Vintage Cameras

A vintage touch to any living space

By: Corbin Crable

The first vintage camera my father, Greg Crable, bought wasn’t intended to sit on a shelf, unused but appreciated. Nor was it supposed to actually be used to capture and preserve special moments.

It was bought with the intention to be used as a child’s plaything.

It was the early 1980s, and I remember that first camera, an Ansco Readyflash, kept downstairs in our family room. Dad had removed the blue flashbulb, as well as any smaller parts that might prove to be problematic for a young child to handle. But he kept the bright red shutter lever, and I was mesmerized by the clicking noise it made — the same noise that is now so familiar to me as a journalist.

The Ansco Readyflash is just one of the more than 40 cameras now in Dad’s collection — and they’re still quite easy to find at any of the antique stores, consignment stores and flea markets that call the Kansas City metro area home.

The Ready flash, developed in the 1950s, wasn’t as common as the Brownie box camera, which Eastman Kodak had invented at the turn of the century. The camera’s simple, square design made it a no-frills addition to the post-war photography industry, and its use skyrocketed in the middle of the 20th century. Early Brownie models were sold for only $1 – now, they can be found at antique stores (and online) for anywhere from $10 to $50 for the rarer models.

“I found the Readyflash at the Veterans Thrift Store on Minnesota Avenue in Kansas City,” Dad told me one Saturday afternoon as he rifled through his collection. “After that, I just started accumulating cameras.

“To me, these cameras look like little works of art,” he continued. “There’s aesthetic beauty in the simplicity of their technology. You can see all of the parts move and see how they work together. Now, today, everything is done and saved on a small chip.”

Though camera technology has been in existence since the early 19th century, the collection of early-and mid-20th century cameras for decorative purposes has seen a renaissance in recent years. The oldest I found, both in my father’s collection and in my canvassing of Johnson County area antique stores, was a Hawkeye Shutter, stamped with a patent year of 1910. The Hawkeye Shutter features a folding, accordion-style cartridge, characteristic of early 20th century cameras.

The design of cameras produced and sold in the 1920s and 1930s is truly artful. The Kodak Jiffy is just one of many. The Art Deco design is sure to appeal to not only photography enthusiasts, but also anyone who enjoys the clean lines of Art Deco styles. The Kodak Jiffy 620, produced between 1933 and 1937, is one of the more common generations you’ll find in any antique store.

In addition to still-image cameras, home movie cameras remain just as popular for collectors. However, unlike their still-image counterparts, many early models, such as the Victor Cine camera, are now worth hundreds of dollars in good condition. The Victor Cine was among the first home movie cameras, hitting the market in 1923 (three years before the advent of the “talkie”). By 1923, the medium of film itself had existed for a little more than 30 years.

Dad’s Victor Cine, besides being in good condition, even came with its original instruction manual, complete with the image of a smiling flapper girl on the cover. Talk about a great conversation piece made even better.

Of course, these cameras all look resplendent when displayed in your living room or study, but many vintage camera owners actively use the pieces in their collection. If properly cared for (and depending on age), the camera can still take striking images that will make you feel more like a professional and an artist.

Be sure to research what type of film your camera will need. If you have a newer model that takes 35MM film (basically, anything made after the mid-1930s), you’ll have no problem. Nearly all of the film manufactured for cameras made before that decade has likely been discontinued. After the work of shooting is finished, it may be difficult to find a merchant to develop your film, depending on your camera’s age. Process One Photo and Digital Imaging Lab, which operates at 95th and Metcalf in Overland Park, has been in the business of developing older film for more than 30 years.

Vintage cameras’ wide availability, low cost and ease of use make them an ideal venture for both the photography enthusiast and the collector.

“I plan to display my cameras, definitely,” my father told me on that same afternoon, admitting that it was at the top of his list of post-retirement home projects. “I really think they have artistic value.”

I’d say there are many others out there who would agree with you, Dad.

Corbin Crable of Olathe is a journalism professor at Johnson County Community College. In his spare time, you can find him at antique stores, digging around for tintypes to add to his own collection.