Photography was a subject that I was interested in, but I wasn’t aware that I was interested in it. Cameras fascinated me, with all their levers and buttons that did I-don’t-know-what. My uncle was the photographer in the family, and his photographs adorned the hallways of his house. My father was the videographer, although sometimes the “on” and “off” switch would confuse him. Somewhere we have a video of a soccer game either I or my brother was playing in that was filmed after my dad thought he had turned off the camera and laid it down on the ground. The entire match was filmed at a ninety-degree angle. Likewise, he failed to turn the camera off after a family reunion, and we have an entire tape full of the trunk of the car on the drive home.
For a child in a family of lean means, however, photography was not an easy hobby to pursue, and so it