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Old Time Photos, Today

As many of you know, my Dad recently passed away. He was the one that taught me how to take pictures, how to develop film and how to set up those first shots I took. He also absolutely encouraged all of my photography endeavors. For as long as I can remember, he had been a photographer. Even in his final years, he was constantly buying new equipment, trying new technologies, and experimenting with modern techniques in photo editing. As a child, however, it was his old cameras I admired. In his

Picture of Kim as a kid, standing precariously across fallen logs taking a picture of an unseen subject.
Kim's early photography years [Tom Smith]

office, he had a special glass case filled with old-fashioned cameras. He would regularly take them out, work the mechanics and lovingly ensure they were in pristine condition.

I am fortunate that Dad's collection has become my collection. With many of those cameras relegated to storage for the last few years, I was worried about their condition. However, old cameras have survived because they were solid, well-made devices. To my surprise, many of them needed little more than a solid cleaning. But, did they still work? I decided that I would give every camera a chance to see if it worked.

For this first photo run, I wanted to try the cameras out on locations that were in existence when the cameras were in use. On this day, I chose three very different cameras. The first was a small, metal box labeled "Time traveler 120" which harked back to 1948. This camera is little more than a pinhole camera as the only controls are the shutter and the camera advance. The second choice was one of my favorites to behold, the old-style bellows cameras. The one selected for my excursion was a "Kodak No. 2c series III" with its sleek black case and sophisticated controls. There was a lot of these beautiful cameras made but this one appeared between 1924 and 1931. Last, a classic from Dad's childhood, a small Brownie Hawkeye. While these were available as early as 1949, they were exceedingly popular in the 50s. To make the day interesting, I also brought along my own, modern camera. The goal of the day was to create side-by-side comparisons of the photos. I only managed a few of these, but I have also tossed in a favorite bonus shot from each of the cameras.

I chose three locations overall, however only one camera had enough film left at the end of the day. We started the day at Multnomah Falls, where both the Falls as well as the lodge made for fine settings. Built in 1925, Multnomah Lodge still stands strong today. It was at this location that I did a lot of experimenting. You have to remember that, while I grew up with these cameras, I had never actually used one. To be fair, I hadn't even used a film camera in well over a decade. When you're used to today's viewfinders, using the waist-held Kodak and Brownie becomes an interesting challenge in perspective. Additionally, I had to remember the lesson of setting up every shot and making it count. For some of the rolls of film, I had exactly 8 pictures to use. While the day was not overly crowded, getting a good picture from all 3 cameras did not happen at this location.

The next location proved to be far more productive. Vista House, located at Crown Point, was started in 1916 and finished in 1918 so easily fit the bill of being older than my cameras. While Multnomah Falls had been shady, Vista House was sunny and vibrant. We get our first set of shots that can be compared across all three cameras.

The Kodak is on the far left and I was quick to notice that the camera struggled that day. Those dots are etched from the film markings themselves. The A130 film it requires is no longer available so I used 120 instead. My best guess is that the adapter I used to make the film fit was the incorrect size and let in light. Also, I was surprised to see how little of the building fit into the frame. For all three shots, I was standing in the exact same place. In the middle is the Time Traveler shot. Given that I hand-held the camera, I was happily surprised at how well the picture turned out. It's also overexposed because it is hard to hold a camera and flick the shutter fast enough without shaking the camera. On the far right is the Brownie shot. This was one of the first pictures I scanned in and was happy to see that at least a few pictures turned out well.

For comparison, below is my wide-angle shot from my digital camera.

The next set of pictures are taken from Crown Point of the gorge itself. Recall that this was a beautiful, sunny day and two of the three cameras have little more than a single button to push.

Starting with the Kodak on the left, this was one of the few shots with no film artifacts that bled through. By this point in the day, I had started setting the cameras down on any hard surface I could find to stabilize the shots. While it's not a great shot, it is interesting and reminds me a lot of pictures from that time. The Time Traveler really came through in this location, showing a beautiful, if slightly blurry, capture. It was around this point that the Time Traveler started to struggle. The film got progressively harder to advance throughout the day and I wondered if each shot would be the last. Finally, the Brownie fared poorly in the dazzling light, nearly washing out the picture entirely. It was locations like this that made me appreciate my typical wide shots.

As the day got hotter and our light worse, we made our way to our last location and oldest one yet. Built in 1909, Pittock Mansion is a luxurious home with stunning views of Portland. Given the small view on these cameras, the cityscape was impossible to capture. It was also at this location that two of the three cameras ran out of film. I mention the location, though, because two of the favorite shots were done here. First, from the Time Traveler, we get this gem.

Looking at this photo made me feel like this could have truly been taken over a century ago. And then from the more modern age is this capture from my personal camera.

The older cameras struggled with the few flower shots I tried so this was the only good floral shot of the day.

My other two camera-favorite shots come from the other locations. Since the Kodak struggled during the day, it's little surprise that one of the early shots was also one of its strongest.

I have other Kodaks in the collection so I want to test them further. I can see the potential but it didn't live up to that potential today. Last, from the Brownie, is a random tree shot that was both artistic and mesmerizing.

So, what did I learn on this delightful day? First, I was thrilled with how all of the cameras performed. These are cameras that are between 70 and nearly 100 years old. While the pictures weren't perfect, I blame myself and not the cameras. These vintage cameras still have a lot of photographs left for them to take. For the Brownie, I discovered why this camera was so popular in its day. It's a trooper. The Kodak was an entire experience, but a little finnicky. Finally, I will not underestimate the possibilities of a simple camera for they are where photography started and are still effective today.

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