I have a working collection of 52 film cameras—some of them quite rare and unique, others just yard sale garbage, all of them loved and fun. I recently decided to take all of them out and push some celluloid through them, documenting the process one week at a time as I breathe some life back to these dope little beasts. I’m calling it the Vintage Camera Quest.
Like every photographer I suspect, I had no choice but to fall in love with photography. My grandfather had a camera slung round his neck with the same frequency that dudes at Home Depot rock Oakleys—that is, pretty much day and night. Growing up with him on Long Island, some of my earliest memories have to do with the sound of a shutter or the smell of stop bath.
At 15, after an olympic amount of begging, my pop bought me my very first camera—a Canon AE1—from a little pawn shop for 60 bucks. I immediately donned it day and night, and kept at it well into college. I went to Brooks briefly before cheating on my first love with film production, a younger, sexier version of my old girl. While I made a career at being a director, I never fully turned my back on film photography.
20 years later, I direct commercials and do a fair amount of travel writing. I find myself traveling all over the world, and while I have a killer camera imbedded right in my phone just like everyone else, I’m always wandering flea markets and bazaars looking for anything with a lens and shutter. Over the years, I’ve collected 52 film cameras, and proudly displayed them in my little NYC apartment, each reminding me of a different corner of the earth I picked them up from. It’s always made me happy, and reminded me of what started it all.
These days, however, it kind of disgusts me as well.
Recently, I looked at shelf and saw something different. Something that made me sad. It no longer looked like a showcase, but a prison for these beautiful, weird, and wonderful little boxes of magic. I immediately got an idea.
Taking each one down and dusting them off, I went through them all cleaning, repairing if needed, and cataloging. I decided that, instead of letting these beautiful machines sit and collect dust in a hipster shrine, I was going to put them to work—let them stretch their legs and run film through each of them in turn.
52 cameras. 52 weeks in a year. Sounds like it was meant to be.
It has become far too easy to rely on the digital format. It’s fast, versatile and forgiving, which are none of the reasons I fell in love with photography in the first place. These film cameras are visceral, organic, and specific. They force you to connect with the world around you; to think about aperture, time and movement; to be present.
More than anything else, they’re fun, start conversations, bring people together, and represent living history.
The first camera I posted about was my Grandfather’s Kodak Brownie. I thought it fitting, since he was the driving force behind my love affair with film. Not the oldest camera in the collection, but definitely well-travelled through both time and space, she still works without complaint—not surprising, considering that you could basically make this camera with scraps you found around the house.
These cameras don’t have to be complicated, advanced, or sophisticated to be interesting; in fact, I love how dumpy, clunky, and “real” some of these boxes can be.
As part of this project, I decided to also post an original film strip I took with this very camera over 20 years ago, when I was in High School, having always kept my negatives for what I can only assume was this very reason.
Like anything nostalgic, a time capsule to your heart, people seemed to like the idea of the Vintage Camera Quest. Seeing these old images, first girlfriends, my old school, a younger version of my parents, made me so excited to create some new memories with these old cameras.
I carried on, continuing with a Chaika 3 35mm camera, only because it was the newest addition to the collection, having been picked up in Turkey on a recent trip. Learning about the camera was a trip in and of itself: how complicated it was to load, the history of the “electronic eye,” and the hacks some people online have come up with since it has a removable lens.
Taking it out on the street was even more bizarre. This nearly 50-year-old little creation from Soviet Russia probably never thought it would find itself looking at Queens, NY in its lifetime, yet here it is, snapping away. Thinking what this lens has seen, the people it has snapped and the hands that had held it made me feel elated.
Suddenly, I was 19 again and remembered something I hadn’t thought of in decades. I remembered the moment I fell in love with film.
Commence flashback Sequence. Fall, 1997. UCSB.
I snuck into a film class one afternoon having been told on lukewarm authority that it was a good way to get to watch a free movie. Instead, I was introduced to professor Edward Brannigan who stood on stage alone, holding a picture of an old man in front of an auditorium filled to the brim with hungry film students. I didn’t know at the time, but this moment would change my life like none other before or since.
“Here is a picture of your grandfather,” Brannigan bellowed with the gravitas of a Moses. I wanted to laugh, but the weight of the room was so heavy, every student tuned in, that I remained muted. “The sun, 92 million miles away, ejects a single photon into the black infinite of space. It can travel in any direction; but, by some divine providence, is aimed directly at Earth. Eight cold, long minutes later it reaches the planet, at which point it strikes with gentle fury the face of your grandfather, bounces off, illuminating him, and travels through the lens of your camera. At that very moment, for a very fraction of a second, you open the gate and allow that very photon to pass through, to be imbedded into a strip of Celluloid.”
I was high—it was college after all—but I definitely wasn’t high enough for this metaphysical mojo.
“The luck of this is mind-blowing by any standard; however, the real trick is when you push light back through the celluloid, reigniting the photon to continue the journey of that photon frozen in time, as it bounces off a screen and terminates in your eye, infighting your synapses. This is not a picture of your grandfather. This is your grandfather. The very photos are a piece of him, as every frame is a piece of the universe you capture.”
Boom. Mind blown. What Brannigan said that day remained embedded in my mind like photons on celluloid. Now, years late, I find myself on the street with a little magic box, capturing the universe around me photon-by-photon, feeling the same sense of wonder and joy that I felt the first time I picked up a camera.
It is all too easy to forget how absolutely amazing photography is. These days we create and consume images with the frequency of breathing, and the days of sitting for a portrait or having a daguerreotype on display in your home are long gone.
Yet, by taking these otherwise unremarkable clunkers out on the street and breathing a little life into them, they become so much more than an interesting tchotchke on an Ikea shelf. I’m not saying we’re curing cancer here or doing some revolutionary art, quite the opposite: it’s reverence for all the art and innovation that has gotten us to this point. To all the experiences and memories that let us fall in love with the world as it is today.
My collection has a bit of everything: from glass plate, to microfilm, to lenticular, to panoramic. The only curation process was fate—seeing a glint of glass or a frayed strap, being in the right time and place, much like capturing a rogue photon from the sun I suppose. I look forward learning about these little machines, having fun with them, getting frustrated with them, meeting people with them, and sharing them with whoever might be interested in keeping them alive.
I’m dedicating this project to my Grandfather, who knew that the weight of a camera continually around your neck was nothing compared to the gravity it could bring your soul.
Thanks again gramps, love you and miss you.
About the author: Roberto Serrini is an award-winning director of commercials and branded films, and the creator of the Vintage Camera Quest. To see more of his work, visit his website, or give him a follow on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. You can follow his Vintage Camera Quest online and on Instagram.