Anoka County sheriff's commander has picture-perfect hobby

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 13, 2012 - 11:25 PM

Cmdr. Paul Sommer has 89 old cameras. Most no longer work, but for Sommer, they provide a picture-perfect hobby.

Anoka County Sheriff’s Commander Paul Sommer with a Yashica medium format camera from the 1960s.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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For Anoka County Sheriff's Commander Paul Sommer, every camera tells a story.

That Kodak Signet 35 that sits atop the bookshelf opposite Sommer's desk at his sheriff's office in Andover? Got that one for $2, probably at a garage sale. Not a bad deal for Kodak's top American-made 35mm camera of the 1950s.

The Argus C3 on the bookshelf? That was manufactured by Argus, in Ann Arbor, Mich., sometime between 1939 and 1957. It was a gift.

Now, the Argus C4 that Sommer displays, he paid $40 for that at an antique store, but it was still quite a find since the C4 was one of Argus' biggest sellers in the 1950s, and so easy to load.

Not that it matters. Most of the antique cameras Sommer collects haven't worked for decades, and he has no intention of having them fixed. Many have no obvious value. They aren't going to put his son through his freshman year at the University of Minnesota next fall, nor will they pay for the education of his 14-year-old twin daughter and son.

They also have no connection to his work, though they offer a glimpse of the man behind the badge.

"I just like them," said Sommer, who has 89 antique cameras at his home, in Ramsey. "I like how different each one looks. And I like finding them when I least expect them."

Sommer can tell you where he discovered each camera, what he paid for every one, and the camera's history. But he's not obsessed with his collection.

He doesn't scour the classified ads, eBay or catalogs for Kodak Instamatics, Polaroids or century-old Bell & Howell projectors.

And even when he sees something he covets while browsing through an antique store, he sets a $60 spending limit.

"It's rare I'll pay as much as $30," he said. "I'm not sure I've ever paid more than $40 for an antique camera. It's not that big a deal to have any particular camera. Sooner or later, I'll find another."

Sommer, who uses digital cameras when he takes pictures, says he's not a great amateur photographer. But his wife, Anoka County prosecutor Nancy Norman Sommer, presents a compelling case that her husband takes great pictures. Some are "captivating," she said. She's enlarged several of them.

"Anything he takes on, he does 100 percent," said Nancy Sommer, who now tries civil cases but was the prosecutor in the last murder case her husband investigated, before they were married.

Paul Sommer represents the sheriff's office when dealing with the media. James Stuart is Anoka County's sheriff, but when it comes to sound bites, Sommer is the face of the department.

He previously worked as a member of the Anoka-Hennepin Drug Task Force -- although to see him these days, you'd never know it. He's cleaned up nicely, his wife said.

He also spent years with the Anoka County sheriff's office investigating sex crimes. Before that, Sommer served as a police officer in Lindstrom and as a deputy with the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office. The latter job was short-lived. A Fridley native, Sommer jumped at the opportunity to work in his home of Anoka County when a position came up.

He said he was following somewhat in the footsteps of his older brother and sister, both of whom had jobs in law enforcement. He also decided while at the University of Minnesota that some of the math courses that intrigued him in high school might not be as interesting a criminal investigation.

Hobby started with his dad

Explaining his camera collection doesn't come as easily.

As a child, Sommer was given a camera that his father got while overseas during World War II, possibly in the Philippines. Something intrigued him far beyond the photographs the camera produced.

"I liked the way it looked," he said.

He has a camera that looks like an accordion and another aptly nicknamed "the brick." Some look as if they should have been deemed obsolete the day they were created. Others are conversation pieces.

Sommer can show you Kodak cameras that were given away to families near the company headquarters in Rochester, N.Y., as a way to promote the company's latest in innovative, affordable cameras. He can tell you about the Polaroid 800 series of Land cameras (named after Polaroid founder Edwin Land) -- and that the Polaroid in his office was a gift.

He can tell you how much many of his antique cameras weigh -- but apparently not all of them. His wife said she was startled once by a crash in her home: The shelves Sommer had built to house part of his camera collection had succumbed to the weight, she said.

Now, most of the cameras he keeps at home are relegated to his home office. A few are on display. Nancy has an old camera given to her by her mother. That camera, and cameras that hold sentimental value to her husband, sometimes find their way to the mantel.

Camera collecting isn't Sommer's only hobby. When the snow is gone, Sommer often bikes to the grocery store and sometimes to work -- from Ramsey to Andover, his wife said. But these days, he's bothered by a painful Achilles tendon that makes walking a chore.

The camera hobby is one he can rely on.

"Some of Paul's cameras are really cool," his wife said. "I just hate the dusting."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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