It all started when I was a junior in high school in Staunton, Virginia. The president of the camera business was a 50-year Master Photographer, Margo Kent. I liked the portrait side for a while, so I was the grunt person focusing the camera all the time. But I liked the actual pieces of equipment better. I came to the store and I just stayed here. It will be 50 years on May 30, 2018.
I started my camera collection the day after I started at the store. Margo thought that I was crazy, spending that much money to buy a used camera – and maybe I was, since I needed to get a week’s advance on my salary to pay for it. But I kept collecting cameras and equipment. And I watched other camera stores close up during the transition as electronic and digital imaging came along.
My son didn’t want to have anything to do with the cameras, and I didn’t want to sell them, so I started the nonprofit Camera Heritage Museum. I thought that this would work better as a nonprofit than a for-profit business. I thought we could probably raise more money to get a larger location because where we are is by far too small. On our whole exhibit floor, we are showing about one-third of our collection of approximately 6,000 cameras. That’s not a lot on display.
Creating the Nonprofit
My original vision was just to show people the collection. I did not understand nonprofits at all. When I started learning about nonprofits, I had to do a lot of self-education. There are not a lot of places where you can learn this stuff except by reading book after book. It’s not very easily read or easy to put together. IRS law is very specific on what you can do with certain things.
Once I had educated myself, I thought that it would be hard to set up a nonprofit, but it was quite easy. The hardest part was getting the certificate from the state of Virginia to let us get grants or do major fundraising. We had to go through the Department of Agriculture, not the Department of Taxation (that may vary from state to state). A lot of nonprofits don’t realize they have to register with whatever state they’re in. We got our certificate nearly six years after the nonprofit was begun on December 5, 2011. Before that, we could raise only small amounts of money.
There are lots of regulations on the nonprofit side as to how you manage the organization’s assets. Once you put cameras into the collection, they belong to the nonprofit, and you can’t take them out yourself. There is a legacy portion, but it’s not about me. I just like to see these things preserved because the next generation has no concept of what film cameras are about.
The Smithsonian and the George Eastman House (of Eastman Kodak) have huge collections, but they’re not going to put them on show. We looked to see if there were any other groups in the United States, and there were no other camera museums open to the public. There are a lot of private collections, but nothing open that people can actually see.
There is a difference between seeing photos of cameras and almost feeling them. You understand proportion of size, and what the photographer went through. Some of these are large, and some are small. There is a great variation, although they all do the same thing.
Items from our collection were nominated for the Top 10 Endangered Artifacts list, put together by the Virginia Association of Museums in Richmond, in 2014, 2015 and 2016. They are endangered because most of them are getting thrown in the trash.
One prime example was our first gift. The month after we became a nonprofit, we were contacted by Dr. Lee Gray, the curator of the Hilliard University Art Museum at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She said that they had a huge collection of cameras that needed to go. If we couldn’t take it, they were going to have to dump it. Nonprofits must give their holdings to another nonprofit or they must be destroyed. I think the IRS law should be changed, but I can’t do anything about it. That is the law. We were the only museum open that would accept it.
The problem was that they needed us to pay for the shipping to Virginia. We couldn’t afford it at the time. A friend, Chuck Wilson at Wilson Trucking, was very gracious and transported the collection from Memphis to Staunton free. It was a beautiful gift. He got a friend to give us a very reduced rate to transport it from LSU to Memphis. It was a wonderful collection, and they were going to just throw it in the trash.
Most of our camera collection was like this, sitting in private collections. We have gotten three or four other very large collections from private donors. There are some fantastic pieces that were going to get lost because the families were going to throw them away.
Older generations love their cameras. They have had them for years and they are like family. They don’t want to turn them over. When they do let go of them, it’s usually through death, and a widow or a child inherits them. That’s when we get them. But the collector should decide before death what he wants to have happen to the collection. The decision also needs to be recorded and the collection needs to be appraised by official appraisers before it can go to a museum.
We have a huge beautiful collection that was driven down to us from Connecticut, but it was not appraised beforehand. We can’t find an appraiser. The law won’t let me appraise the items because I am part of the museum. It’s a problem. There are fewer and fewer of us who understand these materials. We don’t want to take things on loan because of the insurance and liability issues. We would love to have cameras and photographic materials given to us, but it’s complicated. I hope the IRS will change some of the laws a little bit.
