Historic Cameras in “From Tintypes to TIFFs”

“From Tintypes to TIFFs: Life Through the Lens” has gotten excellent feedback from Fenwick Library patrons, and the favorite part of the exhibit for many seems to be the historic cameras that are on display throughout the timeline of photographic processes. In an era when most people simply use the cameras that are part of their smartphones, these vintage devices have particular appeal and charm. They are a reminder that photography once required significantly more time and effort than it does today, and they are often technological marvels and things of beauty.

The cameras in the exhibit date from the mid-1800s to the mid-to-late 2000s, when digital photography had largely supplanted film but camera phones had not yet achieved their current ubiquity. The earliest piece of equipment is a large lens dating from the mid-19th century that belonged to renowned Civil War photographer Matthew Brady. It is only a small piece of the large apparatus that Brady or members of his Washington, D.C. studio would have used to capture portraits or battlefield scenes (exposure time in the 1860s took too long to capture actual images of battle).

By the 1910s and 1920s, when the Kodak No. 2C Kodak Jr. on display in the third standing case was sold, cameras were significantly more portable and amateur photography had become a popular hobby.1  Some degree of skill was required to operate the camera, however – the bellows lens is a bit more complicated than the simple point and shoot lenses of the two Kodak Brownie cameras, dating from the 1930s or 1940s and 1950s, that are on display in the same case. The front of the Brownie from the late 1930s-1940s has a design on the front that almost looks Art Deco-inspired, demonstrating that photographic equipment could be both decorative and functional. Likewise, the sleek design of the 1950s Brownie reflects the aesthetic of the early space age. Cameras were not just used to create art and document moments; they are art objects and reflections of their times.

The Kodak No. 2C Kodak Jr. (left) and 1950s Kodak Brownie (right) on display outside of SCRC

The cameras in the final case, dating from the 1970s through the early 2000s, show the increasing sophistication of camera equipment and the transition from film to digital photography. The Mamiya cameras are excellent examples of how the design of cameras changed their size and looks as new features and gadgets were added. The two Canon cameras show how rapidly photographic technology was progressing in the mid-1970s to the 1990s. As film became cheaper to purchase and develop, cameras were adapted to cater to increasingly skilled – yet still casual, photographers. Today, megapixels have largely replaced film for casual photographers, particularly those looking for a camera small enough to hide in a handbag or pocket.

Make sure to catch “From Tintypes to TIFFs” in the next week and a half – the next SCRC exhibit celebrating the 50th anniversary of George Mason University’s class of 1968 will be installed soon. Most of the cameras in the exhibit belong to library staff members and are not part of SCRC’s permanent collections, so see them while you still can!

Nick Welsh, SCRC’s Records Management Specialist, contributed to this post.

1. See Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler and Diane Vogt-O’Connor et. al., Photographs: Archival Care and Management (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2006), 45.