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Interview with Steve Winnie

Steve Winnie is probably one of the largest camera collectors in the United States. We asked him to tell us how his passion was born.

Thanks for your time Steve. Could you tell us how your interest in camera collecting was born, and when?

First, I need to point out that compared to many people, my collection isn't very big; some folks have much larger collections. However, my collection does focus on a few specific cameras and I believe I have one of the larger collections in that group.

My interest in photography was born when I was about five years old when my godmother gave me a toy camera. Hold it the sunlight and you got a picture of a ship! Do it again and there was a picture of a train, then an airplane, etc & etc. I could see that it was a toy, which left me a bit unsatisfied; I soon learned what it meant to be ''out of film.''

When I was about seven years old I was walking to school when I looked down into a ditch, where there were some weeds. I realized that if I had a camera I could make that view appear as if I was flying over a forest in an airplane. The desire to take a picture and then manipulate it was sparked in me. Later in school I took my first photography classes and from that point on I was hooked.

One day in January of 1976 I was an 18 year old Army Private that had just transferred overseas. It had taken quite a while to get my pay straightened out, and there I was in a store with a whole wad of back pay; I was going to buy a camera. I had narrowed down my choices to being between the Nikkormat and a Minolta SRT 202. I had enough money to buy either the Nikkormat body or the Minolta body and lens kit. I could get the Nikon and then wait until next payday to but a lens, or get the Minolta & a roll of film and start shooting today. I bought the Minolta. As time went by I bought additional lenses, which were more affordable than the Nikkors and I realized that I could wait a long time to afford expensive gear and miss a lot of shots. You don't make any money off of the shots that you don't take, so I bought what I can afford. That was 45 years ago and in all that time I don't think that my work has suffered from the lack of lens quality. Operator error, sure, but as far as equipment goes the Minoltas performed steadily shot after shot after shot.

A year after the SRT 202, I went back to the store, mainly because everyone was buying black-bodied cameras and I wanted one, too. It was silly, but the photo world is just as trendy and anything else; if the trend had been plastic woodgrain, like in my car, I most likely would have bought that, too. (Thank God fake woodgrain has never shown up in cameras.)

So, Minolta had two black-bodied upper-level cameras in stock: The XE and the XK. I wanted the XK because it was cool, but settled for the XE because it was affordable. It turned out to be the best choice that I ever made. I carried a pair of XE-7's for about 35 years and they were tough, reliable, and accurate. I had heard about the Leica-Minolta partnership and decided that I wanted to try the Leica version, which is really launched me from having a bunch of cameras into having a real collection. I was retired, bored, and had a bit of cash so I decided to pursue the entire XE line, as well as the Leica R3's. I progressed to the Leica R4-7 series after picking up a Minolta XD in a bulk purchase and while I liked it I wanted to try the Leica version ... and that led to my current situation of not knowing which Leica R I like the best. This does not upset my basic personal loyalties, as I know that my Leica R3-R7's are Minoltas deep down inside. I have around 120 Minoltas and Leicas, which is to say that I have many versions of three cameras: The SRT, XE/R3 and XD/R4-7.

How many cameras do you currently own?

I own something more than 200 cameras.

Have you noticed an increase in the value of vintage cameras since you started your collection? Do you think it could be a good investment? Are they somehow a safe haven?

I have seen an increase in the cost of vintage cameras and subdivide all cameras into two groups: (a) Ones that can be used and (b) Those that are nice to collect. The ones that can be used do seem to appreciate in value, while the collector cameras tend to have rather static prices... unless you find a good deal. At this point in time most of both groups entering the market as used for the first time come from estate sales after the original owners pass on. If you can buy them at that point they can be a good investment. Once they hit the open market they settle into a general market value and I don't make much flipping them. It is good to know the value of the item before you buy it. I sometimes purchase several cameras at a bulk price, paying a bit more more per-camera in order to get a vastly undervalued camera in that same bulk purchase. As far as a ''safe haven'' for your money, it is important to recognize that classic cameras are a luxury market and the bottom could fall out any time. Right now film is popular, but will that trend last? Some cameras, like the Nikon F2 or the Leica R6 are mechanical and should work 100 years from now, like a fine watch. Electronic cameras, like the Nikon F3 and Leica R7 could have electronic failures at any time and are a less reliable investment. Cloth shutters tend to degrade over time, so I won't pay as much for those bodies. I like to buy mechanical cameras with metal shutters and standard lens mounts, like Nikon's F series. Finally, I like to look at format: For example, I can get 35mm film at many stores, and my local shop will develop and scan the film in less than a day for relatively small money. My Mamiya M645's are great cameras but the film costs more and it is hard to find anyone to develop and scan the film; anyone that does that work charges a lot more money. So the operating costs of a camera is a serious consideration.

