Kodak Brownie Vecta

Kodak Brownie Vecta and Following in Fox Talbot’s Footsteps – by Charles Higham

I was recently reading about the industrial designer Sir Kenneth Grange, who over a long career has been involved in the creation of an impressive range of household products in the UK, and beyond the home into post boxes, taxi cabs and train styling. He also was brought in by Kodak to refresh some camera designs such as the Instamatic. One of these was an update to the venerable Brownie series.

Made in England and launched in 1963, the Vecta is aesthetically and ergonomically a departure from preceding models, bringing at the time a much needed dose of fresh modern styling. It was superseded in 1965 by the Brownie 127 Third Model which I understand was the very last box camera Kodak manufactured, its production ending in 1967.

In the early 1960s the 127 film you loaded into the Vecta was still widely used, but 35mm film was beginning to make increasing inroads into the amateur market as more sophisticated 35mm cameras became available at reasonable prices. More importantly, Kodak’s Instamatic cameras using 126 cartridge films became massively popular internationally, as did the 110 format, so gradually 127 film was shoved out of the mainstream to become the niche product it is today.

The Vecta takes eight exposures in the 4 x 6.5cm vertical format, but of course there’s nothing to stop you tilting the camera through 90 degrees for a landscape view, which is what I did. The film is wound on in a conventional way by rotating the white knob on the side, each frame number printed on the film’s paper backing being visible through the red window at the rear. The mechanism is also designed to prevent double exposures.

Despite the forward looking styling, once you start using the Vecta there’s no getting away from the fact it’s very basic with fixed focus, an aperture of f/14 and a shutter speed of maybe 1/30. Kodak obviously felt there was still a market for a simple plastic box camera that anyone could manage. The shutter button is on the front and below the lens, and is in the form of a white plastic bar. I found this placement a bit odd at first and on my example it’s quite stiff to operate so it’s difficult not to unintentionally move the camera when taking a photo.

I wasn’t expecting good image quality out of the miniscus lens and with such a simple camera I had to think about what to photograph. I’d wanted to visit the William Henry Fox Talbot Museum at Lacock in Wiltshire for a while as he was a contemporary of Louis Daguerre and like him one of the pioneers of early photography. His home, Lacock Abbey, is now a National Trust property and the museum has been created in part of it.

As some of Fox Talbot’s earliest photographic experiments took place there, I thought to myself why not find the exact locations he used and, reproduce the same views with my camera? I discovered he also took photographs in Oxford so I should be able to find those locations too.

I’ve had the film developed inexpensively and the exposures are not great, which actually I’m not worried about because it’s what I expected. It was more the fun of locating the positions Fox Talbot had chosen to take his photos. It was an interesting and slightly surreal experience to be standing in the same spots seeing how comparatively little these scenes had changed after even about 180 years.

Here are the shots, Fox Talbot’s and then mine:

The Oriel Window, Lacock Abbey 1835. Paper negative. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Kodak Brownie Vecta July 2021. HP400 127 film
Cloisters at Lacock Abbey 1842. Salted paper print from paper negative. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Kodak Brownie Vecta July 2021. HP400 127 film
The Tower of Lacock Abbey. Before 1845. Salted paper print from paper negative. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Kodak Brownie Vecta July 2021. HP400 127 film
Lacock Abbey from the river, c.1844. Salted paper print from paper negative. Art Institute of Chicago
Kodak Brownie Vecta July 2021. HP400 127 film. Original viewpoint now masked by trees so this taken about 50 yards upriver.
Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford, 1842. Calotype paper negative. Art Institute of Chicago.
Kodak Brownie Vecta July 2021. HP400 127 film
Tom Tower, Christchurch, Oxford. 1844. Salted paper print. Art Institute of Chicago
Kodak Brownie Vecta July 2021. HP400 127 film
Wadham College, Oxford. c.1839. Salted paper print. Victoria & Albert Museum.
Kodak Brownie Vecta July 2021. HP400 127 film
High Street, Oxford. c.1845. Salted paper print from paper negative. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Kodak Brownie Vecta July 2021. HP400 127 film

I like many of Kenneth Grange’s designs, but I’m not convinced this camera is one of his better ones. As I mentioned above, the position of the shutter button is unconventional and quite close to the lens. It was stiff – perhaps due to age – which didn’t help. Apart from that, it’s comfortable to hold. Also there’s no tripod socket, not that I’d use it, but then it’s a simple camera and has no shutter cable release thread which you would need. Winding the film on to the next frame required a surprising amount of force. The lens is pretty rubbish but to be fair to Sir Kenneth I doubt he had any control over that. To summarise, for me the Vecta is aesthetically an interesting camera that reflects the more progressive designs of the early 1960s, but I don’t plan on putting any more film through it.

