When Polaroid released their model 95 Land Camera in 1948, it was the first instant camera and a portable wet darkroom in a back compartment of the camera printed photos in about a minute. These days, we have a slightly different definition of instant. Cell phones and digital cameras capture a child’s first steps, smiles frozen in time on the faces of loved ones and allow us to share them within seconds, a far cry from the first iteration. Here in Flagstaff, the Arizona Camera Museum flips the tables to show the other side of photographs through history.

Located inside the Market of Dreams in the Sunnyside neighborhood, donated display cases line the walls of the room where the museum found its home. Several Kodak No.2 Beau Brownie cameras with brown and blue geometric art deco by industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague fill part of a display case and demonstrate the style the designer popularized in the early 1900s. Both the model 95 and model 95a Land Camera are present alongside other cameras disguised as soda cans or a pocket watch.

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Photo by MacKenzie Chase

Museum founder Tom Holtje discovered his passion for photography early in life.

“When I was 13 my dad let me use his camera for the first time,” he recalls. “It was a Memorial Day weekend and the parade used to pass in front of our house and we would set all our chairs up and stuff. I remember climbing up a tree in our front lawn that overlooked the street and I took most of the pictures from there. Everybody commented how different they looked from above instead of eye level, and that was sort of the beginning of photography for me.”

This new perspective energized him with endless possibilities available at his fingertips—with just the push of a shutter he had the power to write memories from his unique point of view. Growing up, his father was constantly taking photos; they would have slide-viewing parties on the weekends with family members and friends at his childhood home in Dumont, N.J.

“We’d have popcorn and snacks and drinks,” he says. “It would be a time for fun and embarrassing pictures.”

Holtje bought his first camera, a Canon TX, when he was a sophomore in high school and has been taking pictures ever since, meticulously organizing the developed films in chronological order.

He continued the family photography tradition after leaving college, working in various camera shops from 1982 to 2000 and developing his passion for the art and everything that comes with it. From dodging and burning prints in the darkroom to the history of photography and just the sheer number of camera designs that have been released over the years, he’s made it a goal to learn all he can about cameras. It wasn’t until the past decade that he began collecting in earnest though. Yard sales and eBay auctions were gold mines from which he was able to salvage historic and quirky cameras.

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Imperial Savoy cameras were produced between 1956 and 1965. Photo by MacKenzie Chase

But what do you do when your collection outgrows what you actually have the time to use? For Holtje, the only logical step was to open the Arizona Camera Museum.

“It’s been a dream for a long time, pretty much since I started collecting,” he says. “I had an exhibit at the Philadelphia library in 2010 and I only had maybe 60 cameras on display, and I think there’s probably close to 100 [on display now] but I have a lot more.”

His absolute favorite piece though, and the one he uses to advertise the museum, is the Charlie Tuna novelty camera that came out in 1971 as a way for StarKist to promote their brand of tuna fish. It features a hollow plastic body in the shape of the brand’s cartoon mascot, a blue fish who wears black-rimmed glasses and a red hat. The camera takes 35mm film which is loaded where the back fin is and has a built-in viewfinder and flash.

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Film can be loaded in the Charlie Tuna Camera by removing the back. Photo by MacKenzie Chase

“His little arms are really cool handles, it just feels good to hold,” Holtje says.

He plans to rotate some of the cameras on display as time goes on to keep everything fresh for visitors and encourages other camera collectors to share their unique collections as well; an antique Century Master Studio Camera on loan from local landscape photographer Shane Knight currently fills one corner.

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Tom Holtje's favorite item in his collection is the Charlie Tuna Camera, made in 1971 as a collaboration between StarKist Tuna and Whitehouse Products. Photo by MacKenzie Chase

At the museum’s grand opening during the monthly Third Friday arts and crafts fair hosted by the Market on Nov. 17, Step Right Up photo booth offered props for free photos and there was a silent auction that included a Polaroid camera, handmade jewelry, a book on the history of photography and more as live music set the mood.

“The Market of Dreams has been really great accommodating me,” he says.

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Photo by MacKenzie Chase

When the Market of Dreams/Mercado de los Sueños opened two years ago in a remodeled dentist’s office, it was with a vision that it would provide incubation for small businesses. The Market’s retail area features unique works by local artists who are working towards follow their dreams of getting their business off the ground with handmade incense sticks, knitted clothing, candles, chapbooks and more filling the shelves. The Market also offers workshops for those interested in starting a business, making it the perfect place for Holtje to begin his venture.

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Photo by MacKenzie Chase

Moving forward, he plans to host photography classes on topics including “How to Take Better Pictures,” “History of Photography,” “How Does a Camera Work?” and “George Eastman’s Contributions to the Art.” 

Ask Holtje about one camera and he can talk for hours about the items in his collection and the memories attached to them, eager to share his enthusiasm for photography. Visitors are sure to leave with much more knowledge than they came in with.

The museum is located inside the Market of Dreams, 2532 E. 7th Ave. Hours of operation are Tuesdays and Fridays from 6-9 p.m. and Saturdays from noon-3 p.m. or by appointment. A $5 donation is suggested for adults and $3 for children. Call (267) 506-9810 or email arizonacameramuseum@gmail.com for more information. Find the Arizona Camera Museum on Facebook for updates about classes, as well as “Fun Fact Friday” and details on an upcoming holiday photo contest.

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Photo by MacKenzie Chase

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