Classic Cameras
The Kodak Art Deco Six 20

The "Art Deco" Six-20 (British model). The American model had straight struts instead of those wonderful swooping supports and was considerably less attractive.

There are plenty of people who know (and care) very little about photography, but feel that their dignity requires a camera with a bit of style and elegance. Today, they are spoiled for choice. Automation makes life easy: they can buy any number of high-end point-and-shoots. Rollei's charming little AFM35 offers a choice of auto-everything or manual focus and aperture-priority automation, while with a Leica M7 you have to focus and set the shutter speed for yourself but it's still autoexposure and at least it has a coupled rangefinder.

The Great Divide
In the 1930s, it was more of a problem. There was a great divide between box cameras and "serious" cameras with all the controls, and there was very little that both looked good and could be mastered by a photographic ignoramus.

This however must have been the market at which the "Art Deco" Six-20 Kodak was aimed; "Art Deco" or just "Deco" is a collectors' name and does not appear on the camera itself. The specification is pretty much that of a box camera of the period. The base model had a fixed-focus f/11 two-glass lens and a self-cocking Kodon shutter offering 1/25, 1/50, and 1/100 sec plus B and T, while the top of the line model had an f/6.3 triplet with front cell focusing in the same shutter. Both lenses are 100mm focal length.

Art Deco Styling
But stand this beauty next to a box camera and you can see where the money went. The styling is gorgeous high deco, with more than a nod to art nouveau as well. The overall design is based on octagons in black enamel and chrome, with a splash of red relief in the word "Kodak" on the shutter. The swooping struts are where the art nouveau comes in: it would have been possible to make them straight, but then they would not have supplied such a magnificent visual counterpoint to the severe angles of the rest of the camera.

I didn't realize until I started researching this column that this was the British model of this camera. It was given to my wife Frances Schultz by a fellow Art Deco fancier a decade or so ago. It was introduced in 1932 and therefore antedates the US model ('33-'37): both the finish of the (American made) Kodon shutter and the camera struts are much prettier on the original than on the American model. The effect is somewhat let down by the leatherette covering, though, which is bumpy in places where pustules have formed on the metal underneath.

There's a tripod socket (just the one) on the baseboard, stopped with a slotted chrome screw. Sometimes these are lost, because some previous owner actually used a tripod and neglected to replace the screw, but this is unusual: it is, after all, a snapshot camera. There's a cable-release socket on the shutter, stopped with a magnificent knurled and slotted screw: much the same observation applies. The tripod socket screw can be unscrewed with an American penny, but the cable release socket demands a dime (or a silver sixpence).

Two Finders
There's a choice of two viewfinders, a simple folding frame and one of those dismal "brilliant" waist-level finders that were not much use when they were new and have since grown murky with age.

The "brilliant" finder swivels so you can use it with the camera held "portrait" or "landscape."

What you see is in a sense rather more than you actually get. This camera was designed to give 6x9cm contact prints, the staple of many a family album even into the '50s. Unfortunately, it was designed around the poisonous 620 film size, which is identical to 120 except that the film spool is very slightly smaller in diameter: it is even possible (though I find it very difficult) to re-spool 120 film and backing paper onto a 620 spool. According to one source, this was the first 620 camera.

Indifferent Images
Although you can buy 620 from Films for Classics, there is little incentive to do so if your sole motive is to feed your "Deco" Six-20, as it is scarcely the most convenient or versatile camera in the world. The results are only a little better than indifferent: anything more than about a 2x enlargement will expose the shortcomings of a fixed-focus doublet lens on what is, after all, rather a large format for a fixed-focus camera.

If you do want to try it, you would be well advised to stop down to f/22 or better still f/32 so that depth of field will cover up its worst shortcomings, and at this point, it is as well to have a reasonably fast film so that the picture is adequately exposed. Even on a sunny day, the kind of ISO 100 film that was regarded as reasonably fast in the late '30s will need 1/25 at f/32, so ISO 400 will not be overexposed at the shortest shutter speed of 1/100, and on an overcast day you may well need to shoot wide-open with the same speed film.

Loading is the usual red-window rigmarole. Inside is a note exorting the user to "Ask for V-620 `Verichrome' film or 620 N.C. film for this `Kodak'" and adding "Have your prints made on `Velox.'" The "chrome" in "Verichrome" refers to a panchromatically sensitized black and white film, not a color emulsion; "N.C." is "non-curling" (ho, ho). A nice touch is a nickel and black door over the counter window with the injunction "Open only while winding" and an impressive arrow to indicate how to open it. This is of course to reduce the risk of light strike through the backing paper.

Getting Loaded
To open the camera for picture taking, hook out the little lever on the front board with a fingernail, and pull quite hard. The front will swivel outward: the bellows will extend slowly and majestically. One more good push and the board clicks into position at right angles to the body, while the front standard assumes a position more or less parallel to the film. The locking lever doubles as a foot, so the camera can stand reasonably upright, acting as its own tripod. Everything else is self-explanatory.

As a camera for taking pictures, the "Art Deco" Six-20 Kodak with the f/11 doublet is, was, and always will be undistinguished: quality is roughly comparable with a modern disposable or low-end digital camera. The f/6.3 triplets are somewhat better. But in a collection, it can justly hold its head high, as there have been very few cameras that look quite so handsome. This is why it typically sells for several times the price of its less aesthetically endowed brethren. But as the aforementioned brethren are worth only a few bucks at a swap meet or yard sale, an "Art Deco" Six-20 isn't worth a fortune either.