Classic Cameras; The Final Countdown; The Top 20 Cameras Of All Time Page 2

Today, the Leica A is regarded mostly as the sine qua non of well-heeled Leica collectors. Certainly its value alone puts it in that category. However, the Leica A is still a pretty good picture taker, and a fun, pocketable, user-collectible for those with deep enough pockets. A clean Leica A with a 50mm f/3.5 Elmar sells in the $1600-$2200 range, but truly mint examples with a four-digit or three-digit serial number bring much higher prices, and those with the aforementioned rare lenses have sold in the $50,000-$100,000 range.

2) Kodak Brownie--1900

If any single camera can claim to have created the snapshot, that common, unpretentious memento of things as they are, it is the immortal Kodak Brownie box camera introduced to the world at the turn of the last century in February, 1900. It was neither the first box camera, nor the first camera to use paper-backed roll film with numbers on the back (that was the 1892 Bull's-Eye Camera made by the Boston Camera Company, later acquired by Kodak). However, by offering a simple, competent, easy-to-use, daylight-loadable camera at the then-unprecedented price of $1, and putting a brilliantly conceived mass-marketing program behind it, Kodak was literally able to sell a camera to practically everybody, and to motivate millions to buy it. The Brownie's success was unprecedented--in the first year alone, over 150,000 cameras were shipped, three times the previous record. To get a clearer idea of the impact of the Brownie, check out one of the many timelines of the 20th century and go to the year 1900. Right up there along with such momentous events as Max Planck's formulation of the quantum theory and the publication of Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams is Kodak's introduction of the $1 Brownie camera!

The Brownie got its name from artist Palmer Cox's whimsical cartoon versions of Brownies--"hard-working Scottish sprites or elves who did household chores"--that were as popular in the 1880-1920 period as Mickey Mouse is today. Some have conjectured that the name was an oblique tribute to Frank A. Brownell, who was responsible for its design and manufacture, but this is not the case. In any event, the Brownie is about as simple and basic as a camera can get--an imitation leather-covered cardboard box, with wooden film carrier, measuring about 3x3x5". It has a simple fixed-focus f/11 meniscus lens, and metal rotary shutter with a single speed of about 1/35-1/50 sec plus T. There isn't even a viewfinder--like the original Kodak of 1888.

Despite its modest specs, the original Kodak Brownie did score one extremely important historical distinction--it pioneered No. 117 film, thus making it the world's first 21/4x21/4" rollfilm camera. The 117 size, essentially six exposures of 120 film on a narrower flanged roll, is long defunct, but the glorious 21/4 square rollfilm format is still very much alive.

Ads stressed it could be "operated by any schoolboy or girl" and kids were urged to join the Brownie Camera Club, which had no initiation fee, and whose object was "to increase the interest of American boys and girls in matters pertaining to photography." Kodak ran picture contests and awarded prizes. A roll of film, called a "Transparent-Film Cartridge," six exposures of 21/4x21/4" cost 15 cents, a box of paper, 10 cents, and a Brownie Developing and Printing Outfit, 75 cents. At the bottom of many ads was a small box with the message, "Send a dollar to your local Kodak Dealer for a Brownie Camera. If there is no dealer in your area, send us a dollar and we will ship the camera promptly." With the arrival of the Brownie, anyone could take photographs of everything from special occasions to everyday life, and do so inexpensively. The era of the snapshot had dawned and the world would never be the same.

Today, an original Brownie camera with "shoebox" back cover and accessory viewfinder is a rare bird indeed and a collector's prize valued at about $2000. The later, improved version with hinged back, also a primo collectible, sells for about $300-$500 with original winding key and box. The long-running #2 Brownie (1901-'33), that took 120 film and had a 21/4x31/4 format, is a nice user-collectible that sells for $35-$50 and is recommended to anyone who wants to experience shooting with a classic box camera.

1) The Kodak--1888

The Kodak, the first camera marketed by The Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company of Rochester, New York, is, in the opinion of many experts, the most historically important series-production camera ever made. The only cameras that rival it in historical significance are the one-off or limited-production creations of photography's great pioneers, Niepce, Daguerre, and Fox Talbot. What makes this humble-looking box camera so pivotal and consequential is not its ingenious construction or technical brilliance, both of which are noteworthy, but the idea it embodied--creating a camera capable of producing satisfying photographs in the hands of an ordinary person having no particular technical skill.

