[Author’s note: Many thanks to Nick Marshall for lending this camera to us for review. Check out his instant/toy camera photography here]
It’s 2017, and most people don’t think of photography as any kind of miracle. Most of us take at least one photo every single day; many of us take dozens. It’s normal. Pictures are just another thread in the fabric of modern living, and it’s easy to become numb to the craft when we can easily scroll past hundreds of shots an hour on Instagram – just try searching #selfie.
But imagine for a second that you lived in a world without photography. It’s not easy, but just humor me for a second.
Imagine you’re living in a world where photography is a magical, mysterious art form possessed only by scientists and chemists. Imagine hearing that these eccentric geniuses have gained the power to freeze time inside a mysterious box, and that they can later show you that moment in time exactly as it was.
Imagine seeing for the first time in your life a photo replication of the main street of your city, clearer and more realistic than any painting could ever hope to be. It’s amazing, exciting, and even a little frightening. Now imagine the disappointment in knowing that however amazed you may be, this miraculous new invention is too technically complicated and expensive to ever be within your own reach.
Now imagine that just a few years later someone tells you it’s possible for you to shoot a photo for yourself, simply, without any special knowledge, and all for one dollar. You look at them in disbelief. It’s impossible. But then they point you to a shop window, behind which sits a small, black box and an ad behind it that reads, Eastman Kodak Co. Brownie Camera – $1.00. And in the back of your mind you get the feeling that you’re looking at something incredibly important.
You wouldn’t know it then, but you’d be looking at the the single most important camera in history – the Kodak Brownie. Every single snapshot ever taken and every single consumer-level camera ever made owes its existence to the Brownie. It is singlehandedly responsible for making photography the ubiquitous art form it is today. The Brownie put a camera into the hands of everybody, rich and poor, scientist and layman alike.
But this is all ancient history, right? Why am I writing about the Brownie in 2017? It’s simple; here at CP, we believe photography should be available for everybody to enjoy, free of the prejudice and snobbery that can sometimes exist in hobbyist communities, and no camera embodies these same ideals more than the Brownie. And guess what else? This nearly hundred-year-old camera is still totally usable today.
So how did this humble box come to be? In the late 1800s, George Eastman, founder of the Eastman Kodak Company, saw the general public as the great untapped market for photography and decided, in true American fashion, to capitalize. He thought that a simple, low-cost, easy-to-use camera would do the trick, and so Eastman Kodak started tinkering. By the turn of the century, Eastman Kodak had invented and introduced the Brownie, a one-dollar camera with fifteen-cent film and forty-cent developing costs – perfectly priced for the budgets of working families and children.
The low-cost Brownie became a runaway hit, selling 245,000 units of the original Brownie. Kodak, wanting to prolong the feeding frenzy and expand their market, soon followed up in 1901 with the Kodak Brownie No. 2, featuring the then-new 120 rollfilm, which we know today as medium-format. And if the Brownie was a runaway hit, the No. 2 took off like Usain Bolt and set the World Record. 2.5 million No. 2’s in all their different variations were sold across the world to people from all walks of life, effectively cementing photography’s place in the lives of ordinary people.
Because of its immense popularity in its own day, Brownies in 2017 are ubiquitous. You can find them in antique shops and flea markets everywhere you go, and most end up as conversation pieces or decor, fated to sit mostly ignored on coffee tables and bookshelves the world over. I find this to be a travesty, especially considering that the Brownie’s entire reason for being was to get people out of their homes and out taking pictures. So, with remedying this injustice in mind, I got hold of a Brownie to see if this thing can still conjure its ancient magic in the 21st century.
My Brownie happens to be a post-1924 Kodak Brownie No. 2 Model F. Before some of you cry foul because this isn’t an original 1900 Brownie, let me tell you why I chose this slightly later model. Original Brownies use discontinued 117 roll film while the No. 2 uses the widely available 120 rollfilm, making the No. 2 the more sensible modern shooter. Original Brownies also lacked a viewfinder while the No. 2 managed to pack in two, making somewhat accurate framing a possibility. And finally, original Brownies were made from fragile cardboard and glue while the post-1924 Brownie No. 2’s were made with sturdier, more reliable aluminium. Satisfied? Good.
Other than a few functional improvements, the No. 2 remains nearly the same camera as the original Brownie from 1900. Both of them are sparse, rectangular boxes with a single-element Kodak meniscus lens and Kodak’s lever-operated rotary shutter. It’s about as simple as a camera gets, which is incredibly refreshing in an era when people quibble over megapixels, aspherical elements, and wi-fi capability.
