Rediscovering My Grandfather’s Camera

Rediscovering My Grandfather’s Camera

Recently, as I've begun exploring the realm of film photography, my dad pulled out his father's old camera and passed it down to me. I never knew my grandfather, so this feels like a moment to connect where I was never able to.

When I say I've begun shooting film, I’m young enough that I mostly learned photography digitally, so learning the process on film is something that I thought I should do. I began learning on 35mm like most and eventually branched out in the realm of medium format.

This is where my grandfather comes in. Like I said, I never really knew him. He died in a work accident when my dad was only nine years old. Although he didn’t know him for all that long, my dad always spoke highly of his father. My grandfather wasn’t a pro in photography or anything, but he had a love for taking photos and videos. I also have his 8mm Brownie that he would shoot home movies on.

As I was diving more into the film process, my dad brought out the camera. A Kodak Junior Six-20 folding camera. This was about as portable as they got in the 1930s and 40s. Actually, when folded down, it isn’t much larger than my iPhone. Strangely, even now it is a very portable camera. Now, I didn't want this just to be a piece for display, and while it does look great in my office, I wanted to see if I could have it work and maybe even test it out. Mechanically, everything appeared sound, with minimal to no damage to any of the light seals or bellows. Naturally, soon after, I began researching the camera itself and the type of film it shot.

It was a little tricky initially to get film for this camera, as 620 film isn’t really produced anymore. That said, however, 120 film is very common and essentially the same thing, with a slightly different spool size. In fact, there are even companies that will re-spool 120 film onto a 620 spool, and it works just as well.

Coming from using cameras with insane image quality, this was a bit of a departure as the images out of this aren’t super sharp, they have lens distortions, dust, and scratches (even after cleaning the camera). But there’s something about it that I just love. Sure, I wouldn’t look to this to shoot a campaign on, but for a different perspective, this camera has a unique look to it that you won’t find with the clinical nature of modern technology. In all fairness, this takes the type of photos that most may call "bad" or "unusable," and in many ways, that may be a correct assessment, but this is one camera that is more than a tool for me. It contains a deeper connection, and the flawed nature of the photos brings with it a look where the beauty is in the flaws, not in spite of them.

If you’re the type that likes the intricacies of camera settings, this will not be your friend. The aperture ranges from f/12.5-32, with shutter speeds that are either 1/100 s or bulb mode exclusively, and the button is a small lever next to the lens with either a waist-level finder or a pop-up viewfinder working off a fixed focal length of roughly 87mm, which would be wider when compared to a 35mm sensor (more around 50-65mm).

Believe it or not, this camera and the stories from it have given me a deeper appreciation for the art of photography. It created a sense of curiosity and an affinity for more than the technical aspects of an image. I think as photographers, it's easy to get caught up in the nitty-gritty of things. Camera settings, lighting ratios, lens dynamics, etc. But what if you removed that? What if you stripped it back and left purely the visual, the story? You may even find you begin to tell better stories. Because of the mechanics of this camera, it is best to shoot slowly if handholding, as even at 1/100 s you can still encounter some amount of camera shake. And based on the way the shutter works, you can encounter more of it. The breathing techniques some mention similar to that of pulling a trigger are paramount here. You really end up slowing down, taking in each frame. And it's best that you do, as you get 8 shots to a roll of film. Shooting with this camera almost becomes a meditative process. There's no ability to spray and pray, and because this is all manual-winding, as opposed to the modern 20+ frames per second, you're more looking at one frame every 20 seconds. It forces you to be even more selective with your photos than even 35mm film.

Now yes, this ultimately becomes an expensive process when you consider the price of film and processing, especially for only getting 8 images to a roll, but for something that refines your eye in a unique way, it can be worth it. But the reasons for me go far beyond that and are much more personal.

Technical aspects of this aside, this camera ultimately allowed me to connect in a way I never thought possible. There's something about using a camera that has lived lifetimes longer than you. It's almost as if you can feel the history through it. And as someone who loves to share the joy of photography, what better than to dive into using a camera like this? Sharing the photos it's taken with my parents, my dad and I looking through them after, I can almost feel fond memories of him and his dad perhaps doing the same. When I open the shutter, I can imagine my grandfather doing the same. It makes me wonder about some of the photos he’s taken. And just for a moment, allows for me to feel like I knew him.

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