View Full Version : Old Cameras as Old Tools--an Appreciation

John Kasaian
31-Oct-2003, 09:13
I like tools of all kinds, shiney new ones and old, well used ones. My favorites are the ones that have belonged to my father and grandfather as well as the nicer ones(obviously well cared for, dad and grandpa kept their tools in good shape too)I come across at swap meets. The condition says something about the previous owner, just as does the 'feel' a tool acquires from having been held in a certain way. I even find my mom's old kitchen gadgets pretty cool.

Old cameras are tools too, like old wrenches, razors, carpenter's planes, apple peelers, mixing bowls, shotguns and driving hammers. Since, through economic neccesity I use old cameras I've become aware of the intrinsic beauty and energy these tools seem to me to possess. Most large format cameras, I'm sure, were at one time professional tools and the idea that somebody once used them to earn a living, shooting portraits, newspaper stories, or advertising copy intrigues me. Though I'm not a professional photographer, I really can appreciate what the former owner went through and the connection he or she had with this particular camera---it was a tool used to pay the bills, buy shoes for the kids and a badge of identity as only tools unique to a trade can be. Even old 'family' cameras seem to me to have considerable historical significance. Hold one and think about it's first owner, who selected this very piece of bakelite and glass you are holding now to record the visual history of his or her family and life---births, vacation trips, land marks like the first day of school, weddings, visits from friends and relatives living far away, holidays, holloween costumes and parties. I wonder if my family's current Elph and Stylus (carry a digital/carry a back up)will attain the stature of Dad's Brownie Reflex which while fungus ridden and terminally dented (from a fall off the roof of a '54 Buick the morning we were leaving for an annual camping trip to Yosemite, no less--Dad would have bought film at Best's Studio) occupies a resting place of honor in my desk drawer.

Think of it---this history comes with buying and using an old camera, and the book isn't closed yet, because through some good fortune I've been selected to write the next chapter. Something to think about the next time you're lugging your heavy old view camera over hill and dale---and something I'll think about when shooting my kids in their Halloween costumes with my Bride's Point and Shoot.-------------Cheers!

Ben Calwell
31-Oct-2003, 10:02
John, You bring up an interesting subject. I use a Linhof 5x7 that was built in 1954, and it still works great. Its leather handle has a great worn and weathered look to it, and the focus is still as smooth as hot butter. It has a few age-related flaws, but they are mostly cosmetic. I love using this camera (even though it's a little heavy), and I often think about the photographers who used it before I acquired it. It was built when I was only 4 years old, but it's still a precision tool.

Jim Galli
31-Oct-2003, 10:55
John, when I chose my parents I didn't think about the benefits of wealth. Thus a 1955 stakebed truck to haul firewood is as natural to me as a 1955 Deardorff. I simply can't have the new tools so I use and enjoy the ones with dents and dings from previous owners. Usually their time with me is the most wearing. When I get done with the Deardorff I don't know if there will be enough left of it for the next generation to sell it. Perhaps a mantle display.

James Driscoll
31-Oct-2003, 11:59
I always felt the same way....everytime I use my Leica M2 (from December 1958...) at some moment...I wonder who bought this new? What was it used for...it has quite the patina on it...and I have added plenty since I acquired it. It is my "everyday" camera, and I like you have always used my cameras like tools. Use them, don't abuse them...but scratches and dings are normal in the day to day working of any tool.

My Sinar F2...also bought used is my true workhorse. I have shot with it professionally for almost 3 years now and have recently noticed that "I" really put some "personality" into it. I see the paint wear, and the scratches and such as a merit badge of sorts...when something looks like that...it means it has been used by you....

Think of all the tools in your life you have seen that are "mint"....I could never understand it. My wrenches and sockets have been used on many an automotive job...just like my cameras have been used on many assignments...both personal and professional. I don't purchase or own "abused" tools....but never have really bought or used mint ones either. I could never understand the perfectly mint 1958 linhof.......

Neal Shields
31-Oct-2003, 12:43
"I could never understand the perfectly mint 1958 linhof"

Probably your tax dollars at work. I have a friend that buys government salvage. He told me that when the government sets up a facility they have an inventory of equipment that they put in for a given general classification, and it doesn't matter if it is needed or not.

