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Brownie box camera: the source of hundreds of old Tehachapi photos

Land of Four Seasons

I have a variety of antique items handed down from my Tehachapi family, but one of my favorites is one of the easiest to overlook: a 1907 Kodak Brownie box camera.

This simple device is slightly larger than a Pop-Tart box and made of wood and cardboard covered with black fabric. There are a few metal parts and a couple of glass lenses, and that's about it.

Eastman Kodak Company made these cameras to be basic, reliable and affordable to bring photography to the masses – Brownies were the Model T of cameras.

I value the old camera, despite its plain appearance and modest value, because of what it has produced: hundreds of black-and-white photos of Kern County taken between 1915 and the 1940s.

The Brownie camera belonged to my grandmother, Edith Hand, and she used it to take many photos of the Tehachapi area and Kern River Valley. These old photos capture people and places that are long gone – or have changed almost beyond recognition.

Kodak made more than a dozen simple box cameras, beginning in 1900, that are collectively known as "Brownies," but hers specifically is a No. 2A Hawk-Eye Camera Model A. It was introduced in 1907 and sold for $2.

The Brownie uses 116mm film (later models switched to 120) and was intended primarily for outdoor exposures. Instructions in the original camera manual suggested that "The subject should be in the broad, open sunlight but the camera must not. The sun should be behind your back or over the shoulder."

More than 100 years later, that remains accurate photographic advice in most circumstances.

Unlike today's cameras, the Brownie wasn't meant to be held up to the viewer's eye.

Instead, you were supposed to hold it level and press it against your midsection, steadying it on your lower torso as you peered through a viewfinder half the size of a postage stamp.

The camera manual told new owners to "Hold the camera firmly against the body. When pushing the exposure lever, hold the breath for an instant." Failure to follow these instructions would cause the photos to be blurred, the instructions warned.

My grandmother obviously figured out how to use her camera properly, because she took many great photos with her $2 camera.

After many years my grandmother switched to a Rolliflex twin lens camera, and later to an Argus 35mm single lens reflex camera, but she always reserved some affection for the old box camera that she had been using since before the first road was paved in Kern County.

I occasionally include some of her photos in my columns and they are a treasure trove of Tehachapi images taken before World War II.

A great-aunt of mine, Frances Estes, also took many early photos of this area, and her photos are part of the family archive as well – and were also taken with an old Brownie.

When I look at these old images, I'm appreciative of the humble little box camera and I'm grateful for all of the history its primitive lens and cardboard body have preserved.

Now the cameras inside our ubiquitous cell phones have ensured that most people have a camera on them at all times. These digital cameras keep getting better, but especially in earlier cell phone models, the simple cameras served a similar purpose to the old Brownies: to enable the average person to photograph their lives, loved ones and the world around them.

Camera technology has advanced so much in the past century that it's analogous to the Model T to jet airplane transformation of the travel industry. But many of these old cameras are still functional, and some devotees are still using them with 120mm film that is still available, though Brownie users have to re-roll it onto a spool inside a film bag to fit in their vintage cameras.

I'm grateful to have my family's old photos of our area from a century ago, and I'm happy to have the actual camera that took the photos as well. The Brownie camera was an important part of early 20th Century American culture.

Keep enjoying the beauty of life in the Tehachapi Mountains.

Jon Hammond is a fourth generation Kern County resident who has photographed and written about the Tehachapi Mountains for 38 years. He lives on a farm his family started in 1921, and is a speaker of Nuwä, the Tehachapi Indian language. He can be reached at [email protected].