This article isn’t on photography per se, it’s about cameras, it’s about our cameras. It’s about the cameras we carry in our bags, pockets or hands.

I decided to write this after an old friend from school contacted me about my previous article. We hadn’t spoke in a while but she said that after reading my previous article she dug out an old camera of hers. I’ve never inspired anyone before so it was really nice to read. The reason for me deciding to write off the back of this was because the my friend’s camera is an excellent symbol of what I’d like to rant about. So here it is:

The life of a film camera and all the lives it’s part of…

I feel this is a part of film photography that gets forgotten about sometimes, and whilst the previous owners of a camera are irrelevant once it’s in your possession I think it’s a “nice” thing to think about. As I write this I look at my collection of cameras, whilst not huge in comparison to others it’s still something I take enjoyment from.

What I find awesome about this is, is that some of the cameras I have are seemingly ancient. In these cameras lives decades of history have passed by, from global issues to personal problems that affect us all at some point, each humble camera “alive” today has been through it all.

So, what’s my point?

I love the thought that I might be using someone’s grandad’s camera. The idea that before it reached me, after months of saving up pocket money and with feverish excitement it was bought brand new in a shop that at one time was a bustling local hive of photography…but is now a nail salon.

Our new purchase got used daily, weekly, then almost never, except for the occasional birthday or Christmas. Then it was put away and the owner of it forgot, years later it’s picked up again by a curious child, who like his ancestral apes before him clicks what can click, presses what can be pressed and opens what will open. At this point after the pressing and clicking is done the fate of the camera reaches its singularity, does the child say “what’s this” or do they chuck it back into the box again.

To those who asked “What’s this” I thank you, you’ve given a camera another chance to do what it does best.

Years later it’s battered, beaten and held together by tape but the damn thing couldn’t be happier (if it had emotions), It’s done it’s job, and it’s done it over generations who’ve got enjoyment out of it, with their own friends and their own family. Eventually it becomes forgotten again, it’s original owner passes away, and our second or third generation of custodians doesn’t have the interest anymore so they take it to a shop with the immortal lines;

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“Is this worth anything”.

The shop owner offers a price which is neither more nor less what was expected, but also not quite right either, a figure is eventually reached and just like that our little camera is no longer part of the family it watched grow up, it gets repaired and put on a shelf where it’s surrounded on all sides by cameras older and younger than it, each one having a story like ours.

Our camera waits with it’s lens open to the same scene for an age until someone curious enough comes along and buys it with the same feverish excitement as its original owner. And it all begins again;

…New Owner.
…New Family.
…New Film.
…New Life.
…Old Camera.

As I said earlier, I know this is a bit soppy and I may be guilty of anthropomorphising a camera a bit too much but I think it’s great that as film photographers we almost all use cameras that have had previous owners. If you’ve had a camera since you bought it that’s brilliant, but, if like me, you’re using one that’s had a life before it reached you…well, I find a bit of magic in that.

I wish we could have aworld wide reunion with cameras and their original owners, who’s Toyo and Wista am I using? Did it belong to an old Japanese man before finding it’s way to England? Isabel Curdes said it well, in her interview. She said she began looking for a film camera after her hiatus. What made me smile was the fact that she was looking for her camera, I felt the nonchalance in her saying “her” camera, as if one finds you and you find it.

I hope you all enjoyed this and didn’t groan too much whilst reading it, I’d love to see your stories in the comments.

~ James

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About the author

James Horrobin - Gareth

James Horrobin

Leeds (UK) based large format photographer. If you want a large format portrait just let me know and we'll have a chat.

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  1. Great article! I purchased a 1950s Rolleiflex 2.8e for $70 at a yard sale about 15 years ago. It had the original leather case and a yellow filter. The lady who sold it to me said it had been her dad’s, and warned me she didn’t know if you could still get film for it (evidently not a close photography bond between dad and daughter….) I’ve traveled with that camera all over and put dozens of rolls of film through it, but to this very day, when I open it (and especially if the leather case is on it), I get a little puff of nicotene/tobacco smoke from the camera. I’ve never smoked and I detest cigarettes, but whenever I get that whiff, I’m always connected back to the utterly mysterious previous owner, whoever he was. I’ve often wondered about him, but I’ll never know anything more except he took good care of his camera and he was a smoker…. it is fascinating to think of the way these artifacts span lives and lifetimes. They link us in ways that transcend our everyday experience.

  2. As someone with a lot of camera’s this speaks to me. I have a few that I know the history of, the Olympus Trip 35 my girlfriends dad bought in the 80’s and used a handful of times, the Canon AE-1 Programme my grandfather gave me that I discovered he had around his neck in the wedding photo of my Aunt and Uncle at their wedding, the broken Zenit my dad gave me and the Olympus Auto Eye a work friend gave me that his dad hadn’t used for a while and thought it should go to a good cause i.e. me. But for every one of those there’s at least two or three I have no idea of the history of and would loved to have been able to find out about, for example how on earth did the Bronica S2A I bought still have the original box, instructions, strap and even the polystyrene casing inside the box?!
    Thought provoking article.

    1. Hello, thanks for commenting Mr Pman :D. I really wanted this to be thought provoking, so it’s great to read that. It’s funny how the stories you DON’T know about are more interesting that those that you do. Cheers again.

  3. Nice article, James! With our 15-16 yo students, a couple of years ago, we did many reflections about the great history of a century, and the not-less-relevant life of their own families, that they were maybe understanding just in he moment we’ve been using the cameras of one, two or three generations before them. And of course many of those time machines are still alive and shooting selfies, too. Hope we’ll be able to finish that project, sooner or later…

    1. Hi Sergio, thanks for reading. That’s great to know, I hope the younger people of my generation share my interest.

  4. Great writing! I think what you describe is just beneath the surface of the magic many people feel surrounds analog photography. Using ‘inherited’ cameras – actual or purchased. I buy used cameras on auction sites etc and sell them on Etsy and think along these lines a lot. I’m not inquisitive but sometimes the cameras seem to come from exciting owners. Who’ve often passed away and whose relatives sell off their stuff. The vast majority of cameras that I pass on are distributed to their ‘second’ families, with only little nicks, dents and scratches telling of their past history.

    1. Hey Tobias, thanks for reading. It’s funny you should mention “just beneath”, the whole time I was writing I felt like I was just missing out on what I ACTUALLY wanted to say. I guess it still got something across.
      I love that you feel the same about the cameras you “intercept”, I love the dents and scratches some cameras pick up, what’s kinda funny is that if I damage a camera it’s fine, but if its serious and done by someone else I’m suspicious of it. Strange double standard I have.

  5. Loving this. You’ve managed to sum up more or less exactly how I feel about cameras. This is why I can’t help adding more old cameras to my collection… I almost feel that I’m rescuing them from becoming junk, that somebody has to save them and use them and love them again. If I see an absurdly cheap camera that’s a bit battered and obviously has some history, I’m drawn to it like a moth to a flame. I want to be a part of its history, as it passes through, probably to outlive us all.

    1. Hi Dave, thanks for the kind words. Good to hear. It’s a great way to rationalise buying new cameras, they’re all different, even ones of the same model. I love how personal they are. Sadly something that I feel is totally devoid in modern cameras