ANDREW LUCE | 8 MARCH 2020
As photography technology rapidly advanced from the 1920s through the 1930s and 40s, personal cameras became more accessible to a wider market. Cameras went from bulky, complex pieces of equipment to small, relatively simple-to-use devices that the average person in the early 20th century could take just about anywhere. By the early 30s, thanks to German technology in particular, “…the means existed…for spontaneous, candid photography in low-light” (Boot, 1994, p. 13). When the United States entered World War II, a generation of young men and women went overseas for the first time, many taking their first steps outside of the comfort of their tight knit communities. This would be a perfect opportunity to bring a camera along and document what they experienced and saw first-hand.
The objective of this article is to briefly cover the usage and types of personal cameras GIs used during World War II, and what would be most appropriate for a World War II reenactor’s impression. This article will not cover U.S. War Correspondent cameras, especially motion picture equipment, as much of what was available to them was not accessible to the typical GI at the front (for good reason). You’d be pressed to find any infantryman on the march to Germany carrying the bulky, yet reliable, Speed Graphic that many Signal Corps photographers were armed with. Although many correspondents brought multiple cameras, even from their personal collection, that would have been available to a GI.
A majority of U.S. Army photographs, especially those of combat subject-matter, were taken by the Signal Corps or other press photographers. After all, GIs were fighters first, and leisure came second. Officially speaking, soldiers were not permitted to take cameras on campaign, but this proved to be impossible to police and manage. Therefore, many of the “amateur” photographs taken by GIs during the war that survived were taken during training or on leave, away from the front lines. Even then, most photographs taken and developed were vetted by censors. This was to ensure sensitive images were not distributed, whether they contained potential classified information or would damage the reputation of the U.S. military. There are some stories of long-lost reels of film, never developed, as they were brought home by GIs from the war. Although the United States prided itself with ‘freedom of the press’ (especially relative to other countries), propaganda and controlled messaging still had an important role to play in American society on the home front. As Chris Boot states, “At the end of 1944, the Allied Press Bureau in Paris was censoring 35,000 photographs each week” (Boot, 1994, p. 18). While this figure is for correspondents, Boot also mentions that “There are no inventories of the images made by amateur photographers during the war and it is impossible to estimate the total number of images produced.” While we will never know how many GI amateur photographers there were over the course of the war, it is reasonable to say photography was not an insignificant GI pastime.
Even at the beginning of the war, Britain in particular faced a shortage of cameras and equipment, and relied heavily on German-made products. It would not be out of the ordinary to find German-made camera equipment in Allied hands during the war. A mix of both 35mm and 120mm film was used, the latter being more common for the time period. For reenactors who are exploring cameras to use, keep in mind that unless you have your own darkroom and developing chemicals, 120mm film will be increasingly challenging to obtain and develop, compared to 35mm. Living in the digital age, film in general is an investment – a recent experiment with a modern disposable camera cost $12 for the camera alone plus $17 for film development of 27 exposures.
The cameras listed below are a selection of common cameras personally used by GIs during WWII that can be found on the current market, but this is not meant to be an exhaustive list. Even for those cameras listed, there could be dozens of variations of the same model that were produced before, during, and after the war. Since “retro” cameras are popular collectors’ items, there are many online resources detailing specific parts and serial numbers as unique identifiers and clues as to when the camera was made. There are also plenty of user guides available, detailing basic operation and maintenance. One must be careful, however, as some of these cameras are over 80 years old – parts may be brittle, lenses may be cracked or foggy, and an imperfect seal will expose undeveloped film to light, ruining any chance of images being produced. Many of these cameras can be found for reasonable prices online through eBay, or through antique shops, but be sure they are the correct model for the era before purchasing.
Colloquially known as the “Brick”, the Argus C3 was a cheaply mass-produced rangefinder camera in the United States from the late 1930s through the 60s. Tony Vaccaro was one of the most well-known photographers during the war to have an Argus C3 in his arsenal of cameras. Where German camera engineering championed the finest details and highest build quality, the American Argus C3 focused on the big picture – rugged with its Bakelite and metal construction, yet compact and competent for a 35mm film camera from the period. The camera is somewhat hard to hold compared to others due to its brick shape, and the rangefinder is a separate viewing port relative to the objective lens. These lenses are connected by focus gears on the outside of the camera body. But for a cheap camera (even by today’s collector’s standards), it gets the job done. The Argus C3 can be found relatively cheap, less than $40, depending on the model. World War II variants will be more expensive, however the differences between pre-war/war-time and post-war cameras are incredibly minute. For reenacting purposes, any model made prior to the early 1950s should be acceptable for field use. For more information on all the different models of the Argus C3, please visit www.arguscg.org.
