THE well-known underwater photographer David Doubilet, whose work regularly graces National Geographic and other glossy magazines, began snorkeling off the coast of New Jersey in 1954 at the age of 8. He graduated to scuba gear four years later and took his first underwater pictures with a Brownie Hawkeye snapshot camera protected in a rubber bag.
I have no way of knowing whether Doubilet -- who now uses some of the most sophisticated underwater camera gear in the world -- still has his trusty Hawkeye. But it wouldn't surprise me if he does. Brownie Hawkeyes are like that.
I should know; I collect them myself.
There is a strange subset of photography enthusiasts who collects cameras with an almost obsessive passion. Among high-end equipment, Leica range-finder cameras seem to be far and away the most sought after 35mm collectibles. Leica collectors have their own conventions, Web sites, e-mail connections -- you name it. And Leica feeds this collecting frenzy by bringing out numbered "limited edition" versions.
If you think of these uber-Leicas as photographic Beanie Babies, you'll understand that no serious collector of these pricey baubles would consider shelling out major money for one if it had been -- gasp! -- used, or even taken out of its presentation case.
If collecting expensive cameras only to ogle them seems a little obscene to you, I agree. Which is why my collecting energies are decidedly more pedestrian and, I like to think, more fun.
Why Brownie Hawkeyes, rather than, say, Brownie Cadets or Ansco Pandas, all of which were popular snapshot cameras way back when? For me the answer is in the design. The Brownie Hawkeye is simply an elegant thing of beauty. It was designed by Raymond Loewy, one of the giants of American industrial design, and produced by Kodak between 1949 and 1961. It was Loewy who created the "streamlined" look that became so familiar in the heady post World War II era, when all things seemed possible. He redesigned the Pennsylvania Railroad's crack commuter engines to make them look like something out of Buck Rogers.
And he redesigned the snapshot camera to make it look fashionable. He made being a "camera bug" cool.
Like many cameras of that era, the Hawkeye was made of Bakelite, the shiny brittle precursor of plastic. Its black, boxy shape is saved from looking clunky by stylish ribbing on the sides, which also make the camera easier to grip. A flexible handle in a graceful swept-wing arc replaces the inevitably tangled neck strap. Look directly at the camera -- at its lens opening and viewfinder atop one another, banded by a clean aluminum collar -- and you'd be forgiven if you thought of one of Loewy's streamlined locomotives.
Like I said -- a beauty. It took 620 film, which is all but impossible to get nowadays.
There actually were two versions of the Hawkeye. The earlier model, made between 1949 and '51, did not take a flash. The later version (1950-61) did. The first Hawkeye listed for $5.50, the flash model for $7. Which is about what these babies go for today -- another reason I collect them. They're cheap.
I doubt I've ever spent more than 10 bucks on a Hawkeye -- usually no more than five. The $10 purchase included a flash unit, as well as the original packaging and instruction booklet. Since Kodak made virtually all of its snapshot cameras by the thousands -- including those beautifully made folding jobs that date to the 1920s and earlier -- it is rare for them to be really valuable. (Bear that in mind if an antiques dealer tries to convince you otherwise.) But the mere ubiquity of the happy little Hawkeyes means that I usually can find them almost anywhere. And since I love the look of these cameras in bunches on my shelves, that's just fine by me.