Do you perform any kind of maintenance after purchasing the cameras, or any kind of periodic maintenance?

As soon as a camera comes in I clean it, test it, photograph it, enter it into my database, remove the batteries, fire the shutter, cap all openings, and store it in a hard case. Some cameras and especially lenses I sent out to be upgraded; for example, a Nikon F lens from non-ai to ai. The value of the upgrade can significantly improve the value of the piece. I cannot over stress the importance of keeping some sort of inventory. Very often we find minor changes within a camera's production that will distinguish early models from later versions, odd changes here & there that make a difference to collectors. Having a picture of a camera makes it easier to pull up and view, rather than to root through the collection to find a small feature. Having good records would also help with an insurance claim, if I were ever so unfortunate to have to make one.

I store the cameras mostly in hard cases to control temperature, dust, and casual damage. When I open a case, I try to cycle the cameras because that is good for the mechanical parts. But mainly, no, I don't perform regular maintenance on the collection cameras. The ones that I do use do get periodic check-ups to keep them in tune.

Where do you mainly buy your cameras?

I have bought many cameras online, but I shop very carefully. In the year 2019 I discovered that I was paying about 33% over value in taxes and shipping... costs that add to the price of a camera, but not its value - usually. If I can find a bargain in Japan or the EU and pay the taxes & shipping to the USA for less than the US value, I do it. Otherwise I may as well pay more and buy it locally, if at all. Beyond that I prefer Estate Sales that are being run by the family cleaning out grandpa's home in order to sell. The family is usually willing to make a bulk sale if I just get all of that stuff out of the house at once. Shops tend to watch internet prices, which drives the cost up. Finally, I occasionally run an ad saying that I will buy any camera, which results in various levels of success. My collection is targeted towards Minolta and Leicas, so when I open to door to ''any'' camera I often wind up with junk, so I don't do that very often anymore.

Could you tell us which camera is your favorite? Do you use any of them daily?

My favorite film cameras are the Leica R5, R-E, R6, and R7. When I go out shooting pictures I usually carry a Nikon D850 for my digital work and one of the Leicas for my film work. Lately I have also been carrying a 1958 Minolta Super "A". My other bag contains a Nikon F3, and very often I will shoot that and the D850 at the same time using similar period-correct lenses. For example, I'll have the classic Nikkor 50mm f~1.4 on the F3, and a modern Nikkor 50mm on the 850. My favorite lens is the Nikkor 105micro, and will go out with one on both the F3 and 850 and no other lens.

Are you particularly fond of some of your cameras for some reason? Do you ever try to find out about the history of those who used them before you?

As far as history of the cameras, most of the time I have no way of finding out. However, I do have several cameras that have been donated by friends, so I do know a lot about them. For example, I have a Minolta SRT 102 that belonged to a friend who brought it with him to a photo class at a California park. There his teacher introduced ''some old guy'' that was helping with the class. The Old Guy showed my relative some tips & tricks with the SRT 102 as his example. That Old Guy turned out to be Ansel Adams.

How was your passion for photography born? Could you tell us something about your life, about when you photographed bands in Seattle in the 90s for example?

When I was in school I discovered that photography was a fairly inexpensive hobby if you are careful. After a while people liked my work, and that is always nice. Mainly it was that everywhere I went I could see things to take pictures of. Like those weeds in the ditch so long ago, I realized that if I used this lens or that angle, perhaps a different setting I could take something usual and make it unusual. I've always hated studio work, and prefer to shoot people in casual settings. My sessions are a lot of fun...I try to make them as fun as possible with jokes and having my subjects try all kinds of things that makes them have a good time and that shows up in the pictures. I love it when the smiles go right to the eyes; if the eyes are smiling then the rest of the shot is easy.

In the 1990's I was working in downtown Seattle when Seattle was the center of a music boom...Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, to name a few. Many of my co-workers were musicians at their day job, which I understood: I was a photographer at my day job. My friends would invite me to their gigs and I would have backstage access to a lot of up & coming bands. The bars gave us free beer and I was invited to the backroom pre-gig smoke outs; when we did weekend shows I brought a big tent and a bunch of food. It was a lot of fun and I got to see a lot of shows; I never once charged any musician for any pictures. They were in it for the music and I was in it for the pictures; none of us were making any money but we got drunk and broke together and it all worked out. I did a few album covers but the bands never went anywhere.

These days I shoot a lot of wildlife, deer, coyote, hawks, eagles, sea lions, stuff like that. Where I live I can go from the seashore to the top of a mountain in 50 kilometers, so I get a lot of variety. I live by the rule that the best hunter is the most successful if they keep hitting the area within a circle about 20 km across. Going to the same places over and over in all seasons and weathers teaches me what lives there, when it is there, a where to look. I have a friend that regularly drives 1,000 km on his ''photo safari's'' but what he is really doing is wandering aimlessly hoping that a shot shows up before him. He isn't targeting his work, so he only gets what he happens upon. There are days that works out very well, but consistently over time I've done better working specific places for certain kinds of shots that experience tells me will be there when I get there. Also, my family has lived here for a long time, and I like the local history; so much so that I want to be part of it. So I shoot a lot of pictures around my home town, some historical and some showing changes. One day those pictures will be history, too.

