Photo Essay


Still Smiling

I came across a Kodak Brownie Target 616 at an antique show for $7. I said five, and took it home. Before I left, I found a Zeiss Ikon "Lens for Close Ups". It came in the original box, a dirty rose colored, match style container with four languages on it. I didn't argue the $5 price tag, and put it in my bag.

These two items would sit on a shelf next to each other for over a year.

Kodak discontinued production of 616 film in 1984, so using the camera wasn't even in my mind. I had plenty of other vintage medium format cameras to keep me busy. I was obsessed with thrift store treasure hunts to find them, and I was fascinated with their known and unknown histories. There are nearly 60 in my collection now.

Less than two dozen of them work as unmodified machines, and each has a unique way of seeing; the camera's fingerprint is burned onto the negative.

But this is a story about the 616. The potential negative size was 4 3/16" x 2 1/2"! 35mm was the cheap 'test strip' to see if the camera even worked. I ran one roll of color, but wasn't satisfied with the processing. Switching to black and white allowed me to the opportunity to make my own prints. By default, they were landscapes. The lens remained in a dusty box.

Then one day I put them together. Everything came back blurry. They obviously weren't made for each other. What a waste! Back on the shelf. Disappointed, I scratched detail into the negatives and made prints anyway.

I was ready to write the marriage off, but someone else saw my problem and offered the info necessary to fix it. I scratched up some plastic to use as a ground glass, and grabbed my loupe. It took less than five minutes to find my new focal distance. I taped a bright orange string to my black box. The knot in the end was fourteen inches from the lens.

I started taking portraits. This is also the time that I shaved off my moustache and made the move to slide film. I loved the images, but none of the subjects appreciated the... closeness of detail. I conceded. An unhappy sitter is not a good thing.

I began collecting signage.

The Lincoln Theater had been closed for nearly two decades. After renovation and addition, it recently re-opened as the new center for Jazz in Columbus, Oh. The face of the marquee remains the same, but the sides are now bulky with brightly lit digital displays.

Shope's still does business, the men inside are as old and worn as the sign. The occasional curse word can be heard from within. Across the street is Dan's Drive In. It's good, and the chocolate cake is intoxicating.

A week after I shot the K-Beck Furniture sign, the bottom fell out and the whole thing exploded on the sidewalk.

Planter's still runs a store beneath their sign. The company is over a 100 years old. I think this classic is going to be around a while.

Elsie lives on the side of the old Essex Pharmacy building. I think it's an antique store now, but I'm not convinced that business of any sort goes on at that corner.

In 2007, I took the camera with me on vacation. It was a burden to carry with me all day (I had four cameras), and it was a pain to load/unload on the road. I was losing my grip on film. When I returned home, I placed it on my dresser, where it remains to this day. I've new favorites.

I spent two years passionately exploring the silver side of photography. I miss the tactile nature of print making; digital processing is too exact, too perfect, and you rarely hold a print.

However, film is not where photography is at. Resolution rules now, and the pixel is important. There are many file extensions to choose from, but I make sure to save all of mine as a JPG.

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—The JPG team

8 responses

  • Charles

    Charles (Deleted) gave props (16 Aug 2009):

    Good story and unique photos. To hell with still rules my world.

  • Brian Betteridge

    Brian Betteridge gave props (16 Aug 2009):

    love the story and the photos are refreshing and unique.

  • Michael Adams

    Michael Adams gave props (17 Aug 2009):

    What an awesome article. Love the shots and the details.

  • Natalie Shaak

    Natalie Shaak said (19 Aug 2009):


  • Daniel Kevorkian

    Daniel Kevorkian said (19 Aug 2009):

    I don't know what to say, I love film more and more, although I use digital and find it important, but still, it's another thing and the count of pixels is somehow frustrating. It's not time for showing muscles, it's time for understanding each other, for being human.

  • Briana Morrison

    Briana Morrison said (19 Aug 2009):

    Great article! I am also a collector of old cameras and love it when I come across a usable gem. I have to say, your portraits are my favorites!

  • andré paiva

    andré paiva gave props (20 Aug 2009):

    the best essay!!!!!!! congratulations

  • Craig Bortmas

    Craig Bortmas said (2 Sep 2009):

    Thanks to all of you!

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