My Beautiful Brownie Camera

My family chronicle in photographs began with this humble camera

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Photo by Renée Benoit

When I was a little kid my mom gave me a Kodak Brownie camera all loaded up with a roll of film and ready to go. You can’t imagine (or maybe you can) the excitement in a young child’s heart to be given such a special gift but my mom was that kind of person and very interested in the creative life of her children so it was not that much a surprise that she did this. Because it was a good weather day and my friends were just outside my door I jumped up to make them all sit in particular poses so I could take their picture. Marjorie sat on our picnic table and played with a long string of beads as if she was a New York model. Cindy posed self-consciously next to a bush in her coat and scarf. That camera began my lifelong interest in photography. I never became a professional but it certainly was the beginning of developing an “eye” for composition along with the all-important documentation of the life and times of a small-town country girl. Maybe that was the most important of all.

The Brownie was 100% black and white photography. It had been a long-running popular series of simple and inexpensive cameras made by Eastman Kodak. It was first introduced in 1900 and was a basic cardboard box camera with a simple lens that took 2 ¼ inch square pictures on roll film. Because of its simple controls and the initial price of $1 along with the low price of Kodak roll film and processing, the Brownie camera became extremely popular.

You might wonder where the name came from and I wondered that, too. According to the Franklin Institute, the name “Brownie” was chosen primarily because of the popularity of a children’s book of cartoons of the same name, and partly because the camera was initially manufactured for Eastman by Frank Brownell of Rochester, New York.

Brownie cameras were extensively marketed to children, with Kodak using them to popularize photography. They were also taken to war by soldiers. As they were ubiquitous, many iconic shots were taken on Brownies.

So, there I was, and unbeknownst to me, in possession of an iconic instrument of history. I must say that even though I didn’t use it to take any Pulitzer Prize-winning images I did take a bunch of images that were precious to me. I don’t have any pictures of my friends but I have pictures that I took of my mother and my grandmother Daisy.