The Eye Behind the Camera

     After lots of scrimping and saving I recently was able to cross an item off the top of my wish list, a nice DSLR camera. It's a huge upgrade from my point-and-shoot Canon Powershot, which got me thinking about the other cameras I've owned over the years. From my first camera, one of those funny flat Kodak 110's with the disposable flash cubes that were mounted on a little pedestal to prevent red eye, to my much loved Nikon FM which I still miss using. 

   When I was much younger I used to entertain dreams of becoming a professional photographer, imagining an exciting life of world travel and adventure as a photo journalist. 

     I think the photography bug first hit me back in my sophomore year of high school when I took a multi-media class and one of the units was on photography. Our assignment was to shoot a roll of black-and-white film (this was in the early 70's) and then submit four of our best photos for the teacher's critique and grading. I borrowed my parent's Kodak Instamatic loaded with a 126 film cartridge, and armed with my newly gained knowledge of photo composition ventured out for my virgin photo shoot. I had literally never used a camera before! 

Kodak Instamatic camera
     I can still remember how carefully and time-consumingly I composed each frame, holding my breath to steady the camera as I gently squeezed the shutter release button. I was so nervous about wasting a single one of the mere twelve exposures on that film. For one thing I'd had to invest my own money for the film and developing. It may not sound like much now but my hard earned fifty-cents-an-hour babysitting earnings were precious to me. Secondly, the finished film had to be dropped off at the local drug store to be sent out for processing. It could take up to a week to get the developed photos back. Unlike today's instant playback digital cameras there was no way of knowing how the pictures might turn out, especially for someone as inexperienced as I was. I could end up with a whole roll of over or under exposed pictures, blurry subjects or off-center photos thanks to parallax error. (I think that thrill of the unknown is partly why Lomography is so popular for today's younger generation who have grown up with digital photography.) And finally, in my family the camera was only brought out for birthdays, Christmas, graduations and other special occasions. The film might sit in the camera for months before the roll was finished and ready to be developed! Though only twelve exposures, shooting a whole roll of film in a single day seemed crazily extravagant! 

     I still have the photos I shot that day and in my mind they are still the very best photos I have ever taken or ever will. The anticipation of waiting for the pictures to be developed, finally being handed the packet of photos by the drug store clerk and holding my breath as I opened it was on a par with an Academy Awards envelope opening! And I might be the winner...or not. And there they were at last! To hold those very real photos and see an actual image. An identifiable image no less!  An embodiment of what I had envisioned in my head! It was truly amazing. I felt like a legitimate artist! 

     That sharp grained Kodak Tri-X Pan black and white film was great stuff. The finished pictures were small, maybe three and a half inches square, but they seemed bill board sized in importance to me. There was the picture I had taken lying on my back on the ground looking up into the towering oak tree silhouetted against the sky. The photo I captured of my toddler brother trying to see his reflection in a puddle. The mysterious half open door of a ramshackle old shed down in a back alley that leaves one wondering what is inside. And my pièce de résistance! The photo I had taken inside my friend's grandmother's barn, the lens aimed at a single window where an oblique beam of sunlight illuminated the treads of a wooden stairway to the hay loft above. I remember being stunned when I saw that photo.   It looked like art! I couldn't believe I had taken it. I think even my teacher was skeptical. He gave me an A+.

     I never became a professional photographer. I've never been further outside the borders of this country than Canada. My life could hardly be described as adventurous. I've had nicer and more expensive cameras in the years since. Yet when I look at these old photos I know this is my best work, though none might agree, and nothing can ever compare for me. It serves to remind me that a camera is only as good as the eye behind it and that art is in the eye of the beholder

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