To Fold Like a Cheap Camera

“To Fold Like a Cheap Camera” means to back down from one’s position quickly under not so heavy pressure; to abandon one’s argument absolutely with little possibility returning to it in the future; to self-collapse one’s stand.

Folding Camera
From the 1920s through the 1960s, nearly every family had one.

Okay, everybody still understands the meaning of the idiom “to fold like a cheap camera,” and it is still widely heard, even though as time goes by fewer and fewer people have actually ever used or even folded a folding camera, cheap or otherwise.

These cameras represent pretty much an extinct technology, consigned mostly to collectors and antique shops, although a few modern versions exist for professional photographers. Fujifilm’s new F670 Folding Camera is a steal at $1,664 on Amazon; elsewhere, the folding Voigtlander Bessa III 667 clocks in at over $2,200.

So why does the expression “folding like a cheap camera” still have such a popular hold on our everyday expressive imagination? The answer lies in a quick visual, mechanical, and cultural unpacking of several factors.

First of all, almost any image, let alone operation, of a folding camera says it all.

Opening and closing a folding camera is a mechanically decisive act. Snap, and snap. There is no mistaking what happens, no “gray area.” Either the camera is open, or it is closed.

BumbleBee from the movie Transformers.
Open and close. BumbleBee from the movie “Transformers.”

Plus, there is something almost magical about actual objects that transform themselves through unfolding. Think about folding tables and chairs, folding bicycles and sofa beds, or the awesomely gigantic metal robot characters that fold down into ordinary automobiles in the Transformer movies.

And finally, there is the word “fold” itself, as familiarly understood in the game of poker.

To “fold” is to “discard one’s hand and forfeit interest in the current pot,” according to Wikipedia. So “folding” in this instance also connotes giving up, losing interest, and even hope, at least for one round.

What is interesting about this expression is that though “folding like a cheap camera” is meant to be a derogatory comment, there is paradoxically a nostalgic, affectionate aspect to the phrase that also might account for the idiom’s longevity.

Picnic snapshot made with a folding camera.
Two beauties, a long-ago sunny Saturday afternoon, a picnic lunch, all captured by a folding camera.

There is a sepia-toned glow to the idiom, redolent of shoe boxes full of old snapshots in the attic, their edges serrated, displaying a whole vanished America of dating couples – the women in boxy patterned dresses, the men in oversized shirts and hats and pants – or forgotten vacations and tourist sites, and picnics and parties, past Christmases, with nearly everyone happy, and some seriously carefree.

I still have my father’s 1940s folding camera – it’s a beauty, all silvery and gunmetal grey, encased in a handsome saddle leather case. It’s behind other stuff on a closet shelf. I haven’t taken it down in ages. I wonder if it still unfolds.

Polaroid SX70 Instant Camera
The January 1973 cover of Popular Science called the Polaroid SX-70 “… hard to believe” with the ability to take “10 color shots in 20 seconds!”

I should mention that the last types of popular folding cameras, well within living memory of many Americans, were Polaroid instant picture cameras, and I have been informed that this amazing photo technology is making a comeback with new, very affordable, non-folding models.

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