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Vintage cameras come with stories to tell

By Rusty Rae

I grew up in a family of photographers. Both my mother and father went to the Ray Vogue School of Photography in Chicago on the GI Bill after WWII. My parents operated a photo studio in both Sheridan, Wyoming and Bozeman, Montana and as a youngster I was strapped into a highchair in the darkroom while they processed film and prints.

It wasn’t long before I knew that the when the timer went off it was time for the film to go into the fixer. We moved to Seattle in the late 1940s and my father took up his profession as a commercial photographer, finishing his career at The Boeing Company.

With that as a background it is, then, not surprising that I have developed an interest in vintage cameras, both from a historical perspective and also as an opportunity to make a few shekels on the side, supporting my other vices, photography, travel, and spirits of all flavors.

While I’m certainly not going to get rich selling vintage cameras – honestly I’d rather be making photographs – the stories behind these cameras captivate me – and sometimes those stories tug at my heart strings and actually make it difficult to sell a camera.

Often times I’ll buy a box of cameras which includes a number of items, which while vintage in terms of its age, are not worth a great deal for a number of reasons – either the fact there were a bajillion of them made, or they were simply not a great camera to start with.

My collection ebbs and flows with the market, most of which is sold on ebay, where there is thriving market for collectable cameras. But in looking for cameras I regularly check the Salvation Army Thrift store and other stores of its ilk as well as collectable stores. I’ve developed a cadre of fellow travelers in the world of camera collecting and we regularly trade stories and information about the latest news of what’s selling and what’s not.

Currently, the top camera in my collection is a Nikon S range finder camera. This was the first model of cameras that Nikon made and as a long-time Nikon user this piece has a special place in my heart.

However, the Nikon S4, a camera that was only sold in Japan, is really the camera that put Nikon on the map as a photojournalist’s camera. The company had been making lenses that fit the German Leica (a screw mount lens) and their S camera like the one I have. As the story goes the company gave David Douglas Duncan a complete kits of S4s as went off to cover the Korean Conflict.

As the story goes, Duncan made a historic entrance at the Time-Life lab in NYC, walking in wearing battle fatigues after a flight from Korea with film from a battle.

Eastman Kodak, which at one time was king of the photographic industry and rightfully takes credit for jump starting the industry from its niche to an international hobby.

Predicting in the 1990s that there would be more changes to the art in the next decade

than in the previous 150 years, the great yellow father in Rochester, unable to keep pace with those chances, today is a skeleton of itself in its prime.

While there are few Eastman Kodak cameras considered as collectable, I currently have three in my collection. The oldest, an old box camera, a dusty remnant of the early days of photography, a shelf piece, that is only kept for its sentimental value. But if it could talk, the stories it could tell!

There are two other Kodaks, a Kodak Bantam and a Pony 135. The Bantam was one of numerous models Kodak made in the early 1950s while the Pony was its first attempt at a 35mm camera made in the states.

Another 35mm camera, the Petri 35, a camera from the Vietnam era, was a popular camera with members of the military, a pocket 35mm camera, often purchased on R&R leave in Hong Kong, Tokyo, or the base PX.

I also have a pair of twin-lens reflex cameras that provide interesting insight into the photo industry of the mid 1950s. The Rolleiflex, German-made, the camera of most photojournalists in Europe in the mid 1950s and highly prized for its workmanship as well as the crisp images it produced. It used 120 film and provided a large 2-1/4 square frame. My parents scrimped and saved to buy one.

A second twin lens reflex in the collection is the Ricoh Diacord, one of many Japanese copies of the Rollei. There were numerous other copies made by several Asian companies.

The Ikonta, sometimes branded as the Bessa, a camera with a folding bellows, is an example of a throw-back camera, made in Germany after WWII. This is the configuration of many cameras made in the late 1920s and 1930s, featuring a Zeiss lense.

One of the newer members of the collection, awaiting its turn on the eBay market is a Bronica 645 single-lens-reflex camera which used 120 roll film but rather than producing a square negative, turned out a rectangular frame that was the same aspect ratio as standard prints of the day, such as 8x10 or 16x20.

It feature interchangeable lenses, and was a favorite of wedding photographers. Alas, Bronica was not able to transition to the digital age, and went out of business.

There are several other non camera items that came to me in boxes of cameras. There are a pair of General Electric hand-held light meters. Rather than using the standard ASA for film speed, GE had its own scale and photographers had to convert film speeds from ASA to the GE scale.

Another hand-held light meter in my collection is the iconic Sekonic L398, an incident light meter that reads light source rather than the reflected light in the scene. Many photographers today still use this meter. It’s design has not been changed in 50 years.

If you want to learn photography, the best way to make tons of images. Back in the days of film, if you weren’t well-healed financially, the best way to save on film costs was to roll your own. Photographers then would by 100 foot rolls of film and use a film cassette loader. The Watson was one of the most popular and in my day I am sure I have rolled thousands of rolls of film.

Finally, there is the Fuji digital camera, one of the first of the digital era. It feature a whopping two megapixel image, barely big enough to make an 8x10. It uses a XD card that would be difficult to find a reader for these days. It will probably go to a young nephew as a toy, once I know it is operational.

I love history and the stories these vintage cameras tell give me a tableau of the development of the technology, while at the same time providing admiration for the state of the art today with our majestic digital cameras.

Rusty Rae is a photographer and writer for the News-Register. You can contact him via email at

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