Railfans, Their Cameras, and Camera Stores

The iconic facade of Central Camera, one of the last remaining old-style camera stores in the Midwest.

The iconic facade of Central Camera, one of the last remaining old-style camera stores in the Midwest.

Today we will explore the close relationship between railfans, their cameras, and their favorite camera stores. Nowadays, photography has truly become both easy and democratic, in the sense that most people now carry around with them a cell phone that is capable of taking surprisingly good pictures. You see the results immediately, so there is a very short learning curve. If your picture doesn’t come out as intended, you simply take another.

‘Twas not always thus.

Chances are most railfans became photographers out of sheer necessity. They were fascinated by railroads and wanted to study pictures of them, yet had no idea where to find such pictures. So, they bought a camera and went out and made every mistake imaginable.

They learned by doing, and over time, many railfans became excellent photographers, whose work is on a par with, and every bit as important, as any other shutterbug’s.

Pieritz Brothers office supply store in Oak Park, in business since 1895, has a sign in the window that says, “If you buy here, we will be here.” The same is true of camera stores, which were once commonplace but have now largely disappeared from the American scene.

Perhaps in the future everyone will order their goods online and have them delivered to their door by drone aircraft, but time was, if you needed to buy film, have film developed, buy a camera, or learn how to operate it, you went to your friendly neighborhood camera shop.

There was a time when cameras were not commodities, and people depended on the experience and expertise of the over-the-counter sales person, who would spend time going over the features and even critique their pictures.

In my own Chicago neighborhood, there was the Montclare Camera Company, on the same block as the Montclare Theatre. In the early 1960s, when I was in grade school, perhaps 25% of a camera store’s business involved home movies.

It was a common thing to joke about back then how your friends or relatives would invite you over to their place for an evening of really bad home movies of their latest vacation or someone’s backyard birthday party. You could only record about three minutes of film on an entire reel. For some reason, the market for home movies had largely dried up even before portable video camcorders became available.

In the early 20th century, enlargers were not commonplace. If you took your roll of film to the photofinisher, a camera shop or drug store, they would make contact prints of your black-and-white film that were the same size as the original negative. To yield a decent sized print, the film had to be very large as a result. Sometimes these large negatives can yield extremely sharp images today.

Many people would take these prints and put them into photo albums purchased at their local dime store, often using paper corners to adhere them to the black paper. By the 1930s, railfans began trading and selling photos to each other. In some cases, they put together elaborate dossiers about certain railroads, complete with original photos and clippings from newspapers and magazines. Others tried to compile complete sets of “roster shots” showing entire fleets of streetcars and interurbans.

Among these early railfans is the venerable Malcolm McCarter, last living survivor of the original 10 founding members of the Illinois Railway Museum. He has been selling railfan photographs for 76 years now and may very well still print them himself, from his vast collection of negatives. You will find his catalog online here.

There was so much to ride at one time, and yet those years must have been, in some sense, depressing. There was one abandonment after another, a nearly endless litany of bad news. We can be thankful for those early fans who were involved, in one way or another, in historic preservation, either through the fledgling railway museums, documenting things through photographs, or both.

Fortunately some of these same fans have lived long enough to see electric railways undergo a world-wide renaissance, with new systems and extensions cropping up all over. Their hard work in preserving this history has now been more than validated.

The changeover from black-and-white to color photography meant a change in approach. When shooting black-and-white, you can expose for the shadows and often retain the highlights, while the opposite is true with color slide film. An overexposed black-and-white negative may still be printable, but with reduced contrast. An overexposed slide will have washed out highlights.

Naturally, over the years, railfan photographers had their favorite camera stores. The biggest and best in Chicago were downtown.

Altman’s was legendary and was like a “Noah’s Ark” of camera stores, with two of every camera or lens imaginable– one to show and one to go. I am sure there are still many Chicagoans “of a certain age” who have fond memories of Shutan, Helix, Standard Photo, Lion Photo, Terminal Photo, and many others that are now gone by the wayside.

And of these, Central Camera on Wabash somehow remains, after 116 years in business. It has become part of history itself.

There is a photo of a prewar Chicago PCC streetcar, taken by the late Robert W. Gibson, on page 61 of Chicago Streetcar Pictorial: The PCC Car Era, 1936-1958, with Central Camera in the background. The store is still in the same location today.

The book collects the work of many unheralded railfan photographers who all turned out to be, in their own way, both transit historians and historic preservationists.

As a co-author, I was recently pleased to discover that Central Camera is now selling copies of the Chicago Streetcar Pictorial and has one on display in their front window, alongside the old Kodak Six-Twenty folding camera, the twin-lens Rolleiflexes, Leicas and such.

