In its simplest form a camera is elementary. A box, an opening, and light sensitive paper or film. Lens, selectable shutter speeds, aperture control, even focus are not necessary. You can make a simple pinhole camera yourself or buy a kit or even a completed version from many online shops. They are frequently made of wood and as much a piece of art as they are a working camera. If you don’t want to go to that much trouble you can buy a used box camera like the Kodak Brownie 2 or 2A for about $10-20. You might even have one in a box from a relative.
I happen to have 20-30 of those old box cameras (want to buy one?) Today we’re going to look at three examples of the box camera from the era 1900-1935: an Ansco Shur-flash, an Agfa B-2 Cadet, and a Kodak Six-20 Brownie. I’d like to say the photos below replicate the pictures you would have taken with these cameras back in the 1920’s but I can’t. Wait a minute, you say. Isn’t this the same camera without any controls? Did you use black and white film like in the 20’s you ask? You didn’t put a sensor inside to trick us, did you? It’s none of that but I did sneak in some new technology. The film. For starters it’s ISO 100 and back in the day it was most likely ASA 25 or 50. Our modern film has more contrast, is less finicky regarding handling in extreme heat, and it is formulated to handle contrast better. These photos were taken with Kodak T-Max.
There is a certain freedom when using these old point and shoot cameras beyond their simplicity and light weight. The complete lack of camera controls mean composition becomes the only thing that is important. Is the person or subject in the right position in the frame? Are the shadows and light in the right places and in the right contrast? (I would argue all point and shoot cameras are the same, even your phone camera.)
Despite these being essentially identical cameras, there is the issue of style to consider when choosing an old box camera from this era. Perhaps my favorite style of the three is the Kodak. As you will see in the photo, the art deco style of the front is superb. Designed in an era when efficiency wasn’t enough for industrial products, this camera has a face. They give me visions of Packards and Duesenburgs, stiff collars and bowler hats, and the Empire State and Chrysler buildings in NYC. Does the Six-20 work better because it looks better? Who cares! Other differences include the view finders. The Ansco has a tube that acts as the sight or viewfinder. The other two have a prism on either side of the camera, one for portrait and one for landscape orientation. Using the prism takes a little getting used to but when you zero in on it, the image is nice and bright.
Built in the day before enlargers, these old cameras produce a large negative at 2 ¼ x 3 ¼ also known as 6×9. The large negative, about eight times larger than 35mm, allowed the printer to print directly on photo paper, a process now known as a contact sheet.
I took these cameras out over a period of three days. Everything was shot in the middle of the day (between 11am and 3 pm) to take advantage of the bright separation and play to the strength of black and white composition. I took the pictures during the reopening of the economy know as Phase 2 of the COVID lock down. This explains the city streets without people. I developed using a generic D76 developer at home in the sink. After the film was developed, I scanned everything using an Epson V700 and then brought it right here. You will see the direct out of the scanner version and then the final print using Adobe Lightroom to create more contrast and make exposure adjustments. Noting has been sharpened in post-production.
Surprised? Sometimes we make photography about equipment. Many of us have GAS, Gear Acquisition Syndrome. We get fooled into thinking the equipment makes the photograph. If only I had the newest gizmo my pictures would improve, we think. Going back to a box with film reminds us that the equipment can get in the way of taking a picture and that it is the vision of the photographer and not the newest gadget that makes the difference.
If you’re even the slightest bit intrigued by my little comparison I encourage you to pick up an old wooden sided box camera and put a roll of film through it. I bet you won’t be disappointed.