Life through a lens in Chris’ Aladdin’s cave

Photographica's Chris Nicholls''Photo by Louise Adams C130172-5 Chi Photographica
Photographica's Chris Nicholls''Photo by Louise Adams C130172-5 Chi Photographica

THE focus is firmly on a small business in Arundel when it comes to more than a century of the history of cameras.

Tucked away on the first floor of the town’s Bridge Antiques centre is Arundel Photographica, a veritable Aladdin’s cave of time-honoured photographic equipment of all kinds.

Photographica's Chris Nicholls''Photo by Louise Adams C130172-2 Chi Photographica

Photographica's Chris Nicholls''Photo by Louise Adams C130172-2 Chi Photographica

In fact, that phrase is one which owner Chris Nicholls has heard countless times from people getting their first glimpse of his fascinating shop, packed from floor to ceiling with thousands of cameras, some basic but others which were state-of-the-art in their day.

You won’t find anything digital there, as Chris adheres solely to cameras which use good old-fashioned film, but over the years he has amassed an incredible array of traditional examples, dating from the late 1800s to modern-day.

This isn’t a museum, however – it’s a thriving business where Chris sells fully-working photographic gear. Also on offer is a fund of invaluable, friendly advice based on the knowledge he has built up over decades in the camera business.

As a result, Arundel Photographica is a magnet for camera buffs from far and wide. His customers come from all over the south of England and beyond, a large number travelling down to West Sussex from London and many even making the journey from across the Channel to visit such an unrivalled treasure trove of equipment to suit a wealth of photographic purposes.

Chris’ connection to cameras began many years ago. When he left school he worked for an optician but shortly afterwards joined the RAF, hoping to become a pilot. However, he failed the stringent course for pilot training and instead spent his time in the air force as a photographer.

After leaving the RAF, he worked as a civilian photographer but was then invited to return to the opticians to take over the photographic department there, where he worked for the next ten years until going on the road for a Japanese Cameras company, travelling the south of England as a rep and dealing mainly with Minolta cameras.

He then decided to open a camera shop in Salisbury which he ran for several years, eventually getting involved with a number of shops before the recession struck and he worked as a rep again, this time for the Rollei company’s subsidiary in Britain, becoming marketing manager for Rollei UK until that organisation went into liquidation.

The next move for Chris, who by then had moved to Northamptonshire, was to start transforming old wooden photographic plate holders into picture frames which his son sold to antique shops in the south of England.

SHOP IS 18 YEARS OLD

The frames proved extremely popular so Chris was enticed to travel down to sell them at a regular Sunday event and his camera business grew from there. He moved to West Sussex 18 years ago, set up Arundel Photographica and has never looked back.

While one might have expected the digital camera revolution of recent years to have had an adverse effect on his business, Chris says the opposite has been the case.

“The introduction of digital has given me a boost with my film cameras,” he explains. “On the one hand, it means a lot of people are buying new equipment so want to sell some of their existing cameras, so that gives me extra stock. And because many shops no longer sell film cameras, people who want them have to come to a business like mine which sells specialist equipment and everything to go with it.

“Also, a lot of the older lenses are superior to those of today, so some people like to buy old lenses for which they can get adaptors to use them on newer cameras.

“A lot of my customers are college photographic students as they are still recommended to start with film, so they can come here and get something like a Pentax, which is ideal for them, for between £40 to £80 – I always try to do a good deal for students.

“And while other businesses have suffered because of the internet, having a shop is a real advantage from my point of view.

“Most dealers who operate on the net have to search for stock themselves – mine comes to me because I am here in an antiques centre and people come to me with interesting items to sell. And people who buy specialist equipment know they can come here and see it and handle it before they buy. I also supply quite a few dealers who find I am a valuable source of stock for them.

“Buyers do prefer to pick something up and handle it and I tell everyone that if they buy something and don’t get on with it, they can bring it back and I will exchange it or put it right if there is a problem. But I check everything out before I sell it to make sure it’s in working order.”

Another surprising fact is that while many of the cameras Chris stocks date back for decades, about 95 per cent of his sales are to people who buy the equipment to use, with only about five per cent going to collectors.

The latter are principally the much older cameras from the early part of the 20th century or the late 19th century.

THOUSANDS OF CAMERAS

The shelves at Arundel Photographica are stacked with literally thousands of cameras, reflecting their development and the advances made over the years.

The earliest in stock at the moment include a stereoscopic camera from about 1890 which is waiting to be restored, and a magic lantern dating from about 1900 which Chris discovered on a trip to Denmark a few months ago.

Then there are the classic cameras of the 1920s and 1930s, magnificent mahogany and brass large format models, rows of the iconic Box Brownies which bring back many childhood memories, right through to the compact models many of us have used in recent years, as well as Polaroids, movie cameras and a range of impressive binoculars.

His encyclopaedic knowledge may have been built up over many years, but Chris still feels a buzz of excitement when something unusual comes through his door, and he finds the way cameras have evolved is an endless source of fascination.

“The engineering and construction of many older cameras is incredible,” he says. “And they’ve survived the test of time – some from as far back as the 1930s are in absolutely immaculate condition. And every camera has been designed for a purpose, whether it’s for architecture, sport, portrait work or just holiday snaps, there’s a camera for every kind of need.

“Digital may be very popular now, but film is far from dead and it is amazing how many young people are taking it up. When you take a picture on film, you have it processed and printed, so it will last for generations and in years to come it will be of interest again. At least 90 per cent of digital photos are never printed and that means you lose a lot of social history.”

For more information call Chris on 01903 885540 or visit www.arundel-photographica.co.uk