I have long been attracted to cameras that appeal to my sense of aesthetics, ideals of functionality, or simply because they “talked” to me. With the exception of a few cameras that no longer function due to fragility, frozen shutters, or the lack of film, I still take pictures with many of these cameras.
Seneca Uno 4x5 Chautauqua (1903)
If you went to a camera store in 1903 and asked for a compact point-and-shoot, there’s a good chance the proprietor would show you a Seneca Uno 4x5 Chautauqua.
Measuring a scant 6.4 x 5.5 x 2.75" when folded, this lovely cherry-wood field camera is barely longer and wider than a 4x5 film holder. The Chautauqua featured a 35mm equivalent Wollensak lens, a three-speed shutter (Time, Bulb, and Instant), and an f/stop range of 8, 16, 32, 64, and 64.
The camera opens with the press of a button. Release the drop bed, slide the front standard to the focusing marks and you’re good to go. For focusing, you have a choice of the rear ground glass or a small optical finder, which flips easily between vertical and horizontal positions. Minimum focus is 6' and infinity lies just beyond 100'. The front standard allows for a few degrees of rise and fall, which comes in handy when shooting architecture. The bellows is made of Russian red leather, which is far more resistant to mold and mildew than black leather bellows.
5x7 Century View Camera (1903)
I purchased this 5x7 Century view camera at a classic car flea market. It had a $50 price tag (I paid $40). The camera features a mahogany body with a cherry base, a black fabric bellows, and lots of brass hardware, including a lovely brass level on the side of the rear standard.
Dual gear tracks on the top base rail provide front and rear rack-and-pinion focusing, and there’s a spring-loaded clip on the aft section that prevents the rear standard from sliding too far back if the rear extension isn’t in place. Century opened shop in Rochester, in 1900 (hence the name “Century”), and was purchased by Kodak, in 1904.
Kodak Bullet (1936)
The Kodak Bullet was the first of a series of cameras designed by Walter Dorwin Teague, who was hired by Kodak to design cameras that would appeal to consumer tastes.
This pocket-sized, Art Deco snap-shooter captures eight 1-5/8 x 2-1/2" pictures on a 127-format roll of film, and is extremely simple in design. A fixed-focus, 35mm equivalent lens screws out of the Bakelite camera body and a pop-up viewfinder assists in composing pictures. There’s no provision for flash and the only means of exposure control is a single-speed shutter release. Needless to say, the best pictures were captured on bright, sunny days. Selling price in 1936: $2.25!
For an extended article about the Kodak Bullet, see the Explora article, Classic Cameras: the 1936 Kodak Bullet and Walter Teague.
Argus A (1936)
The Argus A, which was introduced two years after Kodak introduced 35mm film, was originally produced by the Argus Radio Corporation as a means of keeping the company’s plastic mold department busy during the off season. The new cameras proved so popular—they reportedly sold a total of 30,000 units at $12.50 a pop—they ended up selling off the radio division to keep up with consumer demand. The Argus was less expensive than Kodak’s 35mm Retina, and far less expensive than a Leica (about $200).
The earliest Argus A, including the camera in my collection, was made of black Bakelite with silver trim, and had fixed film pressure plates and a single-sprocket frame counter. Later models were available in olive, gray, white, and gold, and had spring-mounted pressure plates, dual film sprockets, and a tripod socket.
The camera’s 50mm f/4.5 lens featured two-position zone focusing—18' to infinity or 6 to 18' for closer subjects. The Argus A remained in production until 1941.
Handmade 4x5" Twin Lens Reflex (circa 1940s)
This 4x5 twin lens reflex camera was designed and built by a photographer who worked for New Jersey’s Trenton Times, in the 1940s and ’50s. It has matching 150mm Wollensak lenses and, despite its size, can be comfortably worn around one’s neck.
The camera features a mirrored housing that enables reflex viewing, as well as a conventional ground glass on the back, which can be mounted in vertical and horizontal positions depending on your needs. The lens shutter is unfortunately frozen, and I know little more about this wonderful, one-of-a-kind camera.
Polaroid Model 95 (1947)
When Edwin Land’s daughter asked him, in 1943, why she couldn’t see vacation pictures instantly, it got him thinking. Four years later, the Polaroid Model 95 was born—a handsome leather-bound folding camera that produced black-and-white prints in less than a minute. The camera was designed by Walter Dorwin Teague, who designed many of the more memorable Kodak cameras of the day.
The camera was introduced at Boston’s Jordan Marsh department store, in December, 1947. Fifty-seven of the first sixty cameras produced were placed on display, for $89.95 (about $900 in today’s dollars), and they were gone before day’s end. Within two years, Polaroid sales topped 17 million a year and, in total, 1.5 million Model 95s were sold until production was halted, in 1961.