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14 thoughts on “Kodak Brownie Vecta and Following in Fox Talbot’s Footsteps – by Charles Higham”

  1. Looking at your first image of the camera itself made me wonder if he had a hand in designing washing machines or spin dryers, also.
    I was fascinated by how little has changed in your comparison images and which are separeated in time by some 150+ years.

    1. Yes Terry, I see what you mean about the similarity to washing machine design. Using the link at the top to Kenneth Grange’s exhibition you can see the sort of things he designed.

  2. A neat looking camera and historic recaptures! I’ve seen a few of these cameras for sale online, and it always seemed that their surface finishes didn’t age well. Yours looks pretty darn clean and pristine though, so congrats!

    1. Thanks Dave, I do like the look of the camera design, pretty cool. And you are right about the way the quality of the finish deteriorates over time. I saw several on ebay looking the worse for age, but this one is in nice condition.

  3. Interesting topic and presentation. As a US citizen that has traveled to Oxford and as a camera collector, it was we done.

    1. Thanks for your nice comment Charles. I did think twice about using the Vecta for this exercise but as the image quality of my photos was not critical if felt reasonably appropriate.

  4. Fascinating article. I love the historical information and the old/new comparisons. I’ve always said that my interest in photography dates back to the late 1970s when my wife gave me a Minolta rangefinder camera (Hi-Matic 7sII) . However, I was cleaning out some old stuff a while back and, to my surprise I came across a picture, which I remember taking with this very camera model (I can’t figure out if I can attach a picture here but you can see it at: http://www.aheadworld.org/2013/06/19/my-first-camera/). I recall that my friend had a camera (and a darkroom) so of course I had to have a camera too. I think I only ever used it once before my interest waned. Both of my parents passed away some time ago. The house in the picture was emptied and sold. At the time I wasn’t so much interested in old cameras and had even forgotten that I had ever had this camera. It’s not such a bad picture considering the camera is basically a fancy box with a lens in it. I suppose the large size of the 127 negative helps. As far as I know this is the only photograph from the camera that survives. It’s of my father and our dog Peg in front of the house where I grew up in Sandbach, UK. It must have been taken around 1964 when I was about twelve and my father around 45. When I started collecting cameras around 2011 this was one of my early acquisitions. Much later I even got some 127 film but so far I haven’t tried to use it again.

    1. Howard, thanks for that piece of personal history relating to the Vecta. I wonder how many of them have survived, and I agree, the photo of your father is good and actually the condition of the camera shown in your post is good too, because as mentioned above the metal surface on the front would often become marked. I assume some of them were exported to North America.

  5. Thanks for the memory jog Charles, Yes I remember the Vecta when this camera arrived in my local chemist shop in the 60s. The owner who was also a keen photographer, it was there that I got to see, smell and experience my first working dark room. In the sixties many chemist shops still developed B&W film and a few even processed colour reversal film. At age twelve I had my own darkroom in an unused outside toilet where I developed film and made contact prints, but I digress. The Vecta also came with accessory lenses, a hood and an awful light brown case which in a minor way I have been looking for since the arrival of eBay in the naughties having found a working Vecta camera at our local dump ten years previous to that! Of all the box cameras I’ve seen and handled even in plastic its actually quite well made. I must lay my hands on some 127 film and give it a trial run!

    1. My pleasure Michael. Good for you to start processing film at a young age. I do like the design but I just wish the lens was a bit better. Glad you have one to try, as maybe yours can produce better image quality. There are a couple on ebay uk right now with the original case if you are still interested.

  6. Toby Van de Velde

    Fascinating to see the reproduction views of Fox Talbot’s photos.
    Are you sure you won’t run another roll through it??

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