Back in the early days of Casual Photophile, a part of my weekly routine included a stop at the local thrift store to look for cameras. This was how I found a considerable number of cameras and lenses – an Olympus OM-1, a Pentax ME, more than a few Minolta SRTs, and a Minolta Maxxum 7000 were among some of my early scores. But as the years passed and the film renaissance engine began to purr, the shelf ceased to provide. The store became hip to the revival and increased prices accordingly. Newer film photographers and buyers looking to resell for profit would snipe cameras off the shelf before I was even out of bed. Apart from a Minolta Hi-Matic AF2 and an errant Nikon One Touch point-and-shoot, I haven’t bought a thrift shop camera for nearly two years.
What’s left on the shelf today are the types of cameras that have always been left on the shelf. I’m talking about fixed-focus (focus free, apologies) plastic fantastic party favor cameras from the 1980s and ’90s. The kind of camera you’d get for subscribing to a magazine, or opening a checking account at the local bank.
The cameras themselves come in varying states of quality, ranging from Just Okay to Bad, made worse with age and wear, having had rougher lives as not-quite-disposable, technically reusable cameras. They’re not the prettiest cameras but hey, they’re cameras.
For as constant a presence as these cameras have been, for me, they never registered as actual photographic options. I was never sure if they’d work, and never sure if they’d offer anything more than a slight variation of the lo-fi disposable look. Current film prices add to the hesitation; throwing a $12 roll of film (plus $15-20 in processing) into a camera that may not offer anything appreciably different from any other toy camera doesn’t sound quite as appealing as simply using a nicer, more functional camera.
These thoughts swirled through my head during a recent thrift shop browse when I stumbled upon just such a camera in, where else, the toy section. Closer inspection revealed a 35mm toy camera clad in teal and black, in uncommonly good condition. The shutter actually worked and had a snappy (albeit plasticky) action, the advance wheel clicked along smooth and sure, and the lens was protected by a built-in sliding cover which, to my surprise, also locked the shutter button.
By toy camera standards, this is suspiciously high technology.
But what really gave me pause was the name — “Baby’s First Photo.” What any baby would have to do with photography, much less film photography, is a mystery. Baby’s First Photo may have been intended for toddlers, but do toddler’s really have that kind of patience and coordination? I could maybe imagine a four-year-old handling the camera, but even that’s optimistic.
I mention this not to make fun of the camera (okay, maybe just a little), but because it underscores the intrigue of this camera – we may never know why they made this. In fact, we may never truly know anything about it at all. Searching the internet for “Baby’s First Photo 35mm camera” did and currently does not seem to yield any result, leaving me to wonder where in Hell this camera came from.
Running my new Baby’s First Photo through the checkout scanner, I realized that I felt something in the photographic hobby that I hadn’t felt in quite some time — surprise and mystery.
It’s something that I think I needed, personally, and something that’s missing in the current internet-based film photography landscape.
And it’s something that Baby’s First Photo, and every camera like it, has.
The initial appeal of most focus-free toy cameras is their incredibly low price point and seemingly randomized build and image quality, traits that sustain toy camera enthusiasts and form the central marketing angle of companies like Lomography. The toy camera brings simplicity, accessibility, and promises of off-the-wall, come-what-may photography. The is potent and evergreen.
Baby’s First Photo delivers on these promises, but adds a surprising, almost unnerving amount of quality to that formula. The plastic which makes up the camera is of a different generation, which is to say it’s thicker, sturdier, and doesn’t feel like it’ll fall to pieces midway through a test roll. It won’t go toe to toe with a Nikon F, but its build embarrasses most cheap cameras of its kind.
Functionally, Baby’s First Photo is typical toy camera fare. It features a simple plastic lens (whether or not it contains one, two, or three elements is anyone’s guess), with a simple plastic leaf shutter of some indeterminate speed (probably somewhere between 1/30th to 1/60th of a second) that gives off an uneasy plastic clack. The images it makes are typical of the segment as well; smudging is everywhere, softness abounds, and this particular camera vignettes to the point where one can almost outline a perfect circle within each photo. The lens isn’t sharp in the center, and it’s even less sharp in the corners. It’s a charming look, but then again, most other toy cameras can pull this off just as well.