The original Model 95, pictured above, is recognizable by a small spring sighting pin that protrudes from the side of the lens board. Later models—the Polaroid 95A and 95B, featured wire frame sights. The cameras had three-element, 135mm/f11 lenses and four-speed leaf shutters that employed film-based exposure values called “Polaroid Numbers.” Film production for Polaroid Model 95s ceased in 1969.
Hasselblad SWC Superwide (1979)
Unlike traditional single-lens reflex Hasselblads, the Superwide is a viewfinder camera. The reason Hasselblad broke with tradition is because the rear element of the camera’s fixed Zeiss Biogon 38mm/f4.5 lens interfered with the mirror mechanism of Hasselblad’s original model 1000F.
The Hasselblad Superwide was first introduced at Photokina, in 1954. Featuring a 90-degree angle of view on the diagonal plane, Hasselblad Superwides stand out for their unique design, but more importantly, they feature one of the sharpest, distortion-free wide-angle lenses ever made.
Superwides fit perfectly in the palm of one’s hand, and their shutters are as quiet as Leica M cameras. I use this camera often for its ability to capture wide-angle images that don’t appear “wide angle.” As for image detail and contrast—nothing compares.
I replaced my camera’s original eye-level viewfinder with a right-angle finder made by Voigtlander. Only 200 of these finders were produced and I prefer it because it allows me to compose images waist-level style, or at ground level without having to lie on the ground. I also like the fact that the camera has zero electronics and requires zone focusing; if the picture comes out it’s because I did everything right.
Five generations of Superwides were produced by Hasselblad before the camera was discontinued, in 2005. About 1,000 black model SWCs were produced in total.
Superwide trivia: Nearly all of the Hasselblad Superwides produced in the ’70s and ’80s were hand-assembled in Sweden, by a lady named Florence.
Leica MD-2 (1980)
Remove the rangefinder viewing system from an ’80s-vintage Leica M4-P and you get a Leica MD-2. Originally intended for use with Leica microscopes and medical equipment, MD-2s quickly found favor among landscape, street, and wide-angle photography enthusiasts.
Mount a wide angle lens with a matching viewfinder onto the body and you have a rock-solid camera that, unlike traditional Leicas, doesn’t have a delicate focusing/rangefinder system that can get easily knocked out of whack if one isn’t careful. Not having a rangefinder mechanism also makes the MD-2 slightly lighter than comparable M-series Leicas.
I use my MD-2 with a Zeiss 21mm/f4.5 Biogon, which matches the viewing angle of my Hasselblad Superwide. According to Leica, a total of 1,000 MD-2s were produced.
Olympus O-Product (1988)
To commemorate the 70th anniversary of Olympus cameras, upper management hired Naoki Sakai to design a limited-edition camera to mark the occasion. Designed around an Olympus Infinity Jr point-and-shoot camera, the O-Product features a 35mm f/3.5 lens, a center-weighted AF system, auto-exposure, a “potato-masher” flashgun, and a retro-style aluminum housing. Only 20,000 numbered units were manufactured.
A keen sense of humor is pervasive throughout the camera. The rear of the camera has engraved letters that read Aluminum body, A.D. 1988 Tokyo Japan and when you open the film door you’re greeted by the following inscription; "A new concept in product design. Olympus O-Product. Functional imperatives molded to artistic form. A camera shaped with simple lines, elegant contours."
Basic as it may be, the O-Product is the perfect party camera; people beg to have their pictures taken when they see one. When I really want to mess with people’s heads I hold it up to my ear and make believe it’s a phone. Their expressions are priceless.
Contax G2 (1996)
The Contax G2 was an upgrade of the Contax G1, which was introduced two years earlier. Designed as a state-of-the-art electronic rangefinder alternative to old-school Leicas, the Contax G system featured a rangefinder that automatically adjusted its field of view (and parallax) to match the field of view of whatever Zeiss G-series lens you mounted on it.
The G2 offers a choice of manual or electronic exposure control with full override and a top shutter speed of 1/4000-second or 1/6000-second in Aperture Priority. Flash sync is 1/200-second.
Contax produced five G-series Carl Zeiss prime autofocus lenses in 21mm, 28mm, 35mm, 45mm, and 90mm focal lengths, along with a sixth 35-70mm zoom. The 45mm f/2.8 Planar is widely recognized as one of the sharpest 35mm format lenses ever produced.
Contax also produced a limited number of 16mm/f8 Zeiss Hologon ultra-wide-angle lenses (107° AoV), one of which resides on my personal G2. The Hologon is among the only lens that equals the resolving power and distortion-free imaging of the 38mm Biogon lens used on Hasselblads Superwide. Interestingly, the 38mm f/4.5 Biogon used on Hasselblad’s Superwides and the original 15mm/f8 Hologon were also the only lenses designed by Zeiss that required dedicated bodies to go along with them, due to their extreme angles of view.
The original Contax G1 and G2 camera bodies had brushed-titanium bodies. A limited number of black enamel Contax G2s were produced with matching 28mm, 45mm, and 90mm lenses, followed by a short run of black titanium bodies, one of which is in my collection.