I've never considered my collection
of old cameras as a Collection because I never "collected" them.
I just find myself captured by them from time to time in the flaky low-rent
sections of flea markets, far from the smooth guys selling furniture and
framed engravings slashed from the pages of ancient reference books. They're
next to the bin of cast-iron kitchen implements and a rack of mildewed
dresses with dim, scaly rhinestones.
The cameras have cracked leather
skin wrapped around a solid metal shell, soft in the hands but almost
indestructible. It's a cyborg from the 1920's. Pop a small catch and the
front panel opens, extending the bellows and front lens out of the case.
Owing to the optics and film sizes of the time, this camera needed a long
focal distance, which might have made it a cumbersome and unwieldy device.
So this camera was designed to fold in on itself, compressing all the
volume needed for it to function into a virtual space that unpacks itself
at the touch of a button. The fine steel gears click perfectly and the
aperture seals behind the scuffed lens, the eye of an old half-blind creature.
The black bellows exhale the promise of chemicals and leather.
So from time to time a camera
is irresistible. We put some of the more interesting ones in a glass-front
cabinet in the living room and I look at them all the time. One of my
favorites is a simple box camera, nothing more than a lightproof housing
for a medium-format film roll, a ratchet to advance the frames, and a
spring-loaded shutter. No lens, no focal mechanism; it's just a modestly
advanced version of a pinhole camera. You see lots like this kicking around
in flea markets, sometimes thrown into a bin together. For their age and
antique status, they are so common as to be almost without commercial
value. I picked this one up about ten years ago.
But this box camera a little
different from the others. The leather covering is a light-brown color
(most of the box cameras were stained black) and there is a silver medal
stamped on the side that says "Fiftieth Anniversary of Kodak 1880-1930."
I bought this camera in part because it uses 110 film, a format still
in use today, and I wanted to see what kind of images it would produce
decades after this design was superseded by more complex technology. I
also nursed a hope that the camera might be worth something, and that
at $12 it was a "find."
We often sense when it's best
not to test the wedge of hope against the grain of reality, and in this
case I didn't bother to ascertain the camera's value for many years. But
eventually it occurred to me as I sat in front of my computer to check
the arbiter of common desire-based valuation, eBay. Of course I discovered
that the camera had almost no net worth on the market. No Antiques Road
Show fairy tale for me. After a moment of disappointment, I felt a measure
of relief. Protecting an investment is often a terrible burden. I'd opened
this camera up, loaded film, clicked the shutter, wound the film on the
aging gears, and otherwise treated it as a functional object and not as
a valuable antique. It sits in a glass cabinet where its leather case
is exposed to light. Discovering it had commercial value would immediately
remove it from the realm of the useful, the physical. It would be transfigured
and become holy through the godly power of the money it could command.
Learning that it a common object in your house was priceless would be
like hearing that your kid has inexplicably been selected to be the next