Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Kodak Brownie Hawkeye Flash

I was given one of these cameras by my family when I was about twelve. It came in a Kodak yellow, black and red box along with a flash gun, a soft plastic shield for the reflector, and about a half-dozen big flashbulbs. I don't specifically recall any photos that I made with the camera; I'm sure they were quite forgettable as I was definitely not a photo prodigy. A half century later I've developed a few more skills as a photographer, and I've come to realize finally at this late date that the Hawkeye Flash was possibly the finest camera of its type ever produced.

The camera shared nearly all of its basic features with every other simple box camera from the preceding fifty years, but the design, construction, materials and functions represented the ultimate evolution of the box camera idea. The brilliant waist-level finder was one of the brightest put in a simple camera, the bakelite case was nearly indestructible, and the smooth, rounded form along with the gracefully fluted sides made the camera a pleasure to hold. The most superlative feature, though, was the extraordinary lens, a simple meniscus design similar to a common magnifying glass. Somehow – in a way I certainly don't understand – the single lens which is located behind the camera's one-speed shutter is able to produce images of astounding sharpness.

El Paso

Dead Man's Curve
Kodak offered an unusually ample selection of accessories for the Hawkeye Flash. In addition to the plug-in flash gun, there were "Portra" close-up lenses and filters that could be pushed on over the black lens ring on the camera's front. The filters provided some control over tonal values that helped to darken skies and bring out cloud forms, or they could lighten foliage or enhance the complexion of people in the photos. The filters were also useful for giving a degree of control over exposure in a camera with no adjustment for aperture or shutter speed.
    The commonest close-up lens, the No. 13, allowed the photographer to get to within about 3.5 feet of the subject - ideal for portraits and other close studies. It has also been suggested that adding the close-up lens provided some correction of aberrations of the simple meniscus design of the main lens.


The camera, while advanced in many ways, was not perfect. While it had a time release function activated by the slide opposite the shutter, there was no cable release to help avoid camera movement during a long exposure. There was also no tripod mounting receptacle. Probably the biggest weakness in the camera, however, was a rather stiff shutter which tended to jar the camera when released, causing a blurred image if extraordinary care was not exercised in bracing the camera against the body or some handy object. Of course, it is not terribly difficult to rig up some kind of jury-rig tripod mount.   A few people with good DIY skills have added cable release and tripod sockets to their Hawkeye Flash cameras.  If you are not the handy type, Randy Smith of Holgamods can add the cable release and tripod socket to your Hawkeye Flash, as well as providing a number of other functional and cosmetic enhancements to the camera.

Chase Bank Building, Phoenix
Another irritant for Hawkeye Flash users is the fact that the camera was designed to use now-obsolete 620 film. Some of the Kodak post-war medium format cameras simply cannot be adapted to using the still-available 120 film rolls without extraordinary modifications, or re-rolling of the film onto 620 reels. Fortunately, that is not the case with the Hawkeye Flash; most you will find in junk shops and on ebay will contain a 620 spool which can be placed in the take-up position. Usually, you can just insert a roll of 120 film in the supply side, thread it into the 620 spool on the take-up, and you are ready to shoot. Occasionally, some cameras will be a bit tight for a 120 roll on the supply side, but this is easily remedied with some sharp nail scissors or clippers to trim down the spool ends flush with the backing paper.

Forrester Ave., Albuquerque
The Hawkeye Flash is such a sturdy camera that you may be able to use if straight-away, but most are going to require a little cleaning to restore complete functionality. The only tool required is a phillips-head screwdriver. There is a possibility that the bakelite screw holes will be stripped of their threads in the process, but a little glue on the screws will fix that when it is time to reassemble the camera.
    It is not usually necessary to remove the screws on either side of the top viewing screen; they are hard to take out and will probably be hard to put back. Just take out the screws above and below the lens ring on the front. Then, carefully lift the silver panel and remove the glass lens protector, the plastic retainer mount, and the front viewfinder lens for cleaning. You can reach in to clean the underside of the top viewfinder lens with a cotton swab.
    The camera's lens and the shutter are accessed from inside the camera back. Remove the two phillips-head screws, take out the film holding frame and remove the lens and spring washer for cleaning. It might be a good idea to swab a little lighter fluid on the shutter mechanism at the same time. Be sure to replace the lens and washer in the proper order and orientation, and take care to properly seat the film holding frame. That's about it. Your camera is good for another fifty years, and maybe a couple more owners.

Some Hawkeye Flash Links:


astrobeck said...

These are very nice photos. The quality is as good as you can get and you have quite the eye for suitable subjects. I've thought this was an underrated little box, but it seems like it does have a fan base of users.
Hope to see more of your photos made with this jewel of a camera.

Mike said...

This is a slightly cleaned-up version of material from my web site which I took off line some time ago. I was browsing through the Hawkeye Flash group at Flickr and found there was still a link there in the "Overview" section to the now gone site. I asked the group moderator to remove the link as clicking on a dead link can end up redirecting people to malicious content.
The Hawkeye Flash really is capable of making fine images, and I definitely need to run some film through mine again. I am glad to see that people are developing some interest in many of the old film cameras again. I'm not sure how that is going to play out exactly, though. Web sites, blogs and Flickr group discussions seem to be attracting few users, and social media does not really seem to provide a nourishing environment.