One friend of mine was hired by a government facility to make photographic copies. When he ask for a camera, they took him to a double pad locked storage closed with shelves full of camera cases. He picked one case at random and opened it to find a brand new un-used 15 year old Linhof Technica with a full set of lenses. He said he thought it would do. To this day he doesn't know what was in the other cases.


Louie Powell
31-Oct-2003, 13:00
An admiration for anything that reflects quality craftsmanship is probably one of the characteristics shared by many large format photographers. The ultimate in this may be Richard Kagan, a photographer and former wood craftsman who has done some wonderful large format photographs of vintage wood tools.

Linas Kudzma
31-Oct-2003, 13:11
I shoot a Century Universal 8x10 and a Korona 8x20. To me the fact that these cameras are approximately twice my age is one of the joys of using them. Luckily both cameras are in really fine shape. I hope my son uses them someday as well.

Donald Miller
31-Oct-2003, 15:25
John, You have stated in a very eloquent fashion what I have felt for a long time. While my first view camera was a new Zone VI 4X5, my later cameras were a 70 year old NFS Deardorff 8X10 followed by a 85 year old Korona 12X20. I shoot with the older cameras more then I do with the newer one. To me there is something speaking to character when I make an exposure with the older cameras. By that I mean the character of the camera. To me it feels like a responsibility to produce the very best that I can bring to the tool with my vision. To do less would not be in keeping with the legacy that was handed to me. I wouldn't trade any of my older equipment for something newer. I love the old "tools". Thanks for sharing your feelings on this matter.

Ralph Barker
31-Oct-2003, 15:48
Nice narrative, John. You'd have a grand time playing in my garage workshop - it hasn't seen a car in 30+ years. ;-) I have a miniature rocker that my great grandfather made for my grandmother when she was a child - probably around 1890 or so, but not any of his tools, unfortunately. The camera safe houses newer stuff, though, as I'm the first serious photographer in the family. My son, however, will get a nice windfall.

Jim Galli
31-Oct-2003, 19:59
Sheeesh Neal. Where is THAT Gov't. facility. I want to transfer!! Our stuff is trashed. Beat to death by professional users. My stuff at home is FAR better. Guess they don't have to worry about me stealing it.

31-Oct-2003, 20:29
My dads Speed Graphic from the 30's oozes history and the vibes from that time. When I want to be reminded of him I take it out and just handle it.I took my first 4x5 pics with it. My Korona 12x20 oozes history also and while I really like to use it I prefer to use my Wisner 12x20 as it is just easier to manipulate with movements etc and it can take more abuse.But I feel like a part of a long history with the Korona and kind of like having a clean slate to use with the Wisner. Both are great tools!

Jim Rice
31-Oct-2003, 21:55
I have had three new cameras during my entire life (I'm 46). The first was an Exacta TL-1000, the second a Yashica-mat 123, and the third a 4x5 Wisner tech.

Silly me......I bought my Koni-Omegaflex new, too (but not most of the lenses). So four.

I have owned and used dozens of cameras, and while I have loved a couple of graphics, and sincerly love my current LF lenses (all used, one a little older than I am, I have never regreted buying the tech). It whispers to me.

And I think that is the point. Find the camera that whispers to you.


Jim Rhoades
1-Nov-2003, 06:33
Jim Galli; Seek and ye shall find. Some years ago I bought a Crown Graflex at Police auction. When I got it home I spent hours, 1 bottle of cleaner, 2 rolls of paper towels to get it clean. What I found was a mint camera with a Schneider 135 lens. 12 film holders, flash and the gray case. Then I popped off the back door of the battery box on the R.F. Expecting to find the batterys chemically welded in place. What I found was the Mahogany spacer block. Now that is mint.

I have been trying my best to scar up the camera since. Oh yeah, $15. bucks. Only once in each persons life.

Frank Petronio
1-Nov-2003, 08:20
I'm 43 - born in 1959 - and all of my main cameras are my age or older. I have make exceptions for digital and P&S - but my Linhof, Leica, and Rolleis make no excuses to newer gear. Not only is the older gear better made, but it feels better in my hands. And people respond to it in a more friendly, less intimidated way. If you're using a high tech $20,000 H1 with a ProBack they act differently than if you have a batter 4x5 or a Rollei TLR.