Typology of the People’s Cameras

Like most of Phil’s collections, his cameras provided a study in typologies – cameras he chose in order to track the evolution of simple technology that would become embedded in our lives and shape our culture, rather than the specialized tools of professionals. Many of these people’s cameras found his way into his collection through Sunday camera shows in New Jersey that he attended with his daughter, Caroline. The last cameras he added to his collection were brand new cheap-and-cheerful variants of the Polaroid, which he appreciated not only for their joyful designs and their contribution to democratizing photography, but for the quirky images they produced. He thereby joined the long list of photographers who have treasured Polaroid photos since they first picked up Henry Dreyfus’s SX-70 (two of which were in Phil’s collection and have found homes with brilliant professionals and friends). For his 50th birthday celebration, he invited friends and family to snap their own Polaroids using his camera collection.

The earliest examples in his collection are antecedents to the Brownies that furthered the spirit of some of the earliest cameras Phil described in his 1992 book, Made in USA: The Secret Histories of the Things That Made America.
In Chapter 16, “Private Eyes and Public Faces, or Look Sharp!”, he tells us that the cult of the face – Abraham Lincoln’s – was in fact generated by the first cameras:

But the important thing was getting the camera outside the studio. When Brady, Alexander Gardner, and others succeeded in that, albeit with bulky equipment and wagons for their chemicals, they produced views of Lincoln and his generals in camp that deflated the stiffness of portraiture. The new type here was Ulysses S. Grant, so much in contrast to the regular line and staff generals, a remarkable number of whom tended to pose with hands inside coats like Napoleon.

Type. Typology. Phil shared with a new generation of design scholars the insight that can be derived from a rigorous study of collections. He would bring a selection of his Brownies to his “Typologies” course at the School for Visual Arts MFA Design Criticism http://www.sva.edu/graduate/design-research-writing-and-criticism program. The syllabus is reprinted in Top This and Other Parables of Design: Selected Writings by Phil Patton, published posthumously by the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum https://www.cooperhewitt.org/publications/top-this-and-other-parables-of-design-selected-writings-by-phil-patton/ and lists a valuable selection of books and articles for deeper study. The SVA is home to Phil’s literary archives.