A LITTLE BIT OF HISTORY
The itinerant photographer
Photographers who roam the streets with their Box Camera or stand in parks and squares to create images in their boxes have existed for quite some time. The earliest itinerant photographers made use of a newly and cheaply available technique called tintype or ferrotype. Dry tintype plates were relatively easy and quick to make. Photographers made use of this in the Americas, Europe and other countries from the later decades of the 19th century. The photographer could prepare, expose and develop a tintype plate and have it available for the waiting costumer in minutes. There are many great examples of tintypes taken in the American Civil War and later in cities all around the world. It was one of the most affordable ways to get a photograph taken until photography became more accessible for the masses after World War II. The image below is from a country fair in the USA in May 1903. (Source Library of Congress)
The introduction of premade photographic papers changed itinerant photography tremendously. Premade papers could be easily cut in any shape and size; although they were made primarily for the darkroom and had a very low light sensitivity, they could be handled much more easily than tintype plates. This cheap way of taking a photograph spread in the early 20th century to the most remote parts of the world. The trade could be learned easily and materials could last decades when stored correctly.
Early ferrotypes produced small images made for medallions and pins (in the late 19th century).
It was the Mandel brothers who introduced black coated cardboard, size of a small postcard, instead of tin and they invented a 60-second monobath developer for these cards. And, of course, they invented cameras around this process. They called their company “Chicago Ferrotype Co.”
The Mandel-ette postcard camera was launched in 1909 (some parts patented as late as 1914). The camera could be loaded with a pack of their cards in daylight, and, after being exposed, the card had just to be plunged into the development tank at the bottom of the camera. The photo was ready within one minute, it had to be watered only 15 seconds outside the camera. So this was really fast and stayed popular until the invention of Dr. Land’s Polaroid process.
The Mandel-ette cards were 2½×3½” and sold in packs of 16 or 50 for just 2 US cents each. The monobath developer/fixer (“Wonder” Developer) was easy to use and could be re-used. A starter set with a camera, 16 postcards and developer was only 5 US-Dollars, monthly payment was possible. The company placed ads which promised an 8 cents gain per photo. Bigger format (3×4½”) and multi format cameras followed, later the card material came in bigger rolls and there was a complicated mechanism to automatically cut single cards from the roll inside the camera. There were even cameras that could produce badge size photographs at a speed of 250 per hour, the “Wonder Machine”, later improved to 360 per hour, named “Wonder Cannon” because of its shape. During the 1930s the Chicago Ferrotype Co. changed its name to PDQ (Photo Done Quickly). You can find their ads until 1958. More here
The Box Cameras Daydark Speciality Company in St. Louis, Missouri, produced cameras that very much resemble the Box Cameras used now. They could be used for tintype buttons or direct positive postcards.
The Jamestown Ferrotype Co Inc camera below has a fixed focus plate. The camera would need to be moved towards or away from the subject in order to focus.
Below some wonderful advertisement from the 1910s, promising high profits and immediate income.
More and more small producers of cameras emerged catering to street photographers. In Barcelona, one notable producer in the 1920s was V. Caldes Arús. Latin America saw a whole range of manufacturers in Argentina and Brazil. There were most likely producers in British India as well.
Although there were producers who made these cameras in small quantities, in reality most photographers used artisan-made machines copied from others and adapted according to the photographer’s wishes or needs. Most had no lens with a shutter. It took practice and time to understand light and exposure according to the lenses’ capabilities.
No matter if in the Americas, Europe or South and East Asia, a very popular prop for many photographers was backdrops. It gave the photographer the ability to transform their makeshift studio into another world.
Here some fantastic home-made cameras from Zilmo de Freitas collection housed in The Fotomuseum Antwerpen.
The trade of Box Camera photography was rapidly affected by the development of cheap cameras for the masses in the 1950s and 60s. Only a few countries still had street photographers by the 1980s, and mostly for tourism. In some countries like Afghanistan, Box Cameras were seen until the 2010s, as they still offered a cheaper way of creating ID photographs. More on this subject can be read on the Afghan Box Camera Project page.
There have been countless names for these photographers on the street and even more so for the type of imagery they produced: Box Camera, Afghan Camera, Street Box, Camera Minuteros, Lambe Lambe, Cuban Polaroid, Instant Box, Minuit Camera, Kamra-e-faoree, Water Camera, Aguita, Ruh Khitch (spirit pulling) and so on.
The photographers and the work they produced was often regarded as minor and looked down upon by studio photographers. In some ways, it was the photography of poor people, and maybe that is why the annals of photographic history are equally poor in records of its existence.
South and Central America, as well as Spain, have some robust saviours of the Box Camera trade. Camera Minuteros (‘minute camera’), as they are known to many in Spanish, can still be found in the centres of Barcelona and Buenos Aires. Lambe Lambe (‘lick lick’), as it is known in Brazil, still has working descendants on the street. São Paulo even had its own Box Camera manufacturer until recently: Marca Di Bernard. A few photographers still work in the tourist trade in India, Cuba and most likely other places too. In Athens you can still get your bellows fixed at Picopoulos Camera Service.
However, these are really the last of the old lineage of street photographers.
This website and the book are dedicated to the new wave of Box Camera photographers working primarily with homemade tools, giving life again to this wonderful form of instant photography.