When the Kodak was announced in 1888, photography had progressed from the daguerreotype and wet plate days when photographers literally had to prepare their own plates, but it was still an arcane pursuit requiring considerable expertise and dedication, particularly in the darkroom. What the Kodak offered, for the then-handsome sum of $25, was an unintimidating, easy-to-use, portable camera with no adjustments that was pre-loaded with roll film sufficient for 100 exposures. When you were finished shooting the roll, you shipped the camera back to Eastman in Rochester, along with $10. They developed the film, transferred each negative to a sheet of glass for contact printing (because the 23/4"-wide "stripping film" was mounted on a non-transparent paper backing), made one print from each good negative, reloaded the camera with film for 100 more exposures, and returned it to the owner. In the context of the 19th century, the Kodak was the world's first successful point-and-shoot camera, but it does not qualify as the first one-time-use camera because you got your original camera back. More importantly, it was the camera that really created the modern photofinishing industry.

The man behind the Kodak camera was of course George Eastman, a man of considerable mechanical ability and one of the great conceptual and marketing geniuses of all time. The actual patent for the Kodak (Patent #388,850, September 4, 1888) bears his name, but it incorporates several ideas used in Eastman's Detective Camera of '86 that was designed by Eastman and Franklin M. Cossitt, an employee. Another significant predecessor of the Kodak that provided vital elements of its design was the Eastman-Walker roll holder of '85, one of the first rollfilm backs that may have been inspired by Leon Warnerke's earlier roller-slide holder, which also used stripping film. The Kodak, manufactured for The Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company by George Brownell of Rochester, New York (who may also have had a hand in its production engineering), is a wooden-bodied box camera clad in Turkey morocco with "nickel and brass trimmings and enclosed in a neat sole leather case with shoulder strap."

Described as "about the size of a large field glass," it measures 31/4x31/4x61/2" and weighs 1 lb, 10 oz. It produced circular pictures 21/2" in diameter on 23/4"-wide flexible roll film, had no frame counter (you had to count the number of turns when winding the film-advance key!) and no viewfinder--you aimed it with the aid of two lines, in a V pattern, engraved into the top. The lens, contained in a unique barrel-type shutter that revolved on an axis parallel to the film plane, was a 57mm f/9 Rapid Rectilinear. Based on the format it was a wide angle, which gave good depth of field, but image quality in the corners of the field would have been poor, so the cornerless circular format made sense technically. The shutter, which was manually cocked with a pull cord, provided a single shutter speed of about 1/25 sec, but a felt plug, which fitted on the front of the camera, could be used for making timed exposures. The shutter release button was on the left, a tripod socket oddly placed on the top--but with no viewfinder this hardly mattered!

Despite its Spartan simplicity, ample price, and the inconvenience of having to return the camera for processing, the Kodak was a phenomenal success because it was the first camera that enabled anyone to take pictures, and it was aggressively marketed with a brilliant advertising campaign. Eastman's astute grasp of human psychology and motivation is evident in these quotes from an '88 Kodak ad, "Anybody who can wind a watch can use the Kodak Camera...No tripod, no focusing, no adjustment whatever..."

In '89, it was: "1) Pull the cord. 2) Turn the key. 3) Press the button. And so on for 100 pictures." This was later refined into the greatest photographic advertising slogan of all time, "You press the button, we do the rest." Those too impatient to send their cameras to Rochester could buy darkroom-loadable 100-exposure film spools for $2 apiece, and develop and print their own film, or send the exposed film back to Rochester and have it processed and returned with a fresh roll for $10. More than any other single camera, the Kodak helped to create the modern photographic industry by transforming the act of taking pictures into a universal human experience.

An original Kodak Camera, one of the Holy Grails of camera collecting, now verges on being a museum piece. Early barrel-shutter models in good condition sell in the $4000-$5000 range, though a really pristine and complete example with case and instruction manual could easily fetch much more. Later models with a "safety-pin" metal-bladed shutter are worth less, but are still scarce and collectible.

The Top 20 Cameras Of All-Time
1) The Kodak--1888 11) Rolleiflex (Original Model)--1929
2) Kodak Brownie--1900 12) Hasselblad 1600F--1948
3) Leica A--1925 13) Contax S--1949
4) Kine Exakta I--1936 14) Sony Mavica--1981
5) Leica D (Or II)--1932 15) Asahiflex IIB--1954
6) Polaroid 95--1948 16) Zeiss Contax II - 1936
7) Kodak Super Six-20--1938 17) Rolleiflex Automat - 1936
8) Minolta Maxxum 7000--1985 18) Hansa Canon - 1935
9) Konica C35AF--1979 19) Reflex-Korelle - 1935
10) Leica M3--1954 20) Kodak Instamatic 100 - 1963
What would you have added to or subtracted from Jason's Top 20 list? Share your opinions, and your favorites on the Top 20 Cameras Forum at