Cameras have been freezing moments in time to various levels of success since the 1800s with the invention of daguerreotypes. A century later, in 1948, Polaroid released their model 95 Land Camera, the first instant camera that printed photos in about a minute. There have been countless technological advances in the years since to make cameras more easily accessible and we have slightly different expectations of the word “instant.” Now, Flagstaff residents can explore the development of cameras through history at the Arizona Camera Museum, which opened this past November.
Donated display cases line the walls of the room where the museum found its home inside Sunnyside’s Market of Dreams. Several Kodak No.2 Beau Brownie cameras with brown and blue geometric art deco designs by industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague fill part of a display case and demonstrate the style the designer popularized in the early 1900s. Other cameras are disguised as soda cans, children’s toys and even a pocket watch in one case.
“When I was 13 my dad let me use his camera for the first time,” recalled museum founder Tom Holtje. “It was a Memorial Day weekend and the parade used to pass in front of our house and we would set all our chairs up and stuff. I remember climbing up a tree in our front lawn that overlooked the street and I took most of the pictures from there. Everybody commented how different they looked from above instead of eye level, and that was sort of the beginning of photography for me.”
This new perspective energized him with endless possibilities available at his fingertips—with just the push of a shutter he had the power to capture memories from his unique point of view. Growing up, his father was constantly taking photos; they would have slide-viewing parties on the weekends with family members and friends at his childhood home in Dumont, New Jersey.
Holtje bought his first camera, a Canon TX, when he was a sophomore in high school and has been taking pictures ever since, meticulously organizing the developed films in chronological order.
He continued the family photography tradition after leaving college, working in various camera shops from 1982 to 2000 and developing his passion for the art and everything that comes with it. From dodging and burning prints in the darkroom to the history of photography and just the sheer number of camera designs that have been released over the years, he’s made it a goal to learn all he can about cameras. It wasn’t until the past decade that he began collecting in earnest though. Yard sales and eBay auctions were gold mines from which he was able to salvage historic and quirky cameras.
But what do you do when your collection outgrows what you actually have the time to use? For Holtje, the only logical step was to open a museum.
“It’s been a dream for a long time, pretty much since I started collecting,” he said. “I had an exhibit at the Philadelphia library in 2010 and I only had maybe 60 cameras on display, and I think there’s probably close to 100 [on display now] but I have a lot more.”
Holtje plans to rotate some of the cameras on display as time goes on to keep everything fresh for visitors and encourages other camera collectors to share their unique collections as well; an antique Century Master Studio Camera on loan from local landscape photographer Shane Knight currently fills one corner of the room.
“The Market of Dreams has been really great accommodating me,” he said.
When the Market of Dreams/Mercado de los Sueños opened two years ago, it was with a vision that it would provide incubation for small businesses. The Market’s retail area features unique works by local artists who are working towards follow their dreams of getting their business off the ground with handmade incense sticks, knitted clothing, candles, chapbooks and more filling the shelves. The Market also offers workshops for those interested in starting a business, making it the perfect place for Holtje to begin his venture.
Moving forward, he plans to host photography classes on topics including “How to Take Better Pictures,” “History of Photography,” “How Does a Camera Work?” and “George Eastman’s Contributions to the Art.”
Ask Holtje about one camera and he can talk for hours about the items in his collection and the memories attached to them, eager to share his enthusiasm for photography. Visitors are sure to leave with much more knowledge than they came in with.
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