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.”
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Remembering Altman Camera 40 Years Later