Monday, March 31, 2014

‘Brownie’ camera simple and fun — and still revered

View the associated image gallery here.

By Andrew D. Brosig | Posted: Saturday, March 29, 2014 11:30 pm
The name “Brownie” is almost synonymous with the Eastman Kodak Company. Kodak cameras have carried the name, in one form or another, beginning with the earliest models dating back to the late 19th and early 20th century.

They came with various model designations, from Bullet to Holiday to Starflash. But among the most popular was the Brownie Hawkeye and its later incarnation, the Brownie Hawkeye Flash.

The original Hawkeye model was released in 1949. It featured a simple meniscus lens and captured a square image on 620-format film. Unlike other 620 cameras of its era, though, the Brownie Hawkeye featured no aperture control and it only offered a single shutter speed, along with a lever which could be pulled to disengage the shutter mechanism. This meant the shutter would stay open as long as the release was held down.

The original Hawkeye was only around for a short time before Kodak did a redesign and added flash capability. The camera was re-released in 1950 as the Brownie Hawkeye Flash.

Even today, the Hawkeye Flash remains one of the most popular models for antique camera buffs, particularly those who like to shoot with their old cameras. For being such a simple device, it takes very good photos.

And, because it’s so simple, it’s also fun to play around with. Two screws inside the camera hold the film transfer mechanism, which also holds the lens in place. It’s a simple matter to remove, giving access to the works of the camera for cleaning — or for modifications — if desired.

A common modification photographers attempt is to reverse the lens in the camera, with some interesting results, to say the least. When attempted for this project, the resulting images resembled the very earliest photograph known, with admittedly a much shorter exposure time.

That first photograph, which can be found on the Internet, was captured somewhere in France by inventor and accomplished lithographer Joseph Nicéphore Niepce in the summer of 1826. It is an image of farm buildings backed by the sky, taken from an upper window on Niepce’s estate in Le Gras in the Burgundy region of France, over the course of an 8-hour exposure. The resulting image is crude by modern standards and barely resembles a modern photographic image but it marked a turning point in the history of mankind.

The Hawkeye Flash is hardly the technological giant of photographic imaging. But it is as far ahead of Niepce’s early attempts at heliographs, as he called his images, as a modern-day camera is ahead of the Hawkeye. And much the way Niepce’s heliographs did, the Hawkeye Flash was as important to photography, being one of Kodak’s numerous successful attempts to put photography in the hands of the masses.

The Hawkeye Flash can still be found, on Internet auction sites or at garage sales, for just a few dollars. Some models, or so the websites show, can utilize the modern 120-format film as long as a 620 reel is used for the take-up. Many companies offer re-rolled 120 film on 620 spools, though, with the only challenge then being processing. Black and white film can still be processed at home and, with the help of any of a number of modern digital scanners, captured into the computer and shared with friends, family and the world at-large.

A couple of more interesting side-notes to the history of the Hawkeye Flash:

The camera was manufactured using the early plastic resin commonly known as Bakelite, which actually adds to its allure as a collectible, with Bakelite aficionados sometimes going head-to-head with camera collectors.

The Brownie Hawkeye, and later the Hawkeye Flash, were designed by legendary Kodak engineer Arthur Hunt Crapsey Jr., one of the company’s first industrial designers. Crapsey is responsible for the designs of many of the most popular Kodak cameras, beginning in 1945, through his retirement as head of the design group in 1980.

If anyone were to list the names of individuals who were most influential in photography through the 20th century, Crapsey would have to be somewhere on that list.

No one knows for sure how many Hawkeye cameras were made. But collectors have noted there probably is, or used to be, a Hawkeye camera in just about every attic in the country. They were that popular, and it’s a popularity which hasn’t necessarily waned for camera collectors and film photographers to this day.

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