Camera manufacturers have always enjoyed showing off the otherwise mysterious innards of their mechanical masterpieces. Early brochures for lenses and cameras demonstrated the makers’ engineering expertise through illustrations, schematics, and technical drawings, remarkably done by hand. This is well exemplified in one Kodak brochure from 1904 which featured, amongst other drawings, a detailed cross section of the famous Cooke portrait lens.
The trend continued in later brochures and manuals, which used computer-aided graphics and illustrations. In the 1980s, particularly, drawings of this kind were used to showcase astonishing new technologies like autofocus and advanced metering modes which would be otherwise challenging to visualize, or to showcase the cutting edge micro-computers, circuit boards, and ribbon cables which made these new features possible. Take for example the brochure for Minolta’s Maxxum 7000, shown below.
Polaroid, another tech giant of the 1970s and ’80s, similarly emphasized the inner workings of their amazing machines in ads and promo material for the press and for dealers. One of the photographic artifacts in my office is a holographic display promoting Polaroid’s then-new Sonar autofocusing system, which mesmerizes with its faux-3D resistors and PCBs (and other things that I don’t recognize).
In addition to showing off the insides of their creations via print materials, some camera companies went one step further and created physical displays known as “cutaways.” These were actual production cameras which had been specially modified with segments of their bodies cut away to reveal the mechanical workings beneath. Leica created cutaway versions of many of their most popular cameras. These cameras were usually shipped to Leica dealers and camera shops, which would use the cutaway models to show prospective buyers exactly what was under the skin of their (potential) new camera.
These cutaway cameras are sought by collectors today, and they sell for a pretty penny indeed (see this Leica M2 listed for $7,000). I’ll use this exorbitant price to shamelessly plug a much cheaper option – my Leica M3 Exploded View print, which you can buy in my shop here.
As the camera world shifted away from all-metal cameras to an epoch coated in plastic, so too did the cutaway camera shift. No longer were cutaway cameras simply band-sawed in half, or made with holidays in the casting. Instead, camera companies began creating “see-through” cameras. These new versions of the cutaway camera were identical in construction to their production model counterparts, however their external casings were made with transparent plastic. The effect is pretty mesmerizing, especially when we see the cameras in action, their mechanical components whirring to life, their electronic components illuminating.
Unfortunately for those of us who are simpletons and begin drooling over the idea of having and using a see-through special edition of our favorite model, sadly this isn’t necessarily possible. Since the cameras are see-through, any film which we run through the camera will naturally be exposed to all sorts of unintended light. These are not, as the old description goes, “light-tight boxes.”
Always keen to show off their technology, Polaroid made quite a few see-through cameras. The cream of the crop, for me, is the gorgeous, translucent-shelled Spectra camera called “Onyx.” This is quite possibly my favorite Polaroid model. It is simply gorgeous. And it makes me so unhappy that Spectra film is no longer being produced. Interestingly, only the top plate of the Onyx Spectra is see-through, which means that the camera can actually be used like a normal camera without ruining the film.
Many manufacturers jumped onto the see-through camera bandwagon. I’ve at times owned see-through cameras from Minolta, Canon, and Pentax, and I’m sure that other companies made examples as well. But since these see-through cameras were often manufactured to be display pieces or sent as advertising materials to dealers and press, it can be nearly impossible (these days) to create a comprehensive list or to accurately represent production numbers. It is perhaps this mysteriousness which helps to create a market in which these see-through plastic cameras, like their mechanical cutaway counterparts of previous eras, are so sought by collectors.
Do you own a see-through camera? Share it with us in the comments below.
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Great article. These cameras are amazingly complex machines.