The camera collector

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Virgil's wife, Esther Whiteley, follows her husband around their basement-housed 'camera museum" as Virgil points out various parts of the massive collection.

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A 1905 Expo watch camera, which was shown during the 1906 World Exposition in St. Louis, rests in the palm of Virgil's hand.

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Camera collector Virgil Whiteley holds a pint-sized, Mighty camera, made around 1947 in occupied Japan. The working 14x14mm roll film camera is a small part of a giant collection.

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Virgil Whiteley.

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Camera collector Virgil Whiteley peers into a display case at a small portion of the 2100 camera he has in his basement 'camera museum."

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Shelves upon shelves of cameras fill the Whiteley collection.

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A pre-WW II Japanese gun camera, used for training fighter pilots, comes with a photo from an actual training run.

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Virgil Whiteley nearly bounds down the stairs to the lower level of his home off Plaza Way.

The Walla Walla man, who concedes to being in his mid-80s, cannot hold back his enthusiasm as he escorts visitors to a family room the size of studio apartment.

Esther Whitely follows, a sprightly assistant in white hair, her delighted grin infectious.

After decades of experience, the couple can predict the reaction they are about to witness.

And there it is, wall after wall, shelf after shelf and case after case, of cameras and related paraphernalia. Displayed in dustless, well-lit condition and coordinated fashion are 2,100 cameras, representing 40 years of happy obsession.

Each camera, even the "Fisher-Price Pocket Camera" with its foil-decal flashcube designed for the preschool photographer, bears a small white sticker testifying to its order in this particular universe.

Here's a model of the Polaroid Land Camera which appeared on the market in 1948, a miraculous combination of chemicals and rollers that produced the world's first instant photos.

On that shelf is a collection of Brownie's Girl Scout cameras, a Minolta Pocket Pak, a Campco Miraflex.

A Blair Detective Camera from 1887. The Roy Rogers and Trigger 620 Snapshot, right next to the Hopalong Cassidy version.

There is a garden of the Kodak Petites, a "vest pocket" camera with folding bellows, manufactured from 1929 to 1933. It was designed as a fashion statement in colors of blue, gray, green, lavender and old rose, explained Virgil, better known as Virg.

"It was marketed for women. They knew women like colors."

Special versions, such as the Beau Brownie, were made with art deco-inspired metal-and-enamel face plates. Those are here, as well, in designs of blue and mint, cocoa and caramel.

The Whiteleys' collection flows into another, smaller room that is set up like the neighborhood camera shop of the 1960s, complete with glass display cases. The Bell and Howell 35J, the Mercury satellite, a Sears Pixie II 127 are frozen in time on these shelves, as if fresh from the manufacturer and ready to be rang up and carefully nestled in a paper sack.

It all began in 1970, the couple explained. Virg, a 1949 graduate from Washington State University, was in the middle of his life-long career as an economist and financial advisor at the Department of Water Resources for the state of California. His older brother decided to start a photography business.

The Spokane-based sibling wanted Virg to attend a once-yearly, giant of a sale of repaired-but-never-reclaimed cameras in Sacramento, Esther recalled. Then came the convergence of two forces: having "back fence" neighbors who collected souvenir ashtrays as a hobby and an abundance of cameras in one place.

The collecting bug bit, and bit hard. That first year, the Whiteleys bought 400 cameras, mostly at flea markets and county fairs.

"I had just started collecting, and you get everything because you don't have anything," Virg explained. "It's all new."

Some came with loaded with film already used for pictures. From tiny, elfin rolls for Japanese miniature cameras to the chunky rolls of the 120 film for the twin-lens reflex camera. He never developed any of it, he added.

The couple traveled around the nation on quests for more. They joined camera clubs and met other shutter fans. That just fed the fever, Esther said with a laugh. "Every year I'd send out the annual Christmas letter and one year I'd say, ‘Virg has 800 cameras, and the next year I'd say ‘Virg has X number of cameras.'"

Her husband catalogued each purchase, recording where he bought them and what he paid," she added.

"Most the time, it was a buck or two," Virg chimed in. "Sometimes $5."

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