Camera Tales: The Kodak Brownie Fiesta

Here begins the story of my life in photography told from the perspective of the cameras I have owned over the past fifty years.

The tale begins with a Kodak Brownie Fiesta, a gift from my aunt and uncle, likely given in the mid-1960s. 

The Fiesta was manufactured from 1962 to 1966. Like the myriad of Brownies that preceded it, this one is a simple point-and-shoot affair. The f/11 lens ensures that everything is in focus. The sliding plastic shutter release lever is set to fairly slow 1/40th of a second. It has a simple direct-view viewfinder. There is a slide-on flash attachment that uses small two-prong flash bulbs. The camera uses 127-sized film, significantly larger than 35mm film and therefore more forgiving of under and over exposures. A good thing when limited to a single aperture and shutter speed.

Half a century later, my Fiesta is in mint condition, still in its original display box. My best memory of this camera is not the pictures I took with it – I doubt there were many – but always seeing it over the years, still in its box, carefully tucked away in the closet of our family house among the neatly folded towels, bed spreads and pillow cases.

I can’t say that this camera got me excited about photography. But it was my first camera and, somehow, it has followed me over the last fifty years from my mum’s house to my various residences. It must have some symbolic value for it to have survived so long.

Contrast that Fiesta to my next piece of photographic paraphernalia. It was, at most, two years later when my brother was given a toy darkroom kit at Christmas. It too languished in a closet until I decided to commandeer the kit and give it a whirl. The set, as I recall, contained a set of tiny plastic developing trays (no larger than 4” by 5”), a small wood contact printing frame, some bamboo tongs, an orange-brown safelight bulb and a few packets of chemicals.

I locked myself in the bathroom of our London, Ontario home, plugged the light leaking under the  bathroom door with towels, screwed in the safelight and mixed the packets of developer, stop bath and fixer. I am not sure what film negatives I used for those first experiments. Perhaps they were taken with the Fiesta, I can’t say. And I can’t recall what those first prints looked like. No doubt fogged from light leaks and the less-than-safe safelight. Likely over-exposed as well.

Those first small prints would have been disappointing once viewed in the light of day. But, in that dark bathroom, I would have been awestruck by the images slowly appearing on the sheets of blank white photographic paper floating in the developer tray. I can only imagine that I was overwhelmed by that magical, chemical reaction, as I would be over the next three decades, as my darkrooms grew from that bathroom vanity into ever larger, more sophisticated undertakings.

I have nothing left of that first photo printing kit. No trays. No prints. Only the vivid memory that this is where photography began for me. Not with that first camera, the Kodak Brownie Fiesta. Not with picture taking but with picture making.

It is an odd way to start a photography career. Name any great photographer: Jacques Henri Lartigue, for example, or even the darkroom-obsessed Ansel Adams. They started with the art of seeing, not chemistry.

My approach is, perhaps, a matter of nurture. My father, Stan, was a chemist. He would routinely take my brother and I on weekend and after-hour field trips to his workplace labs, where we could dabble in chemistry experiments. It was a fun time indeed for this young teenager. That interest in science and invention led me to electronics, making my own printed circuit boards (essentially a photographic printing process), and designing and building my own electronic projects. It is not difficult to imagine why the darkroom side of photography would be more attractive at the outset than actually taking pictures.

As a whole, photography is a highly technical process. It involves cameras and darkrooms and all sorts of mechanical and electronic accessories. In the late sixties, I felt comfortable in photography’s world of devices. Not as things to be admired at a distance but as tools that sparked my imagination. Viewing the world through the plastic lens of my first camera, the Brownie Fiesta, may not have been as appealing as the chemistry of the darkroom, but that would change soon enough.

Today, as I sit in my cluttered studio, it occurs to me that I still own most of the cameras that played a significant role in my life as a photographer. I no longer have a traditional darkroom, having gone digital in the late 1990s, but I have many of the artifacts of past darkrooms. In fact, I still have remnants from my early digital darkroom, components and software long since rendered redundant and of no practical use. Seeing them piled together, I start to understand how technology has played a significant role in shaping my photographic vision.

Moving to the room next to my studio, I find myself surrounded by framed photos from past projects and exhibits, archival boxes of matted prints, shoe boxes stuffed with negatives, slide trays still loaded with thousands of Kodachromes. And now, hard drives and DVDs containing the ethereal bits and bytes of more recent work.

This room contains my view of the world. This is what I have seen through all those viewfinders, over the last fifty years. This room is me, taking charge of the tools I use. Technology conforming to my photographic imagination.

The Kodak Brownie Fiesta is Mile Zero in my photographic journey. Future dispatches of Camera Tales, will explore my evolution as a photographer from the perspective of other cameras, darkrooms and software that I have owned, and their symbiotic relationship with my way of seeing.




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