IF YOU ARE HUNTING up material on box cameras in old photographic magazines chances are you are going to come away disappointed. Let alone articles, it is well nigh impossible to even find a simple advertisement in these magazines pointing to the features of these sturdy old beauties.
Methinks the reason why box-camera manufacturers steered clear of the popular photographic press was that many of these publications were aimed at the upcoming photo-enthusiast, the man with the feature-packed camera who was really ‘serious’, and who was eager to know how he could go about improving his pictures. Such a man is constantly scanning photo periodicals and the moment he finds a camera with an extra built-in feature such as a lens an extra stop larger or a shutter scaled in exposure values, he visits the nearest photo-store and buys his dream camera imagining it will dramatically improve his photography.
It is all a matter of human psychology. Our camera buff seemed to overlook the fact that some of the best loved photos in his home were those taken ages ago—most likely with a humble box—photos you find in bulging old albums, beginning to grow brown and cracking with age. His own photos taken with the newest technological marvel would most likely end up on the walls of a salon or camera club to be judged by a panel of men keeping close watch over composition, print quality and subject lighting. Our man would be proud of his accomplishment, but, I repeat, his work would rarely find its way into the family album to be cherished by generations to come.
This is exactly how Dorothy Fields felt and if she was around I would have loved to give her a bear hug. ‘Popular Photography’ dated May 1956 holds a special place in my heart; it is one of the few issues I have preserved, for besides a section on the German photographic industry of the time, it contains an unusual piece titled ‘What happened to the Snapshot.’ This quaint bit of writing, really a masterpiece, was penned by Ms Fields in 1956 and somehow found its way into Popular Photography. “What has happened to the simple snapshot,” asks Dorothy, “the six-to-a-page kind that bulged the leather covered photograph album of a few decades ago?” Her writing is illustrated with six charming prints from her own album: ‘On the farm,’ ‘My best doll,’ ‘New tricycle,’ and others; they were probably taken by her own mum or even grandmom, for Dorothy says that back then it was the women who carried along the cameras on family outings and picnics. And it was invariably a trusty box Kodak or Brownie she owned taking eight pictures to a roll. No focusing to worry about, no f-stops and speeds to confuse, just check the little red window at the back, put the sun at your back, press the button, and the scene is recorded for posterity.
It was the women who did all this, but hubby, she wails, chose to take a different path. He bought loads of equipment, expensive cameras with all kinds of strange gadgets and the result was that his pictures often showed bizarre subjects taken in an equally bizarre way. Rarely, if ever, did his pictures find a place in the treasured family album.
Dorothy will have none of this tomfoolery. She advises her sisters that the best course would be to save up money, go down to the camera store down the street and buy a sturdy, inexpensive, no-frills box for yourself.
Sound advice. And so very charming too. If you have access to a public library I would strongly recommend you look up old issues of Popular Photography and take back with you a photocopy of Dorothy Fields’ writing. This is probably the only article which has ever appeared in a photo magazine extolling the virtues of the good old box camera; if you are an enthusiast, it is a feature worth hunting up and collecting.