Those who know me well, will know that as well as being a photographer, a student, a would-be artist, and tutor, I am also a prolific camera collector. When I tell people that I have 52 cameras in the collection so far, the response I usually get is “why?” Sometimes, they run away and on occasion have been known to tell me of the cameras in their loft/basement/parents’ house etc. that I might be interested in. It’s all in fun, of course. I guess that everyone who collects something is subjected to being categorised as being a bit of a nerd, which doesn’t bother me greatly.
The answer to the first question, is that I’m fascinated by the evolution of the camera. Photography as we know it has been around since the early 1800s, when Joseph Niépce conducted experiments with his new heliography process. His used a camera obscura to make his famous image, credited as being the oldest surviving photograph, View from the Window as La Gras (c 1826). The camera obscura had been around for many centuries before that; its origins dating as far back as ancient Greece. They are widely still used today, and I have a modern variant in my collection, that I’ve talked about before in Forget the Gear, Have an Idea(linked below). From the humble pinhole camera, the evolution of cameras kept in step with the evolution of the light-sensitive materials being used, from the heated bitumen of Niépce’s heliography, through Daguerre’s polished metal plates, to the modern films and papers pioneered by Kodak. Improvements in lenses and shutters offered photographers more flexibility in how they shot their subjects, as well as a variety of creative styles that we see in photographs today. Every camera manufacturer that emerged during the 20th Century wanted to add their own special design ‘sauce’ to their equipment, and it is this that got me started in collecting cameras of historical significance. That’s not to say that they are all of the highest quality or have the greatest lenses etc., they just need to have been important in moving photography forward in some way. Take the Nikon F (1959), for example. Here was a camera that offered a true ‘system’ for the first time in 35mm. The viewfinder prisms, focusing screens and even the film transport could be changed to suit a variety of needs. Not surprisingly, it rapidly became a choice for professionals and photojournalists, who up until then were probably shooting 35mm Leicas. It was so popular that it forced the mighty Leica to up their game, in order to survive. The F was the blueprint for 5 further variants, as well as many other derivative consumer models. I have an F in the collection and an F6, which was the last of the line. The latter looks and feels like my digital SLR cameras, so it could be argued that the DNA lives on, some 63 years after the first version.
The first and the last - My 1960s Nikon F and 2018 Nikon F6
The other major manufacturers of the age were also blazing their own trails in 35mm, each time offering more reliability, compactness, lighter weight, better glass quality and, with the advances in electronics, more accurate metering. In the medium format world, the professionals were shooting Hasselblad, Rolleiflex, Mamiya etc., all offering something new, in similar way, as they evolved. It’s to be expected, of course because that’s how technology works, right?
Well, not entirely. It is true that camera technology marches on at great pace – I talked about that in my recent blog about mirrorless. Cameras are becoming much more than they were, most notably in their ability to shoot video; a must if anyone wants to become a vlogger or professional videographer. All of this is not what I’m referring to. My concern is more about the concept of designing new film cameras, something I have mixed feelings about. I applaud the desire to make new cameras for the film community, but in some cases, I have a problem with what they are trying to produce. I regularly read about people seeking funding to make quirky or unusual cameras, some of which I don’t really see any merit in at all. Producing something that looks cool, operates in an unusual fashion, but has limited shutter speeds or poorly made lenses, doesn’t make any sense to me. It seems to be a modern misconception, that producing photographs that are the result of poor technique or a crappily made camera, is somehow creative. For me, this is not the case. In my view, creativity uses whatever is to hand that helps bring the creator’s vision to life; anything beyond doing that is embellishment. Simply producing something bad without knowing why, is not creativity as I see it. A new camera dedicated to this is certainly not needed. If you want to create strange or unusual images, use an unusual film, or buy a Holga. Holgas have been around for decades, are widely known to be poorly made, but produce those ‘interesting’ pictures that I’m talking about and are popular with film photographers. Whatever the motivation, here is my main gripe with ‘new badness’. We live in a world where natural resources are declining, in some cases at an alarming rate. We are facing changes in our natural world that ultimately must change our attitude towards energy consumption, manufacturing and waste. The millions of film cameras that were made during film’s golden age are still out there, many of them still in good working order and available to buy in online market places, in many cases for not that much money. They were all made to enhance the experience of photography in some way, whether from a usability or performance perspective, so why not pick one up as opposed to wasting money on ‘recreating’ them in the 21s Century?
I want you to understand that I’m not just ranting against new technology going ‘all retro’, far from it. What I am saying is that I understand and welcome the revival of film photography, something that I only really rediscovered for myself 6 years ago. Anything that encourages people to take it up is a good thing, but I’d prefer the balance to be struck between our future global challenges and the need to be somehow ‘cool’. There are some fantastic cameras out there, just waiting to be used by a newcomer. In my case, around two thirds of the collection’s original owners are no longer with us, which I think about a lot whenever I take them out on a shoot. With me, they are being given an new life where the expectation might have been that they’d end up in landfill. This got me thinking, perhaps I’ve become a camera recycler as well as just a collector. Now there’s a thought.