I think I was eight years old the year a relative gave me a Kodak Instamatic F, an old boxy looking camera made of then new age plastics.  Of course it came without instructions and there was no internet back then, so I probably sat there looking at it for a good 2-3 weeks before deciding I had it all figured out.  I didn’t.  I reached over and hit the catch to open the back and was greeted by a half used roll of film, now all ruined.  What a beginning!

 

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The next month I took a portion of my paper route money and bought a roll of film.  I knew I was doing something wrong but it wasn’t until I got home that I discovered film comes in different sizes.  This wasn’t going well at all.

The next day I’d ridden my brand spanking new Schwinn Stingray with the springer front end to the market and discovered opened film couldn’t be returned.  It wasn’t until the next month and another paper route payday that I found myself in the bedroom I shared with my younger brother, door closed, new film and old camera in front of me, and painstakingly loaded the film.  WOOHOO, one small step for man, and one giant step for Steve and his photography beginning.  It was the space race era but Armstrong hasn’t walked on the moon yet.  Do you think he stole my quote?

 

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Now I had a loaded camera.  Holding it in my hands I instinctively knew this was ultimately a more powerful instrument than even my prized Remington 582 .22 rifle.  The pictures I thought of taking, how happy they could make people feel, the embarrassment they could inflict, but mostly the truth they could show and I can’t help wondering if these were my first thoughts of photojournalism.  It’s easy to second guess your own eight year old mind, providing you can remember.  Have you ever taken the time to relax, close your eyes, and let your memories take you back to certain times of your life and critically examine different moments?  If not you should.  You might discover your memories while unchanged, hold many pieces of new information about yourself.

 

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Holding my loaded camera I look around for something to take a picture of.   My gosh, 46 years later and I’m still fighting with that issue!  Oh how I envy (and sometimes criticize) those who can just machinegun image after image without much apparent thought at all. It wasn’t until nearly 5 months later that I’d taken my first 12 photographs. Wait, let me correct that.  My first 12 exposures.  I couldn’t yet know if the picture of my 12 year old sister peeing on the toilet would come out or not.  In fact, mom taking away my camera for two months after that incident was one of my first lessons in journalistic responsibility.  The expectation of privacy.

I didn’t realize it at the time, and I’d never heard the word “terrorize” before, but here I was at eight years old, the family terrorist.  No one could take a shower, use the toilet, have their boyfriend visit at their bedroom window, fix a scratch on the car before dad came home, or stretch meatloaf, without looking around to see if this short rather portly child with a blond buzz cut, black rimmed glasses, and a camera was waiting to record the moment. The perception of power and experience of responsibility wasn’t lost on me, even at eight years old.

But now, after five months, the last frame has been used and I’d even taken shots at what would have been 13, 14, and 15 as the film let me wind the camera and work the shutter.  And it was with equal trepidation to loading the film that I unloaded the camera and was rewarded with a shiny Kodak film canister.

The next morning I was pumping down the street on my Stingray checking out the prices for film developing and print making at Fotomat, Thrifty Drug Store, Sav-on Drug store, and the local grocery store.  Even then I was thinking “wouldn’t it be great if we had some device to look this stuff up with at home?”   I chose Fotomat because I loved the idea of a “portable” store build like a garden shed that someone had to sit in all day.  I had my first experience filling out the envelope, choosing film size, number of prints, size of prints, and I remember being bothered because the “lick and seal” flap wouldn’t seal.  The man glared at me and stapled it closed before dropping it through the slot and telling me “my pictures” would be ready for pickup on Thursday after 4pm.  MY PICTURES?  The first time my works were referred to as “pictures” was by the Fotomat guy.

 

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The rest of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday came and went and it seemed like forever.  I was building u p an anticipation only equaled by Christmas morning!   Thursday came and I was there at the Fotomat before 2pm. The Fotomat guy reminded me they wouldn’t be there until 4pm.  I looked past him for a box, bag, anything that could hold my “pictures.”  Not seeing anything I retreated to the sidewalk, leaned my Stingray up against a tree, and sat down to wait.  I watched the Fotomat booth wondering where that film drop slot really went. Underground? Was there a really long conveyer built connecting all the Fotomats?  This was during the cold war era where we often had drills at school and practiced hiding under our desks to save ourselves from the blast effects of a nuclear bomb. Underground shelters in a home’s backyard were common, so was it really a stretch that there was some secret underground world with conveyer belts?

