Oops – I appear to have fallen victim to another collecting habit, this time involving vintage cameras from the 1950s and 60s. I put the blame partly on Mr Cad, the rather excellent camera and photography shop near to Victoria Station, whose proprietors tend to fill the front of their window with the stock they’ve knocked down to clear. They recently acquired a large collection, which meant that you couldn’t avoid the tempting range of bargains on display and, with the breaking strain of a KitKat when it comes to a retro good deal, I walked out with quite a handful; indeed, it was a good job I’d not been able to go in earlier as I was beaten to a few I’d otherwise have acquired. Since then, my taste buds have been thoroughly whetted and now I can’t seem to go anywhere without coming across more tempting items. Our local vintage fair in Tewkesbury back in the Spring netted a few choice items, and I’ve already written about the mecca for photographic ephemera that is Arundel (but I’ll not shy away from giving another plug in particular to Chris Nicholls’ superb shop – since meeting him, he’s proved to be a fount of advice).
However, this year’s spurt of collecting is only reviving a latent interest that’s lain dormant over the last decade as wet film cameras got either very high end technical or rather dull and I was seduced by the ease of the ‘point and shoot’ digital. Of course, I’m of an age where cameras came only in degrees of sophistication rather than format as the box camera was already history. I started as a kid in the early 70s with a simple wind-on Kodak using the old 127 film, but when 35mm film and colour became the standard, and with a Dad who carried a good camera everywhere we went, I had little need to take much in the way of my own photographs until I’d left school. For a while, I used a cheap 110 film camera (I’ve got a feeling it was a prize my Mum had earned as an Avon Lady!), with the strip of flash bulbs that stuck in the top, but the results were pretty terrible and it just didn’t seem the right thing to be waving about at the rock’n’roll venues I’d started to frequent.
My Damascene moment came with the acquisition of a 1950s 35mm Kodak from the chuck-out bargain box at our local photography shop. Somehow (and to this day I’ve no idea how my technical skills suddenly got so deft), I managed to fix the shutter mechanism and overnight I discovered the joy of taking proper photos. What’s more, people on the scene seemed to respond differently to having an original 50s camera waved in front of them, giving me some of the best photos of the 80s rockin’ crowd I’ve ever managed. The icing on the cake came with the acquisition from the same shop of an original flash gun with its fold-out dish of silvered metal leaves – a Jodrell Bank in miniature. Flash photography was, of course, a luxury with each shot diminishing a precious stock of individual flash bulbs which were getting scarce even then but, oh boy, it looked and felt good to use. Sadly, the mechanism deteriorated steadily, and eventually fell victim to a break-in of my Beetle when I was using it as a stage prop, but it was replaced in time with an inherited Konica C35 – not quite so vintage but with some useful technological advantages.
And then I got boring, and gave into a motor wind point and shoot camera with built-in flash. I recovered my credibility for a while by reviving my Dad’s Olympus OM-10 – a great camera, but a bit serious-looking and definitely not the kind of thing to tote along to social events, especially with an electronic flash gun sticking out of the top. Then came digital, and my little collection of vintage cameras, which had grown to include a classic 50s Kodak Brownie acquired along the way as well as my Dad’s old cameras, disappeared into the loft until interest was reawakened by a friend’s enthusiasm for their new Fuji X-100. Brand new, yes – and digital – but this was something different as it was styled in classic late 50s fashion with knobs in all the right places but performing their modern-day functions. Best of all, it was metal-bodied and felt like a camera used to. At the same time, my niece discovered wet film photography and was delighted to take ownership of Dad’s heavyweight Russian-made Zenit-B. Overnight, my interest in cameras as a design item was rekindled and Mr Cad’s window beckoned.
So what is it about vintage cameras that’s so attractive? There’s a dash of pure nostalgia, of course, and not a little pleasure in the sense of complementing a vintage look with period equipment, but mostly it’s about the aesthetics. I’ve been trying to avoid collecting on any particular theme other than variety of design – from the simplicity of the little Kodaks, through some pretty art deco shapes, to the sheer artistry of the ‘look down’ viewfinder and over and under lenses of the early 50s. A couple have been acquired for their associations: I’ve a couple from AgiLux – late of the Purley Way in Croydon where Mrs M lived for a long time and, as I write this, I’m watching EBay bids on the same type of Edinex 35mm camera my father was using in 1953 (thankfully, he took a photograph of it in a mirror so tracking down the model was easy!).
Most, inevitably, are display only – some were cheap because they weren’t working, and quite a few of them only take the increasingly rare 127 film, and it seems wrong to use up the ever diminishing stock just for the sake of it. However, a charity shop find of a 35mm Kodak Retinette 1B in excellent condition – complete with an unused roll of film already in it – has changed all that and I’m about to embark on a quest to match the photos I took back in the 80s with some 21st Century attempts. Finding my way round the camera has been made easier by a bit of internet research which took me to the excellent on-line camera manual library maintained by Mike Butkus in the US. Where would we be without people like him? So the next time you see a MidCentury Chap pointing his 1959 model Kodak at you, smile for the camera…
There’s also a superb site for checking the history of vintage cameras called camera-wiki. I’ve embedded links each time I’ve mentioned a particular model but the main page is here.
An update – My good friend and professional photographer has pointed me towards his own page where he features his own collection of vintage cameras, including one I’ve been eyeing up in the window of Mr Cad myself. His website can be found here and is highly recommended.