If you want to donate historic cameras or lenses or any artifacts that relate to photography with film, I would suggest go to your accountant and ask what to do first. Appraise before you ship or do any paperwork. Then, if you want to donate, you already have your artifact appraised, which the IRS requires. Then we will proceed from there. Appraise first. Make sure there is bona fide value.
The Collection and the Background
There is a great deal of historical value and background stories in our collection. For instance, Kodak has no meaning; George Eastman made it up. And the Polaroid Corporation did not invent instant photography; Edwin Land was a chemical engineer, and he created a practical way of making the process work on paper instead of on tintype.
Some old photographs will revert to silver over time. It depends on how they were washed. We have digitized most of our collection of almost 3,000 glass plates. The originals are in a temperature-controlled vault. I handle one glass plate almost every day, and there is no degradation that I can see, unless you scratch it. It’s a wonderful product. It’s almost ideal. That thing is over 100 years old.
Normal old pictures from the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s that people have in their drawer turn brown because the chemist or the pharmacist, because that is where most of them were processed, did not understand you had to wash the salts out of the paper to make them last longer. Even today, if you take the old black and white image, put it back in water, and wash it for another ten minutes, it will likely last a lot longer. Just lay it down flat to dry.
We have a Graflex combat graphic camera from the Korean War with interchangeable lenses. It was called the Gulliver’s Contax and was used for aerial work. You just wind it up on the bottom and fire. It produced 50 pictures on a roll. It used 70-mm film, which is three to four times larger than 35 mm. It gave a lot bigger resolution, lot better clarity, and real high resolution. The lenses were made by A. Schacht Ulm in Germany.
The Nikon F is what most of the press photographers used after the war. This was what you saw at the White House briefing staffs, everywhere, all over the country, and with all the sports photographers. Nikon almost gave away cameras. They did give away cameras to significant press photographers, so they immersed themselves in that market and owned it.
We have a nice little camera owned by Bernie Boston. He was a famous White House photographer representing the Washington Star and the Los Angeles Times. This was the camera he used for the images you saw in the newspaper when Ronald Reagan was shot.
We have a camera that looks like a big old piece of military junk. But it was the actual camera used at Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. It was made by Konica. It took 120-mm film, and it works as perfectly today as the day it was made. Konica AR lenses were wonderful. Konica was really good at manufacturing, but they didn’t quite get their marketing piece together.
We have a collection of military Leicas, Leica being the most prestigious of all the cameras. Leica was the only camera allowed in the courtroom for many years because it was so quiet. It had no mirror and no range finder. One of ours is a KE-7A; they made only 550 of these for the US military. It’s brass underneath; it also came with chrome over brass, which was very heavy and substantial.
99.9% of the Leicas that were ever made are worth more used than they were when they were new. It’s an appreciating asset, unlike other items. We have over 100 in our collection. Oskar Barnak, who invented the Leica, had asthma. He couldn’t carry the big plate cameras around, so he built the small camera system.
We have one of 100 stereo cameras. They are pretty rare. Somebody was going to throw this thing away. It is absolutely beautiful. It is from 1905.
With modern electronic cameras, the body is responsible for about 30% of the total outcome of the photo. The lens is really 50%. The remainder is how your eye composed the picture.
We do not have anything from the Brady Brothers from the Civil War era. Most of the Brady plates were repurposed. Matthew Brady was going blind at the time because of doing daguerreotyping. Daguerreotyping uses mercury, which poisoned him, causing what’s called mad hatter’s disease. Those plates afterwards were repurposed and put in greenhouses, so they are lost now.
We have Robert E. Lee’s official portrait for Washington College. They couldn’t use it because he did not buy his vest. He did that on purpose because he didn’t want to put his suit back on after the war. Without the vest, it was considered to be improper dress. We also have John Wilkes Booth’s family album.
We are researching local photographers and their contributions to photography and local history. Sally Mann is right down the road from us in Lexington. She is a wonderful photographer. She still uses the wet plate procedure which was developed in 1850.
Alfred Eisenstaedt was the famous Life photographer. He had two Leicas; one was wide angle and the other was a slight telephoto. He took everything with those two cameras. B.M. Clinedinst patented the reflex camera here in 1872, and Michael Miley patented the first color photograph in 1902. O. Winston Link lived here, although his museum is in Roanoke.
We have a collection of over 2000 antique photos of Staunton and the surrounding Augusta County. These photos are truly worth a thousand words in what they reveal about the life of the area. This section is also growing as we digitize the images.