 

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I watched that Fotomat booth like a cat watching a mouse. No one came between then and 430pm but I thought I’d ask anyway. The man in the Fotomat booth smiled warmly and said “I was wondering where you were off to, I thought you’d see the truck and be here an hour ago?” Was he messing with me, or did I doze off? He handed me the pictures and I counted out a couple paper dollars and some coins and he thanked me and asked if I’d like to open them now, that I wouldn’t have to pay for prints that didn’t turn out. I thought about it. For a second, and then I put them in my knapsack, jumped on my bike, and rode home in time for dinner.

After dinner I was back in my room and I’d laid out the camera, the new roll of Fotomat film he gave me, and the unopened envelope of prints and negatives.  Actually at the time I didn’t know what negatives were (developed film strip) or that I’d be getting any with my prints. I knew nothing about the process, what ASA meant, or what to expect from different films. Heck, all I did was re  ad the box “good for daylight pictures” “good for flash pictures”, and while I read ASA100 and ASA400, I hadn’t yet connected the dots. I didn’t know what a shutter was, aperture, any of it. I was sitting there thinking about how little I knew and what I should expect from that package of pictures.

 

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With the anticipation driving me crazy I carefully broke the rubber cement glue seal on the heavy flap and peeked inside. I saw a pocket with some shiny paper and what looked like wax paper with something else inside. I pulled out the wax paper and saw dark strips of what I would later learn to be developed film. I held them up to my Bozo The Clown lamp and on 2-3 of them could make our shapes or objects and maybe people. By now I’d lost all control and was fanning out the prints hoping to see.. I’m not sure what I was expecting. And there it was. One fairly decently exposed, decently focused image, and two which were pretty close. I’d come to learn any recognizable people place or thing would be great.

Three unremarkable images, but to me they were things of wonder. I MADE THREE PICTURES! For an eight year old back then that was pretty special. Today babies are sent home from the hospital nursery with a blue or pink Ipad to keep track of all their new friends they met at the hospital, but back then.. wow.. three pictures!

Three pictures was enough to whet my imagination and my desire to make more. And each subsequent roll of film provided enough excitement and promise of wonder to keep me going time after time.  It took years before I understood the rudimentary basics of photography, and several times over I realized I didn’t even know that much.  To be honest, at that age it was pretty much rolling the dice if I got an image or not. But the promise of an image was enough.

My first photography goal has turned into the goal I’ve used ever since.  To learn something from the last roll of film that will help make me a better photographer.  Of course I’ve had additional goals, but the main goal is to learn from my last roll of film something to make my next roll better.

And THAT feeling has never lessened though it’s changed a bit.  I’ll complete my assignment, turn in my film, and then wait (usually days) for that sealed envelope and then my personal ritual of waiting until the end of the day to sit back and satisfy my anticipation by slowly and carefully going through my images and finishing the session by making my next set of goals.

Everyone is different, some people look at each one quickly and then go back and spend more time on certain ones.  Others sort them into piles they know they’ll need more prints of them to send to family and friends.  Others share the experience with their significant other.  But I think we all share THAT feeling.

I can hear you.  “But Steve, we all use digital cameras these days and they have this magic button on the back and if you press it you can see your last pictures.”  I know, but did you realize it’s a matter of personal preference how often you “chimp” your images?  And your preference can directly impact your ability to get the best images?

Let me explain:  If your pace is nice and slow, by all means, go ahead and chimp till the cows come home.  But you cannot afford the time to chimp when shooting a wedding or other fast moving event.  The best you can do is catch a glimpse of your histogram or two to ensure your exposures are right.  If you spend too much time chimping you’ll miss pics.  It’s that simple.  And only experience lets you do this without messing up hundreds of images.

So today, year 2013, I still essentially shoot my “rolls of film” and then let my anticipation build until I have the time to sit down in front of my computer and enjoy THAT feeling.  Nothing is better than waiting until all your days distractions are behind you and then sitting down at your computer to experience THAT feeling.. set new goals, and then doing it over again.  It’s only a small part of what I love about photography, but a part I’d guess we all share.

Until next time..

 

When a great thing that brings so many people happiness becomes obsolete..

 

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