A camera obscura box with sliding door from the early 1800s trumpeted as the world’s first camera was recently on display in Macau, China. Its simple method for capturing light and projecting an image continues to drive camera technology today.
Fast forward 200 years, and digital has more than arrived; it is the standard camera format for the world’s photographers. Yet, many of us learned our craft on what some call “analog” cameras.
My first camera was a Minolta X700 from the early ’80s, given to me by my boarding school houseparent. It was my freshman year of high school and I’d gotten a spot in the coveted B&W Photography class, but I didn’t have a camera! My houseparent was gracious enough to give me hers, and I used it for years — until I purchased my own Minolta SLR.
As a shy teenager, my first film camera countered my natural desire to observe rather than participate. It forced me to interact with others and opened up a whole new way of seeing life. With it, I learned the basics of f-stops, shutter speeds and depth of field.
With only 36 exposures per roll of film, I was forced to closely study composition in the camera’s frame and truly decide whether a shot was worth taking.
First Cameras of Famous Photographers
All this nostalgia got me thinking of the masters who were my first photography influences. I wondered, “What were their first cameras?” I did a little research — and found some uniquely personal, life-changing stories.
Mary Ellen Mark
As a 9-year-old child fascinated “by that sense of time stopping and a moment being preserved forever,“ Mary Ellen Mark started taking pictures with a Box Brownie camera. A fine art major, she was lost about what direction to take in life — and then she encountered photography again: “From the moment I picked up a camera for my first school assignment, there was no turning back. I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be for the rest of my life.”
The road to becoming the first African-American photographer for Life magazine started when Gordon Parks got his first camera, a Voightlander Brilliant, at a pawnshop in Seattle for $7.50. Of that purchase he once said, “I bought what was to become my weapon against poverty and racism.”
In 1883, Alfred Stieglitz bought his first camera, which he saw in the window of a shop in Berlin. He later said about the experience: “I bought it and carried it to my room and began to fool around with it. It fascinated me, first as a passion, then as an obsession.”
In Annie Leibovitz’s book At Work, the photographer says “I bought my first real camera in Japan, a Minolta SR-T 101. The first thing I did with it was take it on a climb up Mt. Fuji.” Leibovitz’s triumphant trek up Japan’s tallest mountain poignantly ends with her photographing “the sunrise with the two or three frames I had left.”
While working as a junior art director on a project in the 1960s, Joel Meyerowitz was sent on a photo shoot with photographer Robert Frank. That same day he quit his job with dreams of photographing the world. His then boss asked, “Do you even have a camera?” Joel replied “No,” but was blessed when his boss offered him his. “With that camera,” says Meyerowitz, “I went out onto the streets of New York and began my life. I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to that man.”
And just as there is a first, there will eventually be a last camera. Walker Evans took the last shots of his life, which became his second largest body of color work, with a Polaroid SX-70. Of his experience, Evans remarked, “Nobody should touch a Polaroid [camera] until he’s over 60.”
Sammy Davis Jr.
Although I didn’t encounter this little known photographer until recently, in the tradition of friends gifting cameras, I loved this anecdote about Sammy Davis Jr.’s first. He said, “Jerry [Lewis] gave me my first important camera, my first 35 millimeter, during the Ciro’s period, early ’50s, and he hooked me.”
What Camera Hooked You?
Our destinies are often played out in split-second decisions and choices occurring by chance. That same gratitude Meyerowitz felt for his boss is what I feel for my houseparent.
I can’t imagine my life without photography, and I often think, “What if she never had that Minolta?” (Thank you, Cheryl!)
So to all you digital converts out there, I ask you: what was your first camera? In retrospect, that film camera may not be as sexy as your digital powerhouse. But I want to know what camera ignited your passion to start your journey as a photographer. Feel free to leave your answers in the comments!