Copyright © 1995, 2002, David Silver.
BUYING CLASSIC CAMERAS
by David Silver
Surprising Buys For Under $300!!!
When the topic of "classic" collectible cameras comes up in conversation, many photographers immediately think of high quality 35mm equipment from the world's top manufacturers. After all, we can readily recognize and appreciate the allure of the finest modern 35mm cameras that grace the shelves of photographic supply stores today, so it only seems logical that the "antique" predecessors of these marvelous machines would have an attraction and value all their own. However, while the collectors of vintage Leica, Nikon, Canon, Contax, and others, struggle with the price inflation and limited supplies created by competition between "users" and speculators, there are other areas of the classic camera market that remain relatively untouched and provide exciting affordable alternatives for anyone interested in acquiring photographic artifacts.
At this point many of you may think I'm referring to much more common fare, such as dusty old snapshot cameras, plastic instamatics, amateur movie cameras, or perhaps Polaroids, but even the beginning collector can look forward to a far greater variety of fascinating vintage cameras from which to choose without having to break their bank. This is particularly true for the 30 years or so preceding 35mm film's initial popularity, when traditional rollfilms were the dominant medium and the glass plate remained the preferred format for most press and landscape photographers. The many cameras that utilized these processes from the 1890's through the 1920's represent an abundant, colorful, often inexpensive, and historically significant treasure trove of collectible material for the camera enthusiast today. Without needing to go into great technical detail, much of which will be provided in later articles, let me whet your appetite as we take a brief look at just a few of these attractive alternatives.
Probably the most famous and recognizable name of that era was Kodak. While the Eastman Kodak Company offered dozens of fine rollfilm models in the years just before World War I, the highly successful Folding Pocket Kodak series would represent a fascinating and rewarding collection all by itself. From the tiny No. 0, through the bizarre later versions of the No. 1 and No. 1A (whose wild designs are said to resemble lunar landing modules more than cameras!), the square No. 2, the huge No. 4, and culminating in the extremely popular No. 3A that produced postcard size photographs, there was a myriad of variations on this successful theme. These simple yet elegant folding bellows cameras from the first decade of this century remain excellent values as collectibles, ranging from as little as $25 to no more than $100 for the less common models. And this doesn't take into consideration the cheaper "junior" or the more elaborate "special" variations that appeared slightly later. The supply is abundant, so don't settle for worn or damaged pieces, and pay special attention to examples with fancy red bellows and polished wood decorative highlights. They're really quite lovely!
Kodak was also the manufacturer of the Brownie line of inexpensive black cardboard box cameras. While the original Brownie, introduced at the turn of the century, sold for only a buck, collectors gladly pay over $100 for a fine example today! Furthermore, in 1900 a six exposure roll of film for your Brownie would have cost just fifteen cents, and the auxiliary waist level viewfinder that attached to the camera's front edge would have set you back another quarter. That same little accessory today can add $25 to the overall value of the camera! The original Brownie was an immediate and profound success. It was renamed the No. 1 Brownie the following year and eventually a total of six more models were introduced for six other rollfilm sizes. These were the No. 0, No. 2, No. 2A, No. 2C and No. 3 Brownies. (Please note that Kodak numbered their various camera models according to the film size they used and not by the order in which they appeared. Most of the other manufacturers followed a similar pattern, often using the same numbers as Kodak. Therefore you must never assume, for example, that a No. 1 model was necessarily on the market before a No. 2 model because that was frequently not the case!) Despite their antiquity, these other Brownie models are all quite common, especially the No. 2A, and easily found in the $5 to $20 range. Once again, insist on quality examples and don't "bargain" shop for damaged goods! However, here's the trick that makes collecting these simple items so much more interesting. Several of the models went through a number of subtle design changes, and a few were later made of aluminum instead of the traditional black cardboard construction. Can you collect all of the variations? And if that's still too easy for you, some were also available in a number of fancy colors and are worth up to triple the price of a black example today!
