by Arunima Sen
“In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing. Finally, the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads -- as an anthology of images. To collect photographs is to collect the world.”
-Susan Sontag, On Photography.
Sontag's book is perhaps one of the most important and definitive texts of Modernism, which tells us how the camera has evolved over the ages to suit our needs- it is no longer as cumbersome and expensive a contraption as it was in its initial days, instead it has become a vehicle for social and artistic expression. The first cameras were made in the early 1840s in England and France, and they could only be operated by a select few. Within a few years, especially during the World War eras and up to 1965, the field of camera-making saw unprecedented development. Enormous changes in both camera and photographic processes took place- and the experiences of the war-field became both universalized and democratized through photographic images.
In 1925, Oskar Barnack created a small format 35 mm camera- a lightweight Leica. It revolutionized the traditional forms of reportage and became “an integral part of the eye” and “an extension of the hand”. Today, certain models of Leica have become sought-after collectibles, a claim justified by the recently held (December, 2010) auction at the WestLicht gallery in Vienna. A Leica MP2, built in 1958, was sold for €402,000 while its starting price was itself a whopping €80,000. This camera is indeed rare- only six of this model were ever manufactured. In the same auction were seen the Nikon S2-E, a viewfinder camera built in 1957 and a F3 NASA from 1968. They were sold for a sum of €168,000. When it comes to auctions, Leica seems to be an outright winner. In 2009, at another WestLicht gallery auction, an original Leica M4 olive (built for the Germany army) was sold for €87,600 while the first Leica M3 model fetched a price of €72,000- this keeping in mind that in 1949, a brand new Leica IIIc camera cost $280! Collectible Leica models today include the 1932 Leica II with coupled range-finder and built-in viewfinder, the 1934 Leica 250, also known as the “Reporter” which delivered 250 exposures without reloading and was thus used extensively by the German air force, the 1965 Leicaflex that was the first single-lens reflex camera to emerge from the Leica stable, and the 1966 Leica Noctilux 1:1.2/50 mm with an aspherical element. The next WestLicht auction, taking place this year on the 28th of May, will include the first of the Leica 0-Series No. 107 (1923), a camera that is the 7th of the 25 manufactured by Leitz. It is the only camera known with "Germany" engraved on the top plate. This particular piece, as a Leica website informs us, was produced for patent application in New York- making it the first exported Leica camera. It is estimated to fetch around €350,000. The same auction also boasts of the Leica M2 Gray # 1,105,767 (1960) of which only twenty copies were made to deliver to the US Air Force. The starting price for this piece is €50,000 and is estimated to bring in €80,000. The third highlight of the auction is the Leica MP2 Chrome No. 952 009 of the year 1958. The MP2 was the first M camera to include an electric motor drive, and there are only ten pieces of this model. While the starting price for this one is €70,000, it is estimated to fetch around €12,000. In this upcoming WestLicht auction- the Nikon I Nr. 60924 (1948) is also being put up for sale. It is the third camera that Nikon has ever produced and is expected to bring in around a quarter of a million dollars. It comes with the matching lens (Nikkor 2/5cm no. 70811) and is still in fantastic original condition.
Michael Levy, in his book titled Selecting and Using Classic Cameras, writes that the real competition Leica faced was from Contax. Zeiss Ikon came up with the Contax in the year 1932, and it was a 35mm camera that had a focal-plane shutter. This metal focal- plane shutter traveled vertically instead of horizontally (unlike Leica). The second Contax model was issued in 1934, which utilized one window for both focus and framing, and used a little focusing wheel for the 50mm lens. This feature is still retained in the electronic Contax G-Series made by Yashica today. The first Contax model, later called the Contax I had a black enamel finish and it was joined in 1936 by the chrome plated Contax II. Another model worthy of mention is the Contax III, produced in 1936, with a built-in photoelectric exposure meter. Most of these pre-war Contax cameras are in regular demand in collector's circles.
Another Swedish beauty that have, over the years, kept collectors and camera connoisseurs enthralled with its aesthetic build and great functionality is Hasselblad. The company, christened Victor Hasselblad AB, traces its inception back to Gothenburg, Sweden, in 1941. With the model 1600F, they made initial forays into the mainstream market in 1948, right after the post-war years. Riding on this initial wave of success, the 1600F was soon replaced by the company with the newer model, 1000F, with an extremely fast shutter speed of 1/1000 s, bettering on the 1600F's shutter speed of 1/1600 seconds. This was the last camera that Hasselblad produced in the F series, as pretty soon, Hasselblad introduced the revolutionary 'V' System with Carl Zeiss lenses in their C series Cameras. The 1000F enjoyed its production run till the year 1957, after which it was phased with the introduction of the Leaf-shutter model 500C. Today, the Hasselblad is a prized commodity, not only for its antique value, but also for its perfect usability and crisp images. At any auction, the average range for the 1000F Camera with its lens kit goes from $600 to $1200 for models in impeccable condition. With the initial batch of Hasselblad cameras like the 1600F, this price easily goes up to as much as $12,000 for a model maintained in collectible condition (mint condition). Today, in camera auctions all over the world, the Hasselblad name commands immediate interest and respect among collectors, and even in the near-invincible monopoly of Japanese cameras, the Hasselblad comes to represent an era of gritty European craftsmanship and finesse.
When we talk of Japanese cameras, one thinks of utility cameras that might not have been easy on the eye, but have covered this lack with exquisite features and great image quality. However, one is forced to rethink this perception on even a cursory review of the vintage line of cameras of a little Japanese company called Canon. Founded in pre-war years of 1931 in Japan, Canon was first called Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory, which was rechristened in 1937. From the very beginning, the Canon-motto was empowering the common man with a camera a journey that started with the model 'Hansa Canon'. The Hansa model was priced at 275 Yen, and the bundle included a Nikkon 50mm f/3.5, the lens, the hood, two rolls of film magazines and spool. Using technology created by Japanese company Nippon Kogaku, the Hansa became Canon's first 'Civilian camera'. A range of modified versions followed the initial release model, termed J, as soon Canon launched its models S, NS and the JS (the model with slow shutter-speeds, which peaked at popularity). After the World War II, this line was refurbished with the model J II, which came out in 1946. Today, Canon models have to be synonymous with amazing clarity of image, and extremely rugged and sleek design making them instant favourites the world over. Vintage Canon cameras are also eagerly sought-after items at camera auctions, and collectors pay huge amounts even for older models with a few blemishes. A case in point is the original Hansa model, with the 35mm rangefinder, a very well-maintained model of which fetches over $10,000 at auctions all over the world. Collectors are particularly interested in the extremely rare pre-1937 models, which bear the marks of 'Nippon Kogaku Tokyo', fetching over $20,000 at some auctions.
Apart from these models, cameras from manufacturers like Berning, Contessa Nettel and Graflex also generate immense interest in collectors' circles, not always for the price they generate, but for the value they represent to collectors. What these models represent is not always measured by the finesse of the images produced, or the technology employed by these models. The real crux of their appeal is their practicality, and the immense impact they have generated across the cross-sections of their consumer base over subsequent generations. Hailing from beyond the 'golden' age of photography, these cameras exude a sense of old-world appeal and vintage sophistication that still remains unmatched, and for a long time to come, shall remain so in most collection circles.