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Times are tough for lovers of vintage cameras. One was just pulled from a plane.

We don't know what kind of vintage camera raised suspicions on a recent American Airlines flight, leading to the plane's evacuation at LaGuardia. But one collector thinks it might have been a twin-lens reflex camera, such as a Rolleiflex, left, or a Mamiya, right. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

Did you hear about the airline passenger who wound up face down and spread-eagle on the tarmac at LaGuardia Airport this month? He’d been pointed out to law enforcement by a woman sitting near him on the plane who thought he had a bomb.

When I heard about him, I thought: There, but for the grace of God, go I.

It turned out the guy didn’t have a bomb. He had a camera. A vintage camera, to be exact. I wish I could be exacter, but when I contacted the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, it couldn’t tell me what kind of vintage camera.

“It was probably something like a Rolleiflex,” David Silver told me. He’s the president of the International Photographic Historical Organization.

“I keep thinking: I wonder if the poor guy is someone I know,” said David, 64, on the phone from his San Francisco home.

According to the New York Daily News, a woman seated near the man on the American Airlines flight saw him scrolling on his phone through photos and videos of old cameras.

“She thought he was looking up bomb-making instructions, and when the man pulled out his own camera and adjusted it she was convinced he was setting a timer on a detonator, sources said,” the Daily News reported.

Said David: “That cracked me up. That’s what every terrorist would do: Open their laptop to look at pictures of bombs before setting their bomb off.”

Still, the episode didn’t surprise David.

“Something similar happened to me,” he said. “Nobody thought I had a bomb, but a couple of years ago, I was at San Francisco International Airport getting ready to take a flight. I had to go through the TSA checkpoint. I had a couple of film cameras.”

David was stopped. A TSA worker asked, “What are these?”

David explained that they were cameras.

“Then they said, ‘Well, show us. Turn them on.’ ”

But he couldn’t turn them on. They didn’t have batteries.

David was taken aside for further questioning.

“I had a hell of a time explaining that these do not take batteries,” he said. “They’re purely mechanical. You cock the shutter. You hit the shutter release. I had to waste a couple of pictures showing them how they functioned. Nobody there knew how a film camera functioned.”

One of the cameras David had that day was a Rolleiflex, a German make known as a twin-lens reflex camera. It’s a black metal box a bit squatter than a loaf of Velveeta. It has a viewfinder that pops up like a jack-in-the-box. It has knurled wheels and dials. Turn a wheel and its two lenses move back and forth.

“If you laid it down on your lap and were fiddling with the controls, I can see somebody might say you’re setting a timer to go off any minute,” David said. “But all anybody had to do is say, ‘Excuse me, sir, what is that?’ Trust me, if this guy was a camera enthusiast, he would love somebody to ask him what it was.”

All collectors are bores, just waiting to wax poetic on their particular obsession. I can say that because I am one. I have a bookcase — well, three — full of old cameras. Not a day goes by when I don’t find myself online looking at photos of more old cameras, wondering how much better my life would be if I had an Alpa-Reflex or a Hasselblad.

Film cameras are obsolete, but to people like me, David and the face-down-on-LaGuardia’s-tarmac guy, they are seductive. We like their heft, their symphony of moving parts, the way they scoff at batteries. Even a 100-year-old camera can still work as intended.

And like vinyl records, bell bottoms and straight razors, film cameras are making a comeback among the hipster crowd. The LaGuardia guy was also traveling with a skateboard. ’Nuff said.

I tried to imagine another example of old tech that might get someone in trouble, another once-revolutionary mechanical invention that is so removed from modern usage as to be mysterious — and suspicious.

I settled on the sextant. That mechanical handheld GPS may for centuries have helped sailors navigate the seas, but why bother when you’ve got your phone (i.e., your camera)?

Twitter: @johnkelly

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