I am a camera collector like you, so I suppose to understand you well. The more I own, however, the more I realize that from a certain point of view the cameras are all alike, and that they are all the same tool. To live in peace only one would be enough, used well, yet every now and then I buy another one anyway.

Why do you decide to buy a new camera? What drives you to do it? Do you do it considering it an economic investment, or to complete a collection, or simply for the pleasure of being able to touch a certain model and discover the small differences?

What prompts me to buy another camera? Sometimes I see a poor, abused camera sitting in a charity shop that simply cries out to be rescued. Other times I see one camera I want but buy others at the same time to drive the per-camera cost down. I can usually get a better deal if I buy several at once. Knowing a particular camera is critical, too. Many have common problems and after a while you know the signs of common issues. If I recognize the problem as an expensive fix I avoid it; on the other hand I think that it is easy to fix I'll buy it at a knock-down price because as far as the seller is concerned the camera is broken. For example, sometimes "Meter inaccurate" means that someone set it to EV -2 and it never got reset. Get to know what things are supposed to look like. This is also handy for spotting minor differences in production. Collectors like to find low serial numbers and will pay more for them. Wise users shop for late serial numbers because the odds are that it will come with all of the updates and have less wear than an older edition. For example, I have an early F3; it's a great camera but the later versions are improved and don't have 40 years of motor drive wear. So, I have shopped F3's lately; I almost bought one last week that came with a dental lens. To me it was interesting and that is the key to my collection: I buy what I find interesting. I enjoy seeing the progress of cameras from one era to another. 50 years ago nobody thought of camera ergonomics; as you cross the generations of cameras you can see and feel the shapes change until you have the very comfortable cameras we have today. I like the modern Leica's but the feel like I'm holding a box, while my D850 fits my hand like it was made for it ... which it was.

In the 1930's they built ''Art-Deco" cameras which are quite beautiful; that stopped with the uber-modern 50's look. In 1980 Nikon added the red stripe to the F3 and restarted the concept of a camera itself being beautiful. I like good-looking cameras. Cameras evolved and if we stick to a single brand we can see that evolution over decades.

As I mentioned, I started out with a SRT 202 and a XE-7 45 years ago. When I retired decided to buy the entire XE line (XE, XE-1, XEb, XE-7) and at the whole SRT line... which turned out to be a mistake I have about 20 different versions of the same camera and still don't have them all. Remove the internally coupled meter and you have the SR line; I only have about eight of those before I prudently quit. Just to collect versions of TWO cameras I wound up with about 50 bodies and could have continued. As it stands now I have Minolta SR, SRT, XE, XK, XD, X-700-series, XG-series, a few Maxxums, a half-dozen rangefinders, an early folding Minolta and a 16mm ''spy'' camera. That is over 100 cameras of the same brand.

Then there are the Leica half-brothers. Things can get out of hand pretty quickly.

So, that half of my collection is structured. The other half is pretty much what showed up and what I didn't sell or trade away. That half is unstructured and in many cases more interesting. However, it contains a lot of cameras that will never be used again because nobody makes that format of film anymore.

What emotion does the photographic tool give you? Do you also collect other objects?

What drives me? I love making great pictures, and if I don't make any money at it, there are a lot of people who like my work and that brings me personal satisfaction. I am constantly striving for perfection, taking my gear and myself to the outer limits of our capabilities. Many of my cameras do have a wonderful feel to them, they are a joy to use. Some cameras clunk and others click; some feel better with controls in natural-feeling spots and others just simply do not. That Nikkormat I wanted so badly 45 years ago turned out to have the shutter speed ring, which I don't care for, and the ''twist & shout'' non-ai lens. The camera does not feel natural to me, while the later F3 feels much better, although it still feels like I'm driving a truck. My Leicas have a soft, smooth ''click'' that is almost sexual.

Do I collect other objects? Before I retired I had four Chevy 4x4 trucks, two sports cars, four tractors, a quad and a boat for just the wife and I. I sold off most of that, which helped me afford more cameras. I'm getting too old to change engines and all that shop work; I can mess with my cameras in my chair by the fire. However, my brother calls my house "The Museum" because I do have a lot of antiques, mostly household and workshop items. One significant item is a pair of binoculars made by a Vienna craftsman sometime between 1865 - 1890. There are records of him existing, but as far as anyone knows this is the only example of his work left in the world today. I'll donate it to the Vienna Museum when I leave Earth.


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