Introduced in 1900, the Kodak Brownie was instrumental in bringing photography to the masses. It sold for US$1.00 (around US$44 in 2022 terms), and included film and processing. Essentially a cardboard box with a plastic lens, this simple design revolutionized photography and allowed people from all walks of life to take pictures.
My Brownie, the Hawkeye Flash Model, was a popular model in the 1950s. Retaining the same simplicity as its earlier design, the Hawkeye Flash features a Bakelite plastic body, a rudimentary viewfinder, and the ability to use a flash. So far, I’ve only used Kodak T-Max 100 with this camera and have been pleased with its results.
Using this camera in the age of digital technology has been somewhat of a breath of fresh air, and taps into a creative spark that I find quite enjoyable. Along the way, it has reinforced some life lessons that continue to have an impact on my photography and day-to-day life.
Life Lesson #1 – Simplicity
A Kodak Brownie camera is very easy to use. To take a picture, simply compose your subject and press the shutter button, which is the only control on the camera. No need to worry about complex electronic or mechanical elements.
In life, the simple moments are the things to be treasured. A walk on the beach, a dog wagging its tail, time spent with friends and loved ones. The simple joys of life, often overlooked, are what’s truly important.
Life Lesson #2 – Limitations
There is no zoom, no shutter speed/aperture settings, the image seen in the viewfinder doesn’t exactly line up with the lens, and no focus control whatsoever. Not too many options with this camera. However, these limitations can enhance creativity since artistic projects often thrive on constraints.
We all have limits to what we can or cannot do, but that shouldn’t prevent us from pursuing whatever it is that speaks to our soul. As Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Do the best you can with what you have where you are.”
Life Lesson #3 – Blemishes
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With today’s technology, even the simplest of cameras deliver image quality only dreamed of decades ago. Photos from the Brownie often have out-of-focus elements, lens flare, and light leaks that, depending on your perspective, either ruin a picture or give it something unique. I like to think of them as having character and being perfectly imperfect.
Wabi-sabi, a traditional Japanese aesthetic, is a beauty described as “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”. A well-worn jacket or a pair of jeans, an old wooden boat, or a dog-eared copy of a favorite book cannot compare to pristine new versions and can lack that special something, which often grabs our hearts.
Life Lesson #4 – Acceptance
I do not have the element of control with this camera as I do with my other cameras. Given all the unique elements of the Brownie camera and its resulting photographs, it has been a welcome feeling to accept its limitations and be genuinely happy about the final results.
Accepting the fact that there are things that are beyond your control can help deal with challenging circumstances. Instead, we can focus on what we can control and how we react to those elements beyond our control.
Life Lesson #5 – Process, not outcome
Using the Brownie on several photographic projects has reinforced that it is the photographic process, not the resulting photographs that I value most. The wanderings, the time spent with friends and family, and enjoying the natural world are what bring me joy.
As the proverb states, it is the journey, not the destination that is important. Henry David Thoreau’s poignant quote sums it up nicely: “Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish that they are after.”
Thanks for reading,
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Love the simple image of the wheat. Perfect, including the bit of motion blur.
….or reeds/waterside grass. Probably not wheat 🙂
Thanks Peter! It’s a lot of fun looking for such simple scenes with a simple camera.
These were taken on Assateague Island in Virginia, so it’s some sort of marsh grass 🙂
Isn’t this a 620 film camera? Where have you found 620 for sale?
I get all my 620 film from The Film Photography Project – they have a great variety of 620 film!
Excellent article Dan, valued lessons that we all should read and learn from. But most of all, it’s important to put these simple lessons into practice and not to forget them.
Thank you very much for this Fred – I truly appreciate it. It’s sometimes easy to get caught up in day-to-day life, and not take the time to reflect on what is truly important.
That is how the ink-jet printer cartridge system was invented. Throw in a cheap means taking pics to sell film. Glad the did it, though. Camera makers profitied as well in the long run.
Nowadays there would be more film formats, each camera producer having their own, not compatible, chip coded for regions…
Fine read, thanks for sharing!
Great point Martin. Speaking of film formats, I’m glad that I can still get a hold of 620 film. I’ve heard that 120 film can be used in the Brownie, as long as the take-up spool is 620 format. Will have to give this a try one day.
If you have two spools and a changing bag it’s not very difficult to re-spool.
All is inside the changing bag.
1) Put the start tab of a roll of 120 into a 620 spool and wind the whole roll onto the 620 spool.
2) Put the tail tab into the other 620 spool and wind it back, taking care that when the film starts you don’t let it slip.
3) Make sure you don’t let it unwind as you take it out of the bag and put it in the camera.
The advantage of this route is that the realignment of film to backing due to the different spool diameters is taken care of in the forward rolling towards the free end.
Thanks for this info James – I truly appreciate it. I plan on getting back into film developing and will definitely give this a go!
This was the first camera I used as a youth. The one lesson I learned back then, and had to relearn when I resurrected my old Brownie was, “hold the camera still,” though I’m not sure how this applies to life!
Thanks for the note Jim, and that’s a great point – with the 100 speed film I braced the camera against my waist to keep it as stable as possible. But you’ve given me a great idea: I’ve never tried intentional camera movement with the Brownie. Will have to give it a go!
Great article and photos!
Thanks Sonny! I always have fun using this camera!
I enjoyed this! Beautiful photos that demonstrate your talent for seeing and taking strong images with the most basic of cameras.
Thank you Jon! Projects like this really helps get to the essence of photography and helps me get absorbed in the process. I look forward to more!