This month’s guest on Collectors Corner is Bruce Thomas, a self confessed camera nut. After being a press photographer for over 25 years, Bruce has collected as many as 400 unique cameras – some with an amazing history.
What do you collect?
For a while, I pretty much collected any cameras made earlier than 1960, but over the last 3-4 years the ‘focus’ has been narrowed to Graflex and other large press cameras in general – in particular US military cameras. Some of these were especially made for the military. Others are basically off the shelf cameras,, but with a metal military plate attached showing the military designation, contract number, etc.
Some of them were issued to military photographers in heavy cased outfits (camera sets), which included not only the camera but film holders, flash units, tripod and manuals. A few of the manuals have not only detailed information on the use, service and repair of the camera, but also details on how to destroy it if the enemy was closing in.
How long have you been collecting for?
Roughly eight or nine years. I haven’t really been a lifelong collector of anything.
What prompted you to start collecting, and why cameras?
Probably being a press photographer for over 25 years got me interested in the press type cameras. It is hard to believe the skills the early photographers had both in terms of operating the equipment and the knowledge of chemicals used in the processing of the images. Everything was so slow and equipment was very large and heavy, so my hat is off to them. The cameras, of course, require no batteries to operate, so nearly all of them still work perfectly, even 50-100 years after they were made. Like old cars, they can be worked on with a large screwdriver and a hammer!
How did this hobby eventuate as a career in photography?
It was the other way round, really. I was a photographer long before I started collecting cameras and should make the effort to use them more.
How many pieces do you have in your collection?
These days it is around 200, although it was up to almost 400 at one stage. I’m slowly thinning the ranks and selling the cameras that I’m not concentrating on. That’s not always easy to do, but the numbers were getting a little out of hand according to my wife!
Where do you find all your cameras, and are they hard to source?
Most of the military cameras are bought on the big auction site in the US, as they are almost impossible to source within Australia. Other press type cameras are sourced from the UK, Germany and occasionally other countries, so I spend a small fortune on postage. It is the postage or courier charges that prevent me from collecting some of the really large WWII aerial cameras that I would love to own.
Is your collection still growing?
Yes, although a little slower these days. It’s getting more difficult to find cameras I want that I don’t have now, but the main thrill about collecting is the chase to get what you want. It does take a lot of searching, but every now and then something worthwhile comes along. Most of the cameras are so bulky that the physical room required is a limiting factor. My website is graflex.coffsbiz.com if you are interested in having a look.
What makes YOUR collection so unique?
Probably the military slant. I don’t know of any other collectors in Australia that specialise in these types of camera. Others have some military cameras in their collections, but haven’t quite got the variety.
My favourite is the 1915 Thornton Pickard Mk III Hythe machine gunners training camera, which is fitted with a film chamber and large lens instead of a gun barrel, so gunners in Sopwith Camels and similar WWI aircraft could hone their skills using film instead of bullets. Much safer.
Are you a member of any collectors and/or enthusiasts clubs?
Yes, I’m a member of the Coffs Harbour Collectors Club. We meet at 7pm on the first Wednesday of every month at Novotel Pacific Bay Resort. There is a huge amount of collecting knowledge in that group, as nearly everyone collects something different. Our recent annual Collectors Fair held at the showground was a huge success this year, and it is amazing how many collectors are out there.
This story was published in issue 22 of the Coffs Coast Focus