The Ansco Company, which descended from the great American firm of Anthony after it joined with Scovill, was another major producer of popular cameras and the chief competitor to Kodak before World War I. They produced their own folding rollfilm camera line, in even greater variety than Kodak, and challenged the Brownie with a version of the simple black box they called the Buster Brown. Other companies were quick to jump on the "camera clone" bandwagon. Along with Anscos, Kodaks, Buster Browns, and Brownies, the sharp-eyed collector roaming the dark recesses of flea market stalls, thrift stores, and garage sales should be on the lookout for Folding Senecas, Cartridge Premos, Hawkeyes, Kewpies, Buddies, Box Scouts, and there were even Folding Brownies and Folding Buster Browns. All of these, and more, are available for under $100 and seldom over $25.
For the collector interested in something more exotic or undeniably antique, take a look at the spectacular American folding plate cameras of the late 1890's. These are traditional, ornate wood view cameras self-contained in their own protective boxes. The Rochester Optical Company produced a long line of such cameras, the Premo series, all sporting beautiful cherry or mahogany wood interiors, rich pebble grain leather covered exteriors, and finely machined brass fittings and gears. They were truly works of art. Several models offering professional swings and tilts for advanced image manipulation, some even with long focus capability, would do well today with the addition of a modern color-corrected and coated lens. Other firms and their camera lines included Gundlach Optical with the Korona, Manhattan Optical with the Wizard, Rochester Camera Manufacturing with the Poco, and many more. This was a singularly American expression in camera design and these old "cycle" or "hand and stand" cameras can be found frequently languishing in the back rooms of established photography studios or hiding in great dusty leather cases under the junkiest tables at flea markets. General antique dealers often ignorantly price these beauties several times actual market value (and when you see a truly clean example for the first time, you'll understand their optimism!), but the price range is really only about $75 to $125 for most 4 x 5 or smaller models, up to around $200 to $300 for larger elaborate versions. Realistically, while the supply dwindles, these prices should climb dramatically in the future, but it's still a buyer's market today.
Finally, for an example of a classic early 20th Century American camera that's not only very collectible, but still quite usable, check out the Folmer Graflex Corporation's famous work horse, the Speed Graphic. Studio photographers today still covet this plain Jane derivative of the American folding plate camera. Rugged beyond belief, offering a super fast shutter and available with just about any of the finest lenses of its day, the Speed Graphic remained a symbol of photographic integrity right into the 1960's. While users seek the later Crown and Pacemaker versions, and pay twice the cost because of supply and demand, the earlier models from after World War I, and especially the 4 x 5 size, are fabulous bargains in the $150 to $200 range. My particular favorite, however, is the Miniature Speed Graphic of 1938. Offering the currently popular 2 1/4 x 3 1/4 inch format, it can support standard sheet film in individual holders, up to a dozen sheets with a quick working "magazine" back, or #120 rollfilm in a special adapter. Using that latter alternative for the sake of comparison, figuring a current price around $300 for a Miniature Speed Graphic plus the rollfilm adapter, it's a mere fraction of what a modern medium format camera might cost! I happen to have a particularly fine example of the Miniature Speed Graphic for myself, a real beauty from the very first year of production, that other collectors frequently offer to buy. Sorry, folks, I'm just too fond of this little guy and it's simply not for sale. Besides, although it's now over 60 years old, I really do use it!!
[Editorial note: This article was written in response to the many inquiries we've received about antique and collectible cameras, and is just the first in what we believe will be a regular popular feature for our Photo Shopper readers to enjoy. Future "Buying Classic Cameras" columns by David Silver will deal with many more specialized areas in the evolution of the camera and the history of photography. If you have further questions or suggestions in this area, please feel free to contact the editorial staff. In the meantime, thank you for joining us and welcome to the fascinating world of camera collecting!]
Copyright © 1995, 2002, David Silver. All rights reserved.
This article first appeared, as edited here from a longer original manuscript, in the December 18, 1995, issue of Photo Shopper magazine. If you'd like to reprint the article, purchase secondary rights, or discuss the possibility of acquiring new articles, please feel free to contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org, thank you!
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