Almost two years ago we packed a small bag jumped in the car and headed south of DC to the small historic Virginia town of Staunton. The town is an old mill town and lucky for all of us the buildings remain and are repurposed into art galleries, glass blowing studio, small shops, and of course restaurants. We ate well, walked around and supported small shops. But there is one small but mighty museum that was the most interesting museums I have every been to. And that says a lot considering where I work. It only cost $5.00 and was worth every penny, it’s the Camera Heritage Museum.
When COVID 19 hit the area in March the lockdown began. Most employers were deemed. Non essential and shops closed up. Restaurants shut down. In DC all museums shut down and all the employees went on enhanced telework. Some of the private and smaller museums also did the same. But unlike the big taxpayer funded institutions I am not sure what would survive. Now that our museum system has a back to work plan but not open to the public plan you begin to wonder if the independent, small museums will survive.
I was curious to as Virginia enters phase two I wondered if it survived and was opening. A quick google search and there it was. The Camera Heritage Museum, the hours were listed. It survived and is now open. When we walked in it brought me back to my 15 year old self of discovering my dads camera, using it and falling in love with photography. I still have the heavy 35 mm camera that I received in high school, that I still have today. I carried it every where from school, track practice, parades and vacations. I wanted to be a forensic or police photographer in high school. I loved the medium so much attended a photography school in Boston and that’s where I fell in love with the medium and larger format cameras. I moved on after school and now it is just a hobby for me. My first cameras sit on a shelf with the other cameras that have been collected over the years, collection dust. My current camera of choice fits in my hand, the images are instant, are stored in a cloud, come in jpgs, pixel sizes. It seems a long way from the manual focus, waiting for your pictures to come back and hoping that one is good enough to keep while the rest are discarded. It’s hard not to be inspired to take better photos after a visit. But in the meantime I’ll just have to admire my small, very small collections of cameras.
The museum is on the Main Street and as you walk in you are met with thousands of cameras. Every corner is filled with cameras. If you are lucky, like we were, you can get a private tour. There is a guided self tour you can take.
Kodak Brownies, 4×5 Press cameras, big cameras like the 8×10 wooden camera Ansel Adams used are there. I was in awe of the WWII collection. There is a case devoted to spy cameras. Can you just imagine the secrets those cameras exposed? Cloak and dagger, did the person using the camera get away or were they caught? Did any of those cameras photograph war plans or where they use in industrial espionage? We will always wonder but never know what the answers are. Russian, Japanese and of course American cameras are everywhere. Metals, wood and plastics make up the bodies. All colors as well as the traditional black and silver camera bodies line the shelves with not a lot of room between them.
One case is dedicated to press cameras. Can you imagine having to lug around a heavy camera while trying to get THE shot? Maybe winning a Pulitzer? Noble work it was working for the Associated Press, Time, Life or Look. They have the camera like Jacqueline Bouvier used before she became Mrs. Kennedy. Now everyone it seems everyone is press photographer will the use of cell phones and the internet you can go viral, you may not win a Pulitzer but you get millions of likes.
Spent the good part of the afternoon there. And I can’t think of a better way to spend time on a cold day or any day for that matter. If you happen to find yourself in Staunton and want to spend some time learning about cameras and the history of the camera, you must go to the Camera Heritage Museum. I’m glad it survived and can now receive visitors. Maybe a day trip is in order. Its time to go out and support small business in any way you can. You can make a day of it the Camera Heritage Museum, lunch and a local brew should do it.