For Some Camera Enthusiasts, Older Models Are the Ones That Really Click

Times Staff Writer

Mike Kessler is an incurable collector, amassing great numbers of everything from ice skates, railroad memorabilia and rocks before he got into vintage cameras.

The San Juan Capistrano resident may not have the largest collection of old cameras in the country today, or even Southern California for that matter, but he certainly has one of the most impressive in quality.

The highlight of his antique camera collection, which he says numbers less than 100, is one that was owned by Thomas Edison. “On the inside of the camera is an inscription that reads: ‘Do Not Remove from Building No. 2 Without Express Permission of TAE, Main Office, Menlo Park,’ ” said Kessler, whose business is buying, selling and restoring antique cameras.


“That camera came out of an attic in Pasadena a number of years ago,” Kessler said. “It was from the 1880s and nobody knows how it got to Pasadena. It was wrapped in newspapers from 1895.”

While making a dusty discovery of that magnitude can certainly raise the value of your collection, it is becoming less and less common. The more people have become interested in this type of collecting, the more difficult it has become to find rare cameras without paying a high price to a dealer.

“When I got started,there was only one other collector and he was in Santa Barbara,” Kessler said. “I think I burned a path between here and Santa Barbara so I would have someone to talk to. We did a lot of trading back and forth and all of a sudden I found a couple of others and we started a group called CLICS (Camera, Literature and Image Collection Society.)”

Kessler was lucky there was little interest because it allowed him to add to his collection rather inexpensively. He decided to sell his rock collection for $900 and go all across the country trying to find cameras.

“I’d get into town, get a roll of dimes and call every antique shop and go out and see what they had,” he said.

As camera collecting has evolved, two types of collectors have emerged, according to Kessler. “There is the person who is in his 50s and 60s, successful with a lot of money, who remembers the cameras he couldn’t afford to buy as a kid. They spend a lot of money. Then there are the young collectors who love older things.”


Kessler’s personal collection also includes one of the oldest working cameras in the country. It was designated the oldest in a contest held a little more than a year ago by the National Enquirer. It is a Daguerreotype camera from the 1840s. The magazine sent a photographer and a cheesecake model to Kessler so he could take a picture with the camera.

“That was an all-day session, and it was tricky because there is no shutter on older cameras,” Kessler said. “It wasn’t as sharp as some of the modern cameras, but it goes to show you can take pictures even with the oldest camera in America.”

Of course, those wanting to get into collecting as a hobby don’t need to start with such extravagant and unusual cameras. According to Kessler, you need to beat the bushes, and sometimes you get lucky.

“You can always go to flea markets and look and look,” Kessler said. “You don’t have to spend a fortune on cameras. Cameras you can pick up for $5 or $10 today may be worth $50 or $100 in a few years.

“For a new collector, I’d say go out there and buy everything that isn’t nailed down within your price range. When you get two or three of one thing, you have a collection. From there, you can see where your collection is headed. Then you should go to a dealer and say you are looking for a particular item and you’re on your way.”

Despite this hobby, Kessler does not take a lot of pictures. In fact, he limits his photography to taking pictures of old cameras that he plans to sell.


He believes that he stays in touch with history through the hobby. He is also on the edge of its rising popularity. It just takes some getting used to that when everyone else wants a new camera for a present, he is asking for an old one.