Kid Auto camera

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Frame still from Kid Auto Race, 1914

Charlie Chaplin’s first film as the Tramp, Kid Auto Race, has an intriguing detail. In this shot from the film, Charlie is dangerously picking up his hat in the path of an oncoming racer. In the background a photographer can be seen shooting the race with a large camera. He’s not part of the film crew, just someone seen in the background of what turned out to be an historic movie. Presumably a press photographer from a local L.A. newspaper, he’s holding a camera that, in its own way, was also historic.

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That handle on the tall viewing hood suggests it’s an Auto Graflex, a popular press camera in its day and ancestor to the famous Speed Graphic. It was made by Folmer & Schwing, a company then owned by Kodak. This model was made between 1911-15, right at the time of Chaplin’s movie. It’s a single lens reflex with mirror and ground glass for viewing – that’s what he’s looking down at. The camera took film in the 3 1/4” x 4 1/4” format. Click here to see a You-Tube video of one.

This camera has a place in history because it was one of the main press cameras in America at a time when newspapers were booming. Printing photographs in publications was a recent innovation through the new half-tone process (those small dots you can see in published photos) and it expanded the medium into new areas – news and photojournalism in particular. Folmer & Schwing cameras were very popular with professionals and subsequent models dominated press and commercial photography for generations.

One thing about this photographer – he’s artistic. He’s panning the camera as the racer goes by. That way the background will streak while the racer stays sharp. Its an up-close action picture. You can click here to see the film – our photographer appears near the end of Chaplin’s six minute comedy.

I wonder if the photo ever got published.

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Folmer & Schwing RB Auto Graflex.

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