I have rediscovered a camera, thanks to the open-handedness of Kenneth Grange. A small, ultra-simple snapshot camera he designed in 1964, still in its original box (very fresh packaging graphics courtesy of Grange – something he turned his hand to in those pre-Pentagram days). It is called the Vecta. The Kodak Brownie Vecta, to be precise. Kodak and Brownie are brand names we are all familiar with, but Vecta? There’s a tale. The Vecta is the forgotten mass-market camera. Grange and Kodak got it all rather wrong.
I went for it, though. Aged nine, the Vecta was the first camera I bought, or rather, asked my parents to buy for me. I chose it for its looks. There it was in the window of Boots the Chemists, the exciting shape of the future, the seeming embodiment of Harold Wilson’s white heat of technology. My older brothers had Grange’s far more conventional Brownie 44A of 1960. As Larkin famously observed, society loosened up not inconsiderably around 1963, and it seems there was an equivalent loosening in Grange’s imagination. Not that I knew who the hell Grange was in those days. This was a Please Please Me, Love Me Do camera. It pleased me, I loved it. Taking pictures was secondary to the tactile thrill of holding it.
The Vecta came in pale dove-grey and silver, in an upright format, with grips scooped out of its moulded mass so that you could clutch it comfortably in one hand while you pressed a simple bar at the front with the other to take the picture. It was fixed-focus, fixed speed: one-thirtieth of a second. There was nothing whatever to adjust beyond winding on the film. A basic interlock prevented you from taking double exposures. This was a beautifully designed utility object, an early object lesson in ergonomics. There was a drawback though: it could take only eight rectangular pictures per roll of 127 film. Although 35mm film cassettes had existed since the Thirties for grown-up cameras, Kodak still employed the Edwardian technology of roll film for its Brownie snapshooters. The 44A took 12 square snaps on the same film. In reducing it to eight by changing the format, Grange was pushing his luck.
He had fatally indulged in a bit of market research. By going to photo developing labs, he had found that the majority of snaps taken were upright portraits of people, singly or in couples. Those taking rectangular pictures spent most of their time twisting their cameras sideways to get the portrait format. Armed with these findings, Grange re-invented the cheap camera so that its whole demeanour was upright. This was the Vecta. And he was wrong. The camera did not so much fly as slouch out of the shops.
So Grange went back to the drawing board, while Kodak invented the snap-in film cartridge. It was as if the 78rpm gramophone record had been replaced by the audio cassette overnight, without the intervening period of the LP. The result was the 1966 Instamatic, the best-selling camera ever. Also quite a little looker, but significantly, designed to be held horizontally. The conservative tastes of the camera-buying public could not be overturned as soon as the Vecta had anticipated. It would take another 20 years for radical-looking cameras to win acceptance.
A while back I went to see James Dyson in his factory in Malmesbury and he waxed eloquent about the uselessness of market research. It can make you believe anything, he said. Don’t trust it. Back a hunch instead. And, of course, he was right. Ask a crowd of randomly selected people what they want from a vacuum cleaner, and they can only think in terms of what already exists. When Citren trusted to hunches, it produced the most exciting cars in the world. When Ford pinned all its faith on market research and styling clinics it produced the most boring cars in the world. Strange to find their roles now reversed, but that’s another story.
My original Vecta went off to the jumble sale long ago. But I missed it, and so Grange has lent me one of the very few to be found. It’s a curious hybrid: half hunch, half market-researched product, wholly let down by its low-tech innards, and in styling terms well ahead of its time.
I’m glad the world contains such glorious mistakes. And it still looks bloody good.