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Picture This

Reminiscing about the days of film



I am wary of people who hold their iPhone as if it were a rosary, and I steer clear of those whose phone is always at the ready. Precautions are necessary because I enjoy conversations, and a smartphone in the wrong hands can spoil a conversation faster than an ill-tempered 3-year-old.

The phone-as-photo-album illustrates the point. In the give and take of conversation, chances are that an innocent question—how was your weekend in Moab?—may trigger, after a minute of fiddling, a chronology of redundant snapshots. Red rock tedium on a palm-size screen. I have no more patience for it. When I am engaged in a conversation, I don’t want photos foisted on me, one after another, any more than I want to be interrupted by a pesky child. Any distraction is ruinous. A picture may ordinarily be worth a thousand words, but the art of conversation is better served by a thousand words than it is by a single photo, let alone 30 artless ones.

It has taken me a while to come around to that viewpoint, for I have been a photographer of sorts. My résumé makes no such claim, but I once had an operational darkroom in my house, newspapers have printed my photos, and I have owned more cameras than cars.

My first camera, a Kodak Brownie, was a Christmas present. I can’t remember whether or not it was on a wish list or if it was a surprise. I do remember it came nestled in a box alongside a detachable flash, a roll of 127 black & white film and six flash bulbs. The camera’s brown plastic body was about the size of a pint of milk. Within hours of unwrapping it, I had snapped a picture of every dog and cat I could find in my Sugar House neighborhood. Then came the long wait. To get a roll of exposed film developed and printed required at least a week’s time.

A few years later, the Polaroid instant camera reduced the wait to a minute or less. New technology was as seductive then as it is today. I saved enough money from an after-school job to buy one. It was as big as a hardback copy of Anna Karenina, and the rectangular film packs were thicker than a slice of bread. My Polaroid saw me through college. It went to parties. It traveled to Mexico and England. It recorded beer-fueled antics, water-skiing, weddings and still lifes of trout and pheasants.

Most of the pictures were posed; all were snapshots—an important distinction to note. Although “snapshot” is to “photograph” as “movie” is to “film,” the unpretentious noun does double duty in a sentence. A snapshot, by definition, reflects the modest ability and equipment of the person taking the picture, but at the same time, “snapshot” freeze-frames a point on a continuum—in this instance, the days of my life. My Polaroid snapshots are artifacts: Each registers a moment in time otherwise accessible only in my memories.

But the hefty Polaroid was ill-suited to the outdoors, and the color film was so pricey that my parents gave me film packs as birthday presents every year. I decided I needed a new camera. I had been out of college for a year, and as a newly minted Army lieutenant, I had orders to a field station in Ethiopia. I wanted a camera more compact, durable and cheaper to operate than the 7-year-old Polaroid to take with me. I bought a basic 35mm, viewfinder camera in a Maryland camera store. It was like trading in a Land Rover for a Miata. Unfortunately, the purchase proved to be premature. Had I waited until I was overseas, I could have bought a sophisticated single-lens-reflex Minolta or Pentax in the duty-free store for less money.

I upgraded within a year. I was soon shooting three or four rolls of black & white film a week, developing and printing pictures in a pungent darkroom the Army provided for hobbyists like me.

As I learned photographic technique, however, I found myself often in need: a telephoto lens to shoot a photo of the Emperor Haile Selassie, a wide-angle lens for fishing trips in the Red Sea, a second camera body for color film, a light meter for time exposures, a flash—and a big bag to hold it all. The equipment was so cumbersome, I eventually came to appreciate a Canon point & shoot camera I could carry in a coat pocket.

For all those years, I rode the technology wave, buying the innovative cameras that offered more capability at a favorable price. The advent of digital photography was a sea change. I got a boxy Sony digital camera (with a floppy disk port); Polaroid and Eastman Kodak slid into Chapter 11 bankruptcy; “photoshop” entered the lexicon as a verb. The iPad does most of what I used to do in the darkroom. Kodachrome and Ektachrome 35mm film are gone for good.

I don’t take photos anymore. It is not because “Kodak moments” don’t present themselves, it is just that I no longer feel the need to document them. Memory pretty much suffices. I have thousands of Ektachrome slides and black & white negatives stored in the basement. A few qualify as photographs, but most are snapshots. Decoupled from my personal experience, they have no inherent value to speak of. The prized photos of Haile Selassie I shot with a 200mm telephoto lens are little more than curiosities to my grandchildren. If left to them, the 35mm slides will be discarded, not archived. However, my stories of the famous Ethiopian emperor may survive another generation because words create images of their own.