Yes, I know that in the long run, it is an uphill battle to keep up with the Amazons of the world. But even in the 21st century, shouldn’t there be enough room left in this world for a few old-fashioned camera stores?

As the sign says, “If you buy here, we will be here.”

-David Sadowski

PS- You can help keep our own doors open by checking out the many fine offerings in our Online Store. You can also make a donation there. We thank you for your support.

Further Information:

Remembering Altman Camera 40 Years Later

Ralph Altman Obituary

A typical folding camera of the early 20th century, this Kodak Autographic camera too very large size 116 black-and-white roll film. The “autographic” feature allowed the photographer to write notes on the actual film negative itself through a door on the back of the camera. The roll film was protected by a paper backing.

This streamlined Bakelite Kodak Bantam camera, which used size 828 film, was the state of the art in 1938 but few railfans could afford to buy one.

This streamlined Bakelite Kodak Bantam camera, which used size 828 film, was the state of the art in 1938 but few railfans could afford to buy one.

Thousands of railfans across America got their start with an inexpensive Argus C3, commonly referred to as “the Brick.”

Truman Hefner took many great pictures with a German Karomat camera similar to this one, which has a high-quality Schneider lens.

Truman Hefner took many great pictures with a German Karomat camera similar to this one, which has a high-quality Schneider lens.

The late Bill Hoffman's last camera was a late 1950s screw-mount Leica IIIg similar to this one. After his passing in the late 1980s, I received his Leica as a gift.

The late Bill Hoffman’s last camera was a late 1950s screw-mount Leica IIIg similar to this one. After his passing in the late 1980s, I received his Leica as a gift.

My own first camera, a Kodak Brownie Holiday Flash camera, circa 1963. It took size 127 roll film, then the most popular format on the market.

My own first camera, a Kodak Brownie Holiday Flash camera, circa 1963. It took size 127 roll film, then the most popular format on the market.

A Kodak Brownie 8mm movie camera.

A Kodak Brownie 8mm movie camera.

For many years, Ray DeGroote took pictures with a German circa-1965 Kodak Retina Reflex III like this one. The gridlike patch at top left is a chemical-based light meter.

For many years, Ray DeGroote took pictures with a German circa-1965 Kodak Retina Reflex III like this one. The gridlike patch at top left is a chemical-based light meter.

Even when there is no other dating information on an original 35mm Kodachrome slide, it can be dated to some extent by the type of mount used.

Even when there is no other dating information on an original 35mm Kodachrome slide, it can be dated to some extent by the type of mount used.

Chicago Streetcar Pictorial: The PCC Car Era, 1936-1958, published by Central Electric Railfans' Association, can now be purchased at Central Camera. (Trolley Dodger Press is not affiliated with either Central Camera or Central Electric Railfans' Association.)

Chicago Streetcar Pictorial: The PCC Car Era, 1936-1958, published by Central Electric Railfans’ Association, can now be purchased at Central Camera. (Trolley Dodger Press is not affiliated with either Central Camera or Central Electric Railfans’ Association.)

One anonymous railfan's album on clippings, titled

One anonymous railfan’s album on clippings, titled “Roads which have Chicago as their first name.” This title is written out twice, followed by “except CNS&M in separate album.” Interestingly, the album has a section on the Aurora, Elgin & Fox River Electric, which does not have Chicago in its first name.

Chicago, Aurora & Elgin car 408 is in pretty sad shape in this photo taken just prior to its scrapping in 1962. It was a sister car to 409, which was sold to Trolleyville USA and came to the Illinois Railway Museum in 2009. We can be fortunate that there were enterprising railfan photographers who documented the last days of the

Chicago, Aurora & Elgin car 408 is in pretty sad shape in this photo taken just prior to its scrapping in 1962. It was a sister car to 409, which was sold to Trolleyville USA and came to the Illinois Railway Museum in 2009. We can be fortunate that there were enterprising railfan photographers who documented the last days of the “Roarin’ Elgin.”

Car 102 of the the Elgin Belvidere & Rockford sits forlornly in Marengo in this June 1937 photograph. By then, the line, which quit service on March 9, 1930, had been abandoned for more than seven years. Owner Bion J. Arnold kept these cars in storage in the futile hope that a buyer could be found. We can thank the unknown photographer who preserved this small slice of history.

Car 102 of the the Elgin Belvidere & Rockford sits forlornly in Marengo in this June 1937 photograph. By then, the line, which quit service on March 9, 1930, had been abandoned for more than seven years. Owner Bion J. Arnold kept these cars in storage in the futile hope that a buyer could be found. We can thank the unknown photographer who preserved this small slice of history.

