me at it, and boy was I ever in trouble. Film was expensive, and I’d wasted a bunch of shots!

Some years ago Mom gave me an album of photographs from my first five years. The later photos in that album were all made on the Perma Matic. They were all in sharp focus and properly exposed, and the flash lit all of the scenes well and evenly. Here’s a scan of a print from my fourth birthday, which was in 1971. That’s my grandmother on the left; she was the same age in this photograph that I am now.

Mom still has boxes full of family photos made with the Perma Matic. I’ve not seen hardly any of them since she made them. Someday I ought to make her get them all out so I can see them!

I don’t remember now what led Mom to finally replace her Perma Matic. I had grown up and moved out by the time that happened. But I’m pretty sure she used it until she bought her Nikon Zoom Touch 400, a frankly awful camera that wasn’t available until 1990. Mom got her money’s worth out of the Perma Matic!

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