David Gough Photography


Box Brownie – Telling the Story

Posted on 6th September 2017 by David under Brownie Camera, Cameras, History, Photography
Brownie camera

Brownie camera – simple construction, simple operation

Box Brownie Cameras – telling the story in pictures

There’s something fascinating about old cameras, or at least ones that have survived the simply ‘out of date’ phase and are well into their antique years. These two Brownie cameras have seen better days as you can tell by the pictures and yet there’s still a good chance they would work if loaded with film.

Cameras designs have evolved over the years and these cameras are quite different from the modern day camera I used to make these photographs. For one thing the materials used then were adequate yet basic. The cameras are made of wood, cardboard, leather, and steel, with an embossed decorative coating and very simple optics. You get little choice in camera settings, you have to do everything yourself, but at least there are no batteries to go flat.

Popular Brownie camera

‘Popular Brownie’ – one of over 200 Brownie styles

The Brownie itself evolved over the years with many different models and advancements starting with the first Brownie in 1900. Many millions of cameras were sold because they made photography accessible to a wider audience. The cameras here are the Popular Brownie made from 1937 to 1938 and the No. 2 Brownie with a key winder which was made between 1928 and 1931. Something that may come as a surprise is the number of different Brownie models that were made – over 200 of them if you allow for all the variety of styles and colours and the variations for different countries. (See references at the end of this post).

No. 2 Brownie detail

The simple clasp on the back of a No.2 Brownie camera

These cameras were designed to be much simpler than previous ones. Before roll film which the Brownies used, the photographer had to use a glass photographic plate for each image, and then use chemicals to develop the image. With roll film and the Brownie came a reduction in size and a simpler way of working. It opened the way for popular photography.

A more recent advance in photography has been the digital camera. Film is still available of course and many people still use it. For one thing it helps to slow down the process of making a photograph. This encourages the photographer to look more carefully and to think about what the photograph is about. These are disciplines that improve photography whatever camera you use.

Details of a Brownie camera

Brownie cameras were made of traditional materials, including leather. Viewfinders were very basic

Despite the advances in technology the modern digital camera works in the same way as the early plate cameras.  Fundamentally they are all just a lightproof box with a hole at one side covered with a lens, and something sensitive to light at the other side. The advances in bells and whistles to help the photographer take the picture don’t take away from the basic box-with-a-hole-in-it design.

No.2 Brownie branding

Camera model embossed onto the cover of the camera. Note the red window to view the frame number on the back of the film.

Ultimately the camera is only as good as the person holding it.  It’s just a tool that allows a photographer to tell a story.  As Elliott Erwitt said, “The whole point of taking pictures is so that you don’t have to explain things with words.”  To find out more about telling your story with photographs look at the other pages on this website.


If you want to know more about these early cameras you’ll find lots to read on these web sites:

Brownie references: details of all Brownie cameras – there were over 200 of them! http://www.brownie.camera

International Brownie Camera Day (yes, really!) – February 3rd & 4th 2018 http://www.brownie-camera.com/brownie-camera-day/

All things Brownie – http://www.brownie-camera.com



One thought on “Box Brownie – Telling the Story”

  1. Christine Thomas says:

    Interesting to find out the details of our “old” cameras.
    Thank you David.

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