Elgin Belvidere & Rockford car 203 was built by St. Louis Car Company in 1906. It was 31 years old when this photo was taken in 1937 in Marengo. A portion of the Elgin & Belvidere interurban right-of-way now serves as the main line for the Illinois Railway Museum in Union. An original Elgin & Belvidere motorman lived long enough to operate a car over the new right of way when the museum began operations here in the 1960s.

Elgin Belvidere & Rockford car 203 was built by St. Louis Car Company in 1906. It was 31 years old when this photo was taken in 1937 in Marengo. A portion of the Elgin & Belvidere interurban right-of-way now serves as the main line for the Illinois Railway Museum in Union. An original Elgin & Belvidere motorman lived long enough to operate a car over the new right of way when the museum began operations here in the 1960s.

9 thoughts on “Railfans, Their Cameras, and Camera Stores

  1. Yes, I too have been mourning the demise of philly’s classic camera stores. Many were along arch street with some along “the Chinese wall” where Pennsylvania railroad trans ran from the long gone broad street station to the current 30th street station. My grandfather was art director for PRT/PTC/SEPTA who did artwork for their route maps,scheedules and other reports. He designed the PTC logo and the original septa “meatball”. As his dad was a commercial photographer, my grandfather often asked him to get a shot for the transit company. Talk about nepotism. AlaOne of thoses upon his death,grandad destroyed all of his negatives much to my dismay. I only wish that I had become a railfan while he was still alive so I could have gotten his opinion on National City Lines. I think today in philly there are only2 or 3 “classic camera stores”. One of those was literally around the corner from great granddad’s studio originally an I am a 4th generation customer of that store after I was given one of my fathers leica IIIf bodies which I still have amongst many other leicas and their

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  2. A very well written article about an aspect of railfanning that most railfans have in general taken for granted until of course they are gone. I also recall Bass Photo which was on Madison Street between LaSalle and Wells if my memory doesn’t fail me.

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  3. I visited Central Camera 10 or 12 years ago, and purchased a 100mm telephoto for my Argus C-3.

    Taking a shot of a moving train can’t have been easy with the much slower films available when those cameras were new.

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    • The original version of Kodachrome had a film speed of 10, meaning you could use it on sunny days only. Black-and-white films such as Kodak Super-XX had a film speed of about 100.

      In some cases, these early photographers had to click the shutter with the train a bit farther away than would be the case today, otherwise, motion blur would have resulted.

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  4. My first 35mm camera was purchased from Central Camera, anticipating a trip to Mexico, Mexico City and Veracruz for streetcars, and Yucatan for Mayan ruins. In later years, the camera was stolen and I had an actual paper check to document my insurance claim.

    While camera stores were important for rail photographers, hobby shops filled a social function for railfans. Perhaps a feature article on that subject would be in order. I have fond memories of All Nation and “Traction Ted” in particular.

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  5. My late father was one of the few that was able to purchase a Kodak Bantam (It’s full Kodak name was the Bantam Special) which he did in 1938. Not only was the camera expensive (somewhere I think may have my dad’s bill of sale for his camera) so was film in those late Depression days, particularly color. Kodak first offered Kodachrome film in 1936 and, yes, it had an ASA of 10. Dad began shooting it in 1938, sparingly. He shot more black and white and, for that, he did his own processing in a dark room that he built in the basement of his parent’s home in Downers Grove. He bought an enlarger and the other related pans and tools to work with the chemicals. I still have the camera, the instruction book for it and the enlarger.

    While he took some railroad photos, he also shot a variety of other subjects that interested him. With some of it, he was obviously experimenting. Judging by the number of photo errors, setting the then “state of the art” camera was difficult. Everything was manual. At some point, he bought a light meter which I remember him using. Kodak repaired the bellows on the Bantam in the 1960s and offered to buy the camera back just for the East German lens in it. Obviously, he didn’t sell it. During the 1970s, he finally replaced the Bantam Special with a Pentax Spotmatic.

    One of my early cameras was a Kodak Retina Reflex IIA that was very similar to the Retina Reflex III that you included. I bought it “Used” at a camera shop and used it for several years before replacing it with a Pentax Spotmatic.

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    • Those are wonderful stories, thanks for sharing.

      The Bantam cameras, with their size 828 roll film, were supposed to be Kodak’s answer to the increasing popularity of 35mm film, which was starting to catch on with the Leicas and Contax rangefinders. It offered a slightly larger film area than 35mm and yielded a “superslide.” But it was paper-backed roll film, and the innovation there was a notch in the film that some cameras could pick up and use as an automatic film stop, bypassing the little red window on the back of the camera.

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  6. On a subsequent visit, I got the idea of doing a magazine article for Rail Classics magazine on this operation. Problem is I had only a small Olympus XA 35mm P S camera with me, and at the time I normally railfanned back home in Colorado with a medium format Pentax 6×7 and 35mm Nikon SLR.

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