Q&A: Snapshots of History at the Arizona Camera Museum in Flagstaff

Some of the cameras and camera accessories on display at the Arizona Camera Museum in Flagstaff. See more photos at the bottom of this story. | Courtesy of Tom Holtje

In a world of all things digital, we seldom think about how the tools we use every day came to be. Photography, for example, is as easy as pulling your phone out of your pocket and pressing a button — or setting your digital camera to automatic. In the days of film and manual settings, things were much different. In November, Tom Holtje, an avid camera collector, opened the Arizona Camera Museum to not only showcase his extensive collection, but also explore the history of cameras and photography. We caught up with him to learn more about it. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Tom Holtje. I’m the curator, founder, operator and sole employee of the Arizona Camera Museum in Flagstaff. I grew up on the East Coast, and I’ve lived in Flagstaff for about six years. I can’t remember a time I didn’t have a camera growing up. My father was the family photographer, and he took a lot of pictures and slide photos. My mom worked at Fotomat for over 10 years, so that was another entryway for me into photography. I got my first camera in high school; I started taking pictures for all sorts of things, like the newspaper and the yearbook.

Have you always collected cameras? How did your collection start?
I started working in photo retail in camera shops. I worked at one in New Jersey, and that’s where I started learning about all different types of cameras. I worked in several different camera shops from 1982 until 2000, and during that time, I started collecting some pieces. It’s only been in the last 10 years or so that I seriously started collecting cameras. I used to have a lot of collections — baseball caps, buttons, Beatles memorabilia — but eventually I realized that photography and cameras were where my passion really was.

Once I had more than 60 cameras and camera-related objects, I decided to really put effort into displaying it. I’m an art teacher, so education of people, of cameras and the history of photography is something I’ve pursued.

Tell us a little bit more about the collection in the museum. What are some of your favorite pieces?
I currently have about 100 pieces on display; that’s just a portion of my collection. In the spring, I plan to rotate some of the things on display now. I collect anything photographic: I have cameras, photographs, camera toys and advertising. I accept donations, and that’s sort of growing my collection as well. The one camera that I sort of feature is the StarKist Charlie the Tuna camera from 1971. I also have a camera that’s on loan from a local photographer, Shane Knight; it’s a big 8x10 camera, and it sort of dominates a corner of the museum. He acquired it from the original owner, who had taken four presidents' pictures with the camera. I also have a lot of box cameras.

I like to have the museum be a very interactive experience, so I have some View-Master viewers on display for children and adults, I have a video of some old Kodak TV commercials, and I have some tintype photographs that have a magnet next to them, so the picture can stick to it.

What are some of the fan favorites in the collection?
I have some cameras from the early ‘30s by Kodak called the Beau Brownie; they were updated, and the front of them have this Art Deco, Mondrian-esque design with different colors. I also have these soda can cameras from the late 1990s; they look like soda cans and take 5 mm film. I have a lot of Polaroid cameras; they had a lot of popular, iconic cameras that people really seem to enjoy.

What do you hope people learn or take away when they visit the museum?
Because our current culture is all cellphones, I want people to realize there’s this whole industry that was focused around one thing, and that was taking pictures of a specific event. If you didn’t have a camera, you weren’t able to record it. And also, the diversity of all the cameras out there. Most of my collection is film cameras. I want people to get a really good knowledge of the history of cameras and how important photography is to our culture.

Are there any upcoming events at the museum?
I just started the Cameras and Coffee Social Club, which meets on the fourth Saturday of every month. We’ll meet and just talk about photography-related things. I also offer several classes that cover everything from how to take better pictures and the history of photography, to how a camera works and George Eastman’s contributions to the art of photography.

What do you hope to change or add as the museum grows?
Everybody seems to have a story about a camera, or they know someone who has a collection. One of the things I’d like to do as a museum is incorporate the interest in the community into the collection. I recently had a local artist, Rebekah Nordstrom, do some paintings of antique cameras, and I display them in the museum. I want to start doing showcases for local community members, so they can display their own camera collections. It would be awesome to have a mini-collection inside of my own collection.

I’m also hoping that the museum will become ultra-popular so that I can move into a bigger space. My dream is to be able to do this full time.

The Arizona Camera Museum, located inside the Market of Dreams (2532 E. Seventh Avenue) in Flagstaff, is open Tuesdays and Fridays from 3 to 6 p.m., Saturdays from noon to 3 p.m. and other times by appointment. The suggested donation for visitors is $5 for adults and $3 for children. To learn more, visit the museum's Facebook page or contact Tom Holtje at 267-506-9810 or [email protected]

— Emily Balli

All photos courtesy of Tom Holtje.

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