There’s nothing like a solid Bakelite brick of vintage photographic simplicity, and the Kodak Six-20 Bulls-Eye fits that description on every level.
I’m not kidding about solid, either. More than one of my bakelite beauties has cracks or chips, but you could use the Six-20 Bulls-Eye to frame a wall. Probably.
Actually, mine does have a hairline crack in one side, but the crack doesn’t appear to actually affect anything. I think the jagged edges stay mated closely-enough together and the bakelite is so thick that light just can’t get past, or maybe is just so discouraged by the arduous journey that it doesn’t have the energy to fog the film.
Nevertheless, I firmly believe that the Six-20 Bulls-Eye would be just as effective at clobbering a potential camera thief as a Nikon F2.
All about it
The Kodak Six-20 Bulls-Eye, made from 1938 to 1941, is a pretty standard Kodak Brownie in most ways. Except it’s not a Brownie (which is why “Brownie” is in parentheses in the title of this article).
Despite being listed as a Brownie on Chuck’s Brownie Camera Page, it is not listed as a Brownie in the 1941 Kodak catalog (“Kodaks and Brownies,” Page 29), where it appears after the Kodaks and Bantams, but before the Brownies section. It doesn’t say Brownie on it anywhere, which nearly all Brownies do.
So, like a Brownie, the Six-20 Bulls-Eye has a simple rotary shutter in the 1/35-1/50 sec. range. I think it’s closer to 1/50 as I managed some underexposed frames shooting Tri-X 400 around sunset, and plenty of motion blur on people walking … and elephants lumbering. The shutter has instant and bulb modes, selected by a small switch above the lens on the front of the camera. The shutter release is below the lens, and both levers have delightfully Art Deco design personality.
The lens is a simple meniscus — a single element, normally convex on the front and slightly concave on the inside — in a nicely-styled ring. Owing to the curved back, the Six-20 Bulls-Eye’s 6×9 frames are generally sharper toward the edges than many box cameras manage with such simple lenses.
The aperture, I believe, is about f/11. On many Kodaks there are marks that can help you figure out the aperture and shutter speed, but I don’t see any on the Six-20 Bulls-Eye.
The Six-20 Bulls-Eye takes 620 film and makes 6×9 negatives. On the bottom of the camera is a small switch that unlocks the top, which then lifts out of the bottom for film loading. The halves slide apart more smoothly than any other Bakelite box camera I have, and they mate up very neatly and snugly.
The film advance knob, on top of the camera, is tall enough to operate with fat fingers and has light knurling that’s enough to get a decent grip but won’t tear up your fingers. When you advance the film, the knob softly clicks as it ratchets forward.
Next to the advance knob you’ll find a simple viewfinder right down the center which is good for approximating your composition, but don’t expect precision. It errs on the side of caution, though, so if you’re framing a shot really tightly, you’ll still get plenty of breathing room around your subject in reality.
On the right side is a braided leather handle, through the middle is some nice molded fluting, and on the left side is a very handy bump. Why so handy? Because it allows you to stand the asymmetrical camera on its edge and take a level picture in the portrait orientation.
The Six-20 Bulls-Eye experience
I found my Six-20 Bulls-Eye at a thrift store in Denver, in a plastic bag with another camera (I can’t remember which one, now, but it may have been a Kodak Duaflex II) for a few dollars. As soon as I saw the retro styling and felt the weight of the Bakelite I knew I had to have it.
The handle has disintegrated or fallen off, probably long ago, on my Six-20 Bulls-Eye, and the finish on the Bakelite shows a little wear around the film advance knob, but it’s otherwise in fantastic shape. Oh, and it has the hairline crack I described above. Functionally it’s practically brand new.
I hauled the Six-20 Bulls-Eye around on a couple occasions for testing and, aside from some underexposed frames that caught me off-guard, I was really happy with the results. Looking toward the edges of the frames you can see they get just a little bit soft, but I’d be willing to bet a little of that can be attributed to chromatic aberration like I found on the Voigtlander Bessa I.
The Six-20 Bulls-Eye is comfortable to hold, easy to shoot and has an impressively high curiosity coefficient. Overall it’s one of my very favorite box cameras.