One of the things I love about working with film is getting the chance to play around with old cameras. I quite often go to antiques shops, and I can’t help thinking there’s something a bit sad and pointless about all of the objects that are on sale that will never get to fulfill their original purpose anymore, such as nice engraved cigarette cases that will never again hold a cigarette to toys that will never get played with again. Cameras are no exception and antiques shops are full of them, so much useless junk. I’ve sometimes heard parents earnestly explaining to their kids what cameras are as they’ve never seen one before…
One of the things you see a lot of in antiques shops are Box cameras. These were very popular up until around the 1950s, and although they looked more sophisticated as time went on the basic principle remained unchanged for some 70 odd years.
The Box camera was first popularised by George Eastman’s Kodak company in the late 19th century. At that time, photography was extremely difficult and cumbersome, with heavy cameras, difficult loading procedures and uncomfortably long exposures. George Eastman’s idea was to introduce a simple, affordable camera for the masses that would open up photography and allow people to take snapshots. Below you can see Eastman’s original patent for the Box camera in 1888. The principle was to remain essentially the same for decades.
So, the Box Brownie was born – it’s essentially a cardboard box with a hole in one end. The shutter is operated by moving a latch that then moves a spring that opens and closes the shutter. There’s no control over the shutter speed, and no lens. You can slide up a catch that allows you a choice of three different apertures, and another catch allows you to keep the shutter open for as long as you like. Small mirrors on the top and back allow you to compose the image (i love this feature – I am fascinated by camera obscuras and there is still something magical about seeing a reflected image generated by light alone).
The original Box Brownies came pre-loaded with film. You took your pictures, and then sent the whole lot back to the factory, who returned it loaded with more film and your prints. As time went on, newer versions were introduced and you could buy the film separately. 120 or medium format film, still in use today by serious photographers and liked for its depth of detail, was first developed for use with the Box Brownie.
Here’s a picture of George Eastman in 1890 experimenting with his Box Brownie. I’m fascinated by this picture – it represents the dawn of a new age, in which people could take their own photographs for the very first time. I also think it’s a beautifully composed picture in its own right. It’s interesting to look at the people behind him who are evidently interested in what he and the person taking the shot are doing. The original Box brownies took circular images like this.
I bought a Box brownie at an antiques fair years ago. It was bought purely for aesthetic purposes, as most are nowadays. It’s been sat on my shelf for the best part of 10 years. I even took it to a school parents evening once, where it got used in a ‘guess the historical object’ competition. Therefore it has had a hard life. Not only is it over a 100 years old, but it has also had to suffer the indignity of being prodded around by the hands of grubby 21st century school children. Here it is below.
My box brownie
Shot no 1 – how exciting!
No 2 Brownie – Use film no 120.
Box Brownie, looking the worse for wear
Exciting viewfinder. It looks clearer than this in the flesh.
But, fear not little camera, for you are about to be used once again! I’ve been using 120 film a bit with the Diana camera, and I love it – it feels like such a blast from the past, unrolling the paper onto a little spool. Therefore I did a little bit of research, and didn’t realise until recently that you could still use this film in some versions of the Box Brownie.
The viewfinders when I bought it was dull and dirty, but after unscrewing the front and cleaning them up a bit they are almost as good as they day they rolled out of the factory in 1916. I found it strange to think that the last person to use those screws was some factory worker during the First World War.
Anyway, the camera has been newly loaded with film and is ready to go. If you have a Box Brownie camera and want to use it again, there are several good tutorials online such as here. It is very easy to load.
You can also still get the instruction manuals from places such as here.
So, I have taken my first roll of film – everything seemed to work fine, it was just as easy to use as George Eastman intended 130 years ago! The numbers appear in the little red window at the back so you know how many shots you have left (you can only take 9 on a roll of 120 film). So I will get it sent off to the developers, and see what happens. I couldn’t help wondering how long it’s been since anyone last took some pictures with this camera. I can’t imagine it’s this side of the Second World War. So – fingers crossed, and I’ll post the results on here.