Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Art Deco Dream - Kodak Brownie Target Six-20

It was 1946, the United States and its allies flush with the end of World War II just months before, and a new sense of freedom and prosperity was rampant.

Into this atmosphere, Mr. George Eastman introduced one of his most popular cameras of the era, the Kodak Brownie Target Six-20. Harkening back to the successful Beau Brownie of the 1930s, Mr. Eastman's latest offering featured an Art Deco design theme on the front of its simple yet functional metal box body.

A unicycle rider rolls along East Main Street near Church Street on Jan. 18 in downtown Nacogdoches.
(Click on any image to view larger)

With its simple meniscus lens, dual apertures and rotary shutter, the Target Six-20 was the latest in a line of point-and-shoot cameras, even though the term wouldn't be common for several decades, used primarily to describe compact 35mm cameras that could fit in a pocket or purse and be ready to shoot at a moments notice.

The Target Six-20 definitely wasn't a pocket camera. But it was one of a host of cameras from Kodak and other companies that helped bring photography to the masses. And frankly, it takes pretty darn good photos, even today.

The Target Six-20 was only around for about six years, along with its counterpart, the Brownie Target Six-16. But it was one of the most-produced Kodak cameras of its day, part of a long line bearing the name Brownie, which stretched into the 1960s.

 LEFT: Meagan Kern, left, and Autumn Sproull, both 20, pose Jan. 24, 2014, on the Stephen F. Austin State campus in Nacogdoches.

The Target Six-20 is a really fun camera to shoot. And its retro look and Art Deco front plate is really a conversation starter.

That's what happened with Meagan and Autumn when I was out shooting on campus in January at Stephen F. Austin State. It was a snow day in Nacogdoches, an unusual occurrence in Deep East Texas. I was wandering around, looking for  weather-related art for the newspaper, when I saw Meagan and Autumn out and about. 

They were making their own photos (via cell-phone camera) when I met them near the Steen Library. I introduced myself and explained the project to them. They both seemed interested and agreed to pose for the photo at left.

One thing about the Brownie Target, in fact common to most of the cameras of the time, there's no way to focus the lens. A copy of the users manual promised that "everything from 8-feet and further" would be in focus. Well, I must be a bad judge of distance. I could swear I was at least 8 feet away from the girls but, if you inspect the image closely, you'll see they are just slightly out of focus.

I'll admit, it's entirely possible, I didn't get the camera reassembled exactly to factory specs when I took it apart to clean it up before putting it into service. That could have affected the near focus because the trees in the background are nice and sharp. But I think that softness in the near ground is just part of the charm of using these old cameras.

Before I met Meagan and Autumn, I'd been out shooting with the Nikon digital D4 camera provided by the newspaper. It's auto focus, auto-everything (if you want it to be, but I never do) makes it difficult to make a bad image. (I won't say impossible. Believe me, I've got the virtual bucket full of bad images to prove it.)

But, by its very nature, the high-end digital cameras I use make images that, sometimes, seem almost too perfect. I've said it before and I'll say it again, that's why I decided to dust off the old film cameras, which is what eventually led to his project.

RIGHT: Abby Phillips, 16, from Benton, La., sits her horse Sassy waiting for her turn in the arena for the pole bending event at a Piney Woods Youth Rodeo Association event at the Nacogdoches Expo Center on Feb. 9, 2014.

I'm loving the mystery and the challenge of photography again. I was having a conversation with one of the younger women at work about just this subject. She's had little if any exposure experience with traditional, non-digital photography, and she just couldn't imagine not being able to tell if you had the photo you saw in the viewfinder — and in your mind — milliseconds after clicking the shutter.

 And I really believe getting back to my roots in film-based imaging is helping me in my day-to-day photography. Working with a limited number of images — 8 per roll in the case of the Target Six-20 — is forcing me to think about each click of the shutter. It's helping me become more deliberate about my photography again.

The latest installment of The Analog East Texas Project will hit print Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014, in The Daily Sentinel, featuring images from the Kodak Brownie Target Six-20. As always, you can view these images and more from the project on my Flickr page. 

Thanks for looking and let me know what you think.

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