Smith discovered photography as a teenager living in Lonoke. A photographer invited Smith to his dark room, and that was it. “I was hooked,” Smith recalls. Just a week after graduating from high school, Smith took a job at a Little Rock studio. From there, his career expanded and evolved.
A writer from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette gave Smith the opportunity to work with Rockefeller, with whom he became close friends. “I accompanied Governor Rockefeller to Washington for President Nixon’s inauguration,” he remembers, “where I had the chance to photograph the Rockefeller brothers together.” The Dem-Gazette, and then the Austin American-Statesman, also fed Smith’s intense passion for sports, particularly of the Razorback variety. He was on the sidelines at the 1964 National Championship football game, taking pictures of course.
With his intense interest and expertise in the field, it was only a matter of time before Smith would begin collecting antique and vintage cameras, which he’s bought and traded since his retirement in 2001. Having amassed his collection from flea markets and the Mid-America Camera Show in St. Louis from year to year, he now has a booth at Crystal Hill Antique Mall in North Little Rock.
Smith began his career with a 35mm, eventually progressing to larger formats such as the Hasselblad. Similarly, his 300 or 400 cameras represent the wide range of technologies developed over the years, from photographic plates to film. Many date to the early- to mid-1900s, and some to the 1800s.
His collection also boasts styles that he believes have the most interest or visual appeal, catering to visitors who want to display cameras in their homes. There are a variety of Kodaks, commonly geared for amateur photography. “Every family had a Kodak,” Smith notes.
The colorful Kodak Petite and Beau Brownie varieties, made from 1928-1933, appealed to the style-conscious women of that era. The Petite came in five colors with deco metal and enamel faceplates, while the Beau Brownie box camera, designed by Walter Dorwin Teague, has striking geometric patterns. Another prime example from Kodak is the Brownie Hawkeye, a Bakelite camera made from 1949-1961.
One of Smith’s favorite styles is the stereo camera, which has two or more lenses that simulate binocular vision to create three-dimensional images. He also has twin-lens reflex cameras, Pentax, Goerz-Anschütz folding cameras, and even one that shoots darts. But one thing’s for sure: there’s not a single digital camera in the whole bunch. “I’m old-fashioned,” he says.
With front row access to historic sporting events and political figures, Smith was able to document fleeting moments that would have otherwise been forgotten or lost. But even more than the photos, it was the process he loved, the film and the dark rooms. “I’ve probably spent half my life in a dark room,” he says. “There’s just something about it.”
Antique cameras Hubert L. Smith Sr., (501) 680-9134; Crystal Hill Antique Mall, North Little Rock, (501) 753-3777