A true sleeper, the juicy grail that every reviewer of anything on the internet craves, Baby’s First Photo is not.
In fact, there is nothing conventionally special about Baby’s First Photo. There’s nothing quirky in its specs or in its design that could suggest that this would be a desirable camera for anybody (besides maybe its build quality). And other than the fact that cameras like these are artifacts of a reality where film cameras were once a part of the fabric of living in the late 20th century, there’s no real history to Baby’s First Photo. It seems to have come from nowhere and seems to be going nowhere. And it’s precisely this that gets me so excited.
A large part of the intrigue of Baby’s First Photo is, admittedly, down to timing. It came into my life at a time where I started to really tire of the Internet’s propensity to exploit, well, everything.
I became tired of Instagram reels, TikToks, YouTube video essays telling me what the new and happening thing was, or how criminally under- or over-rated things are, especially when it came to cameras (I do understand the irony of writing this as a member of this website). I started to become pessimistic and cynical about the landscape; in an environment where everything is broadcast on a second-by-second basis and algorithmically tailored at all times (and most scary of all, created specifically for People Like You), and where social media platforms and tech companies make massive money exploiting every conceivable corner and facet of life, true mystery and surprise is much harder to come by. It can seem some days that there is no new frontier to explore; it’s all been seen before, that whatever you do see has already been curated and taken off the shelf, and whatever you will see in the future will be tailor-made for your demographic.
Baby’s First Photo and other mysterious, faceless film cameras like it, somehow exist outside of this world. They’re not criminally under-rated sleeper cameras, they’re not available in numbers high enough even to garner cult followings, and they have little to no historical value. In place of that, they can offer something truly unexpected and unknown. The experience sits in a rare blind spot of the increasingly omnipresent eye of the digital media machine.
But while I would love for that to be the thesis of this article, I can’t make that statement definitively due to something I mentioned earlier – film photography’s steadily disappearing accessibility. While it’s true that Baby’s First Photo and cameras like it only cost a dollar or two, film and development prices have skyrocketed to the point where each shot of a 36 exposure roll of C-41 35mm color film, after processing, costs ~$1 USD. With such a high price, it’s riskier than ever to trust a roll of even consumer film to any old focus free camera of questionable origin. This is perhaps the saddest part of this camera, and of all cheap film cameras; true curiosity can bring a shooter to cheap focus free cameras, but the cost of film itself in 2023 has put a high price tag on curiosity itself.
So what’s left? We’ve got a little green blob of a camera with no history and no real importance. But even with that, I can’t deny that I feel something about this camera. If Baby’s First Photo is completely inconsequential to history and meaningless to the film photography renaissance, I want to make it meaningful, even if it’s for nobody but myself.
So, I decided to give this camera a task befitting the name. I wanted Baby’s First Photo to actually take the first photo of a baby, my newborn niece.
In truth, when I first found this camera on the shelf, I almost immediately decided that this would be its purpose. The timing was perfect as, according to hospital due dates, my new niece was going to be born sometime within the month. I had already taken a picture of the first time I saw my newborn nephew a few years ago (featured in my profile of the Olympus Pen FT), so I wanted to continue the tradition. I didn’t know how the camera would behave, but that was fine. I wanted to trust the feeling of newness and surprise and ride it as far as it would take me.
When the time came, I entered the hospital room where my sister and her newborn were resting. There was little to no light, and the shades were drawn shut. Great conditions for babies trying to sleep, but not so good for cameras with slow plastic lenses and fixed shutter speeds. Nevertheless, I had a job to do.
I took the camera out and looked at my new niece for the first time, through a plastic viewfinder on a camera from nowhere. She was lying down in a plastic crib, a sliver of light the only illumination. I snapped the photo, not knowing what I’d get, or if I’d get anything. And when I finally got that film developed, I was shocked. The image wasn’t at all what I was expecting, but became something much greater than that. And there it was again; that same surprise, that same feeling of mystery I’d found when I first saw this camera for the first time.
It might seem that everything’s been picked over. It might seem everything has been or will be explained, curated, exploited. And maybe there really aren’t any more frontiers. That might all be true.
But then again, there’s always this. There always will be.
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