The Vision for the Future
There are plenty of books out there about cameras and equipment. That’s not the problem. Books are out there, and images are on the Internet. What we want is to let people come in and actually see the equipment. We can’t let them touch it, but they can get up close and personal to it. It tells a lot. It’s entirely different from seeing it in a book.
Every day on Facebook we put up a photo of a new camera and tell a little something about it. We like to have new likes on Facebook and Twitter. We’re listed and well-reviewed on TripAdvisor. We might be able to do videos and online courses on photography and its history to stir up interest. We have several types of tours available: walk around and take a look by yourself, take an audio tour, or take a curated tour, and I’ll spend well over an hour with you.
But we need help to expand. We are trying to get new people on our board who are really interested, along with other people to give us a hand. We are now trying to acquire a nearby building, originally owned by artist P. Buckley Moss, which was built as a museum. It’s ideally suited for what we want, but it’s been sitting empty for five years. We need to raise funds for its purchase and repair. This would allow us to display all of our artifacts.
We want to have a strong education element. Right now, we’re raising our revenue streams through GoFundMe, Facebook, and a Donate button on our website. If we get the new building, we would like to have three different darkrooms, wet collodion, tintyping, and traditional darkroom, and teach the techniques. We would like to have some professors come down from Rochester Institute of Technology and the George Eastman House to give lectures. We could have almost a whole school there because it’s a beautiful location and beautiful scenery to take pictures in. It would be ideal.
We have talked to the Smithsonian and, if we can get the building, since we’ll have museum standards, we will be a satellite of the Smithsonian. We can borrow from their master collection and have rotations. I have not talked to the head curator for the George Eastman House, but he might be able to do the same type of thing.
It would be nice to show these nice old artifacts instead of having them locked up and never being seen again, as they are now. It’s nice to see them in pictures, but to see them in real life is entirely different. We’re in conversation about how SynerVision can help this museum be the dominant museum and serve others. The museum will live on in perpetuity. We will have an endowment fund to preserve it forever.
Staunton, Virginia, is a wonderful town which has preserved its history. It has a world-class Shakespearean theater. Right across the street from us, we have the most wonderful, absolutely huge, skylight. Two blocks up from us is Trinity Church with eight Tiffany windows, two of which are hand-signed. They are priceless. Without dedication, all of this knowledge and history is in danger of falling by the wayside. We’re just into cameras, but that is true in every form of life.
I still have people who want me to give up and retire. After 50 years, it gets a little tiring, but I love it. I would love to get more people who are interested in this to come in and help.
The Bottom Line
If you have a vision for something, you can make it happen. Put people around you who are competent and make it happen. Don’t give up on your vision.
David Schwartz is the founder and curator of the Camera Heritage Museum in Staunton, Virginia. He was trained by Margo Kent, who was awarded Master of Photography by the Professional Photographers of America, and the Winona School of Professional Photography. https://www.CameraHeritageMuseum.com/ https://www.facebook.com/CameraHeritageMuseum/
This article is reprinted from Issue #10 of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today so that you won’t miss other actionable articles that will help you run your nonprofit organization with less pain and more gain!
Join Hugh Ballou and Russell Dennis and their guests on our weekly Tuesday afternoon Nonprofit Exchange at 2 pm Eastern time.
If you already have a nonprofit or are thinking of starting one, this will be very helpful. Put it on your calendar NOW! It’s a session that you don’t want to miss! Discover what’s blocking your success!
The Nonprofit Exchange on Tuesdays at 2 pm ET has been quite beneficial for many participants and we have enjoyed sharing thoughts and tips for moving past the stuck places we all find in leading an organization to achieving its mission.
Learn more and access archives HERE.
As the famous British Composer and Conductor Ralph Vaughan Williams once said, “Music does not reveal all of its secrets to just one person.” If you replace the word “Music” with the word “Leadership” or “Team” or “Strategy” etc., then we all give and receive value from others. That’s the spirit of the Tuesday afternoon Nonprofit Exchange encounters, sponsored by SynerVision Leadership Foundation’s “Community for Community Builders.”
You can join the conversation on Zoom or watch on Facebook Live Video. It’s your choice. You can comment on Facebook and on the Zoom chat box on any device.
Put this on your calendar NOW! It’s a session that you don’t want to miss! Discover what’s blocking your success!
We’ll “see” YOU on the call. Here’s to your greater success!