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Cameras I Have Known

What a range of cameras I have known, over the last 70 years.

Mum had a Box Brownie camera. When she took a photo, she was not looking at the person she wanted to record. Instead, she was looking down at the black bakelite box, at a small round glass opening on the top, in which the scene appeared. The light coming in through an opening beside the camera lens was brought there by a series of mirrors, so she if she concentrated, she could see what the camera would record. To take the picture, she flicked a lever to open the lens cover, so that light fell on the film at the back inside the camera. Then she had to wind on the film, which came in a long continuous roll, so that the next piece of film was behind the lens, ready for the next photo.

To see whether the camera had actually recorded the scene she wanted, she had to wait until she had taken all the photos to fill the film. Then she usually took it to the local chemist, who dispatched the roll of film to the nearest photographic business. After a long wait, she could finally collect an envelope from the chemist. It held the transparent ‘negatives’, which had been ‘developed’ from the original film. They showed the grey-scale images of the photos she had taken. Also in the envelope, were the black and white photos that had been ‘printed’ from the negatives. At last, she knew whether she had really been successful in recording the scenes she wanted to remember in the future.

Many people, like my father-in-law, preferred to do their own developing and printing. This involved setting up a dark-room, lit only with a red light, which did not affect the photographic film. Usually the bathroom became the dark-room. In that dull red glow, he mixed the right chemicals, timed the film’s contact with them, and eventually printed his own photos. This allowed him to produce some ‘snaps’ of some naked male friends. (I still have the negatives.) I doubt the chemists before the 1920s would have approved.

When I was about 10, my brother Cliff presented me with a camera for Christmas. This was a ‘baby brownie’, still a black bakelite box, but with a big improvement over the original cameras. It had a small view-finder which folded out from the top. So now I could actually look at the scene while I was taking the photo. I proved how good it was by taking a successful photo of the Queen Mother in her car, as she drove past me, while my friends were trying vainly to locate her in the little screens of their box-brownies.

But I still had to wait for the chemist to return my developed photos.

The next step was the introduction of colour film in more complex cameras. We posted the exposed film to Kodak in Melbourne, and waited for it to be posted back in stiff plastic yellow boxes. This time we did not get prints by return, instead we received pieces of the transparent coloured film mounted in stiff cardboard mounts. The best way to see what they showed was to project the images onto a white sheet or screen – often we just used a pale-coloured wall. Most families had to buy an electric ‘projector’ to do that job. Photography was becoming an expensive hobby.

At around the same time, some people could afford to buy movie cameras, which also created films that had to be projected onto a screen. This was the time when people who had travelled on holiday invited their friends to a screen night, to show off the records of where they had been. Most people found these evenings very boring.

Another camera that was available about the same time was the ‘Polaroid’ camera. For the first time we could immediately see the photograph we had actually taken. Film was available in both black-and-white and colour versions. Again, this was a very expensive option.

Another improvement at the time was that the film was no longer provided in long rolls, which had to be manually threaded across spools in the back of the camera, and manually wound back when the film was finished. Now the film came ready-loaded into cassettes, which could just be dropped into the back of the new camera. You just had to make sure that each end of the cassette was in contact with the spindles provided. Again, you could get colour or black-and-white prints from these cameras.

And then we had the digital revolution. At last, we could take a photo, and immediately see the result in the small screen provided on the camera. Now we could take the camera to a big store, upload the memory chip into one of their printing machines, and within minutes have the prints in our hands. Or we could connect the camera to a home computer, download the files containing the images, and print copies ourselves.

And now of course, most people have a smart phone, which comes with several cameras already installed. We can take photos of ourselves, of scenes in front of us, and even take moving pictures – though we now call them videos.

How things have changed over the last 70 years.

Barbara Randell

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