Unfortunately, the Brownie’s simplicity brings with it severe limitation. The Brownie No. 2 Model F’s shutter speed is fixed at 1/50th of a second, while the Kodak meniscus lens is limited to a maximum aperture of f/11. While it does have a time exposure function (selectable by a pull-out lever on the top), selectable apertures from f/11, f/22, and f/32, and tripod sockets, the Brownie doesn’t offer much in the way of features or convenience.
But before we start sweating the Brownie’s lack of, well, anything, we must remember that other cameras thrive on these limitations. The recent resurgence of toy cameras such as the wildly popular Holga and Diana series proves that simplicity doesn’t necessarily hamper creativity. The Brownie offers a similar experience, but gives us a different perspective on that theme. While toy cameras and disposables foster a fun-loving “come what may” attitude, the Brownie is serious, unforgiving, and a little scary to use, but it offers a pay out that toy cameras seldom do.
The camera never lets you forget that it’s from the turn-of-the-century. There are no luxuries here, and most aspects of shooting the Brownie are challenging. For example, loading film requires the entire evisceration of its innards through a removable back door. It’s not the kind of streamlined process found in later TLRs or medium format rangefinders. It’s finicky, at best, and those first few times you’ll be wondering if you’ve done it right. After this, insert a fresh roll of 120 film and watch with strained eyes as arrows and lines scroll by a dim, red window until the number “1” finally appears. Now you’re ready to shoot.
But not without a new set of old-school challenges. Framing up a shot with the Brownie no. 2 is not easy. Two small, rectangular windows can be found on adjacent faces of the camera, and peering through these different windows allows framing in both portrait and landscape orientations. Sounds neat, but the windows are so tiny that they force the camera to be framed at chest level if one actually wants to see what’s in either viewfinder.
As if all of this wasn’t scary enough, the actual moment of photo-taking is absolutely terrifying. The fixed-focus lens can only shoot from ten feet onwards, making closeups an impossibility. The shutter is lever-operated, and sliding it from one side to the other can easily produce image-destroying camera shake. And to top it all off, the advance knob doesn’t have click stops at each frame, meaning that you must be careful to advance far enough to not double-expose, and not so far as to lose one of your eight shots.
The cumbersome shooting process made me wonder how people managed to live with a camera as unforgiving as this. But then I recalled that this camera would be astoundingly simple to use for people living during the time of its invention, and I realized that maybe I’ve been just a bit spoiled by the subsequent eighty years of camera innovation. I sucked it up, shot a few rolls, and all the while the process became easier and more natural. By the end of the week it was time to see what kind of shots this little camera had made.
Quite simply, the Kodak Brownie makes stunning images. Don’t believe me? Can’t imagine a hundred-year-old design being any good? Here’s some proof. James posted the shot just below this paragraph to Instagram and asked our followers to take their best guess at which camera took the image. Guesses ranged from Nikon’s FM (made in 1977), to Sony’s A7 (made in 2013). But it wasn’t made with these incredible machines and their world-class optics. It was made with the Brownie. Goes to show that the Brownie punches far above its weight class in image quality.
It accomplishes this by making the most of two aspects of its design. First, Kodak hit a homer with the Brownie’s simple meniscus lens. It’s not perfect, as demonstrated by the severe light fall-off, moderate distortion, and corner softness typical of meniscus lenses, but what it does offer is phenomenal sharpness throughout most of the frame. Combined with the camera’s smaller apertures, the Brownie’s lens is capable of images that can rightly be described as super sharp. Secondly, the Brownie exposes images onto a simply massive negative. With a gigantic 6 x 9 image area exposed on modern 120 film, the Brownie matches such modern resolution behemoths as the Fuji GW690.
When the factors of lens, small aperture, and massive negative combine, the resultant images are a beautiful merging of vintage and modern. The Brownie can make landscapes suffused with turn-of-the-century flavor, but also shoot the occasional tack-sharp shot to rival modern cameras and lenses. As difficult as the Brownie can be to handle, its surprising image quality and primitive nature makes shooting it one of the most rewarding experiences in modern day photography.
As I flipped through my Brownie’s test shots, I couldn’t help but marvel that a simple box made in the early 1900s could produce such images, and for people of the era who were seeing their own photographs for the very first time, it must’ve been nothing short of a miracle. And it’s still something of a miracle today.
Photography has come a long way since the days of the Brownie, but at its core, it’s never really changed. No matter if you’re shooting Leica or Lomo, you’re still using a light-tight box to stop time. In 2017, the Brownie helps us remember this simple fact, and reminds us of the miracle that occurs every time we press the shutter – something we often forget in this image-saturated world. And if you’re interested enough to pick one up (and you should – they’re only $20), the Brownie’s message still holds true today; photography isn’t just a miracle, it’s everybody’s miracle.