The Kodak Medalist I and II were two cameras built by the Eastman Kodak Company between the years of 1941 to about 1952. First produced for the American military, very few Medalist I’s were sold commercially to the public. It wasn’t until after World War II when Kodak released the slightly revised Medalist II, did the camera become a (somewhat) common sight on store shelves.
The reason I say “somewhat” is because the camera was very expensive. Selling in 1947 for $312.50 with “ever ready” case, that price when adjusted for inflation is about $3500 today. Despite the Medalist’s long list of accolades, flexible feature set, and excellent lens, sales were likely limited only to professional photographers.
I wrote a full review of my Kodak Medalist I back in 2015 which contains more of the history of the camera and how to use it. If you’re interested in learning more about it, what my thoughts were, and see some sample pics, I recommend you check it out.
In the time since writing that article, the Medalist has cemented itself as one of my favorite cameras in my collection. I’ve taken it out on several occasions shooting everything from family photos, landscapes, even some interior photos. The camera is full of quirks and requires a lot of effort and concentration to use. It’s ergonomics aren’t very good, and it requires effort before loading film since you have to re-spool 120 film onto 620 spools since the camera can’t natively support 120 film.
It seems that not everyone today however, has the same high opinion of the Medalist as I have. My score of 14.6 remains one of the highest I’ve ever given to a camera, and there are many reviewers out there who praise it as highly as I have, yet there are those who have nearly the exact opposite opinion.
A quick survey of other collectors and you get comments like these:
While the Medalist produces excellent images, the cumbersome controls and rangefinder tainted the user experience for me.
It’s an overbuilt beast that seems capable yet complicated and a tad more challenging than your typical 120 cam of the era.
I dislike the ergonomics a lot. It’s a stupid shape, impossible to grip, the viewfinder’s silly small for such a chunky camera and the the shutter release is terrible.
I hate 620 film.
Reviewers complain about the camera’s size, weight and general ergonomics. They say they don’t like the split viewfinder/rangefinder, the camera is difficult to load, and the collapsible lens feels sloppy and imprecise.
Moving past the complaints, when it comes down to the 5-element Ektar lens and the images it makes, most complaints stop. The Medalist is a spectacular camera, and was designed at a time when the United States was still considered a viable maker of optical goods. Kodak’s advertising at the time utilized the camera’s role in World War II to suggest that this was the camera that helped defeat the Nazis. Although expensive, the Medalist was the darling of the post-war photographic press.
The article below comes from the January 1950 issue of Modern Photography and is a fascinating look at what people were saying about it when it was a current model. The complaints above from present-day collectors have the benefit of over half a century’s worth of other cameras to compare it to. But in 1950, there was nothing else like it and it’s with that “clean slate” mentality that this review should be approached with.
Reviewer Robert Farr touches upon some of the similar sore spots mentioned by modern collectors such as the camera’s heavy size and it’s somewhat awkward controls. On the 9th page, he describes a very unusual recommendation for how to stabilize the camera while hand-holding it. I can say that this was likely more of an issue back then as film speeds were a lot slower than they are today. With modern films with speeds of 200 and higher, you can hand hold the camera using faster shutter speeds so that the need for these strange stabilization techniques aren’t needed.
The article has a few facts that I never knew, such as the proper name of the Medalist’s synthetic, yet supple, leather-like body covering. I got a quick chuckle at the claim that a roll of film can be loaded into the camera in as little as 15 seconds, when it typically takes me a full minute or more to do. I was also impressed with some of the tips given by photographer Muzz Miller for shooting sporting events and outdoor portraits.
Although the article reads more like an instructional manual and offers little in the way of editorializing, I have to believe that readers of the January 1950 issue had to have been mighty impressed with the Medalist’s extensive features, accessories, and praise heaped upon the build quality and the 5-element lens. Amateur photographers likely saw the Medalist in the realm of ‘unobtanium’ as I do today when I read reviews about Hasselblad’s medium format digital cameras or the latest 8K motion picture creation by RED.
Whether you are on Team Medalist or not, a few things everyone can agree on is that the Kodak Medalist was an achievement in the history of American made cameras. It offered a lot of features and technology for the time, had one of the best lenses ever made, and has a design unlike any other camera. Even if you hate the act of using a Kodak Medalist, I am sure any collector would be proud to display one on their shelf.
All scans used with permission by Marc Bergman, 2018.