Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Pleasure of Collecting Old Cameras

I have a growing classic camera collection. Every since I turned professional in 2006 and was required to go digital (Advertising and Editorial Clients require digital files nowadays), I became nostalgic about film photography and all the equipment that came with it. So I started buying a few of the older cameras I have always wanted.  Before I realized what was happening, I had more than 50 cameras in my possession.

In the not so distant past, when film was still in general use, cameras were built to last. I can personally testify to the durability and mechanical reliability of these cameras, since I still use a number of them, mostly Canons, including the first 35mm my father gave me in 1978.

Century Graphic Press Camera with Heiland Flash

New digital cameras are built to have short product lives.  Technological breakthroughs now happen within months, not years.  Camera manufacturers have to keep pace with the competition and the latest upgrades in hardware and software generated by the computer industry.  As a result, manufacturers have made it a point to build less sturdy cameras, employing plastics instead of metal alloys (Pro cameras are the exception) to ensure constant replacements and upgrades.  How else can they generate sales for the their latest models.  Most Digital cameras are "throw-away" gadgets, products that are cheaper to replace than to repair, making these modern cameras unattractive to collectors in general who value, quality, durability and exclusivity.

Film cameras on the other hand, with the exception of the "instamatic" point and shoot variety that became popular from the 70's onwards (including the late Advantrix), were built solidly and were manufactured to last. Indeed, you can find a good number of cameras from the 1970s and 1980s still accurately firing despite years of heavy use-- and this goes for both the consumer oriented models, as well as the top of the line Professional models. As you go backwards in time, you will find lesser pristine examples but they do exist, but of course at a steeper price tag. This scarcity, brought about by time and the fact that there were fewer cameras manufactured in the past, makes these particular models highly collectible and attractive to collectors.

Argus C-44 with Cintagon lenses, L44 meter and viewfinder

I started collecting, because I found the nostalgic look of these cameras appealing.  As I purchased more cameras, I slowly gained respect not only for the intrinsic beauty they each possessed, but also for the mechanical integrity the designers put into each model.  These are basically just BLACK BOXES with a shutter and a hole!... but you can actually trace the gradual sophistication in technology each generation acquired from camera to camera.  From literal boxes with a hole in one end, it developed into these small mechanical wonders that were compact and solid within a decade or two.  Another thing that amuses me is the evidence of experimentation between one model to the next.  A camera would, for example, have a winding lever in the bottom in one model, then have it on top on the next...or that a shutter dial would be on the lens on the previous camera then on the body of the next.

Argus C-44R with lens set, lightmeter, folding flash and flex-viewfinder

Like an antique car collector, I have a deep appreciation for these mechanical marvels beyond their potential resale value.  I cannot bear to see them thrown-away and discarded as worthless, victims of the current trend to go "digital."  Unlike the prophets of doom, who have predicted the end to film, I am more optimistic... FILM IS HERE TO STAY!  Oil based paints did not die because Acrylics came into the picture!  Any Artist worth their two cents will tell you that each medium has its own character, and since the two mediums are distinct, they can each have their own purpose in an Artist's palette.  My work is a testimony to this!  I still use a lot of the vintage cameras in my collection, most of them dating to 50 years or older.  Like fine wine, they flavor my images with a distinctive patina that visual connoisseurs can appreciate.

100+ year-old Kodak 3A model C folding Pocket Camera

There is only one problem with my new found passion, what was one camera a couple of months ago has now blossomed into several dozen and my wife is not at all amused. She keeps asking me, "how many cameras does a photographer really need?" Well, it really depends...but I don't think that is the answer she is fishing for. So in a desperate attempt to salvage my marriage, I came up with a compromise-- Why don't I sell some of my treasures to fellow camera lovers out there, who can appreciate the beauty, craftsmanship and value of these modern classics. So collecting has now branched out to a hobby of camera restoration and repair for resale.

Aside from enjoying these works of Art, I am (some what) contributing to their preservation and helping to promote their resurgence. Working on these cameras has been therapeutic as well as educational for me. Not only have I expanded my knowledge about the inner workings of these marvelous machines, but I have also gained a deeper respect for the genuises that utilized these archaic tools (compared to new computerized digital models) to create masterpieces of Art. In the end, it is truely the Artist that creates the Art...but without these wonderful tools, he certaintly would have had a harder time getting there.

Another antique Kodak folding Pocket Camera

I encourage everyone to start collecting old cameras (specially mechanical models).  It is a wonderful and rewarding hobby that teaches you Photography from the inside out.  Not only can you use these cameras to hone your skills and broaden you palette, they can also be great investments in the long run.

Any camera is worthy of being collected.  Some people limit their collection to a camera's potential resale value; some people collect a particular format (35mm, medium, large or movie); some collectors stick to a particular brand (Leica, Hasselblad, Canon, Nikon, Bolex or Beaulieu); while others (like me) are more eclectic and chose cameras according to what gives them most pleasure and enjoyment.  I collect both still and movie cameras, but I am particularly fond of Canon, Mamiya and Bolex models (I will feature some of these cameras in the future).

Please do not discard these treasures like yesterday's garbage. Incapsulated in these cameras, are the history and technology of our Photographic Arts.  We must give them our proper respect.  We have relied upon these magnificent tools to carry our artistic visions for more than a century, and it is through them that we have acquired the technology that will carry our aesthetic aspirations into the future.

--Reprinted from my online Gallery:

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