Kodak 35 and Kodak 35 “RF”
Eastman Kodak Company introduced their first 35mm camera in 1938, called the Kodak 35. Made of Bakelite and chromed metal, the camera has a characteristic look with rounded sides, two film advancing knobs on either side, and a collapsible finder on top. The original Kodak 35 lacked a rangefinder (being able to see what the lens was seeing and focus the subject in the frame). In order to change out the film, one has to entirely remove the back panel. Basic operation includes pressing a release button to advance the film, and as it advances the shutter cocks itself – all of which prevents double exposure. Two years later, Kodak came out with another version of the camera, the Kodak 35 Rangefinder (or “RF”) which featured both a viewfinder and a separate rangefinder to compete with the Argus C3 camera. Kodak sold the camera for a listing price of $40 (over $600 in 2020 dollars), yet was consistently outsold by the Argus C3, priced only at $25. Interestingly enough, the United States military acquired a number of original Kodak 35 cameras, and painted them OD7 for use in its ranks. If you saw a Kodak 35 in the ETO during World War II, it’s possible to see a mix of both OD7 and chromed metal versions. You can find Kodak 35 cameras on today’s market for under $100, depending on the year of manufacture. Unique to this camera is how to date the model: using the code CAMEROSITY, in which each letter represented the numeral sequence 1234567890, one could determine the year it was manufactured. For example, if the model has the inscription “ER”, it represents the number 45 for the year 1945.The two capital letters can be found on the camera lens.
Leica Models II and III
A well-known German engineered camera brand at the turn of the 20th century was Leica. The engineers behind the camera wanted to make a compact and light-weight camera, in 35mm, with an exchangeable lens system. The Leica II debuted in 1932 and was the first camera made by the company that featured a built-in rangefinder. A year later the Leica III was released, and both the Leica II and III models were produced simultaneously into the 1950s, with improvements in each subsequent model. The most distinct difference between the II and the III is the latter featured additional shutter speed options. Although this camera was frequently used by the Germans during World War II, many Allied correspondents (including those at Life magazine) carried the Leica on assignment (Naggar, 2003, p. 44). Especially towards the end of the war, many Leica cameras were “liberated” for personal use. Alfred Eisenstaedt, who captured the famous “Kiss in Times Square,” captured the image with a Leica IIIa rangefinder. Depending on model and condition, Leica cameras can easily cost a few hundred dollars. For more information on Leica cameras, see https://www.l-camera-forum.com/forum/35-leica-collectors-historica/.
- Rolleiflex and Rolleicord
Rolleiflex was one of the most popular German-made cameras found prior-to, during, and after World War II. The camera itself was simple, compact, lightweight yet durable, and its Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) design made it a high quality, professional-grade piece of equipment. A number of well-known photographers including Robert Capa were known to use a Rolleiflex to document the war, along with his Contax camera. The companion Rolleicord was the “amateur,” less-expensive version for those who couldn’t afford the Rolleiflex although the functionality/concept was virtually the same. What made these cameras unique is the TLD design, which featured two lenses on the camera – one lens that would capture the photo itself (the objective lens), and the other lens for the operator to see through (the viewfinder). The operator looks down into the mirror to adjust the focus and exposure of the viewfinder lens, and since both the viewfinder and objective lens have the same image, the negative will be exactly as the operator sees it. Film loading is also quick and easy, practically semi-automatic, making it ideal for shooting fast-paced compared to other cameras. There were many copies of this design, but the Rolleiflex was considered the gold standard. 120mm film was native in this equipment (typically 12 or 24 exposures per roll), although 35mm is also accepted with an adapter set. Rolleiflex cameras are extremely popular collector’s items and can cost anywhere from $300 to $800, while Rolleicords can be found for under $100, depending on the model (as of March 2020 on eBay). Leather carrying cases are almost essential with these pieces, as they not only protect the camera, but they allow you to look through the viewfinder while the camera hangs at waist-height from your neck. For more information on all of the different models of the Rolleiflex, see www.rolleiclub.com.
To reiterate, this is not meant to be an exhaustive list of cameras used by GIs in World War II as many makes and models were available. When portraying USGIs at reenactments, it would be encouraged to bring a camera from the time period and take shots of camp life and other subjects. However, it would not make sense for a GI to carry a camera and take photos during combat – leave that work to the war correspondents!
Like everything we collect in this hobby, these cameras are an important part of history. Thanks to the advanced technology of the era, many GIs had the ability to capture the experience of being at war overseas. These photographs are now important primary sources to researching our impressions. In conclusion, Chris Boot asks, “But what does a war photograph tell us about war?” He explains:
“They convey a sense of what war is like by concentrating on the details…Often the smaller the detail, the greater the expressive power of the image. While some of the most powerful images of war work like martial paintings of earlier centuries, stirring calls to the valiant, perhaps the best are more like haiku verse: approaches to the vast meaning of the whole via the smallest fragments of the particular.” (Boot, 1994, p. 28)
In other words, sometimes the most important, or telling, photos aren’t the most grandiose. They can be small and seemingly insignificant, but they paint a more complete picture of what it was like to exist during that time. As reenactors, the value of photographs to help our impressions is invaluable, and we must do what we can to preserve that memory.
Boot, C. (1994). Great Photographers of World War II. New York: Crescent Books.Naggar, C. (2003). George Rodger: An Adventure in Photography, 1908-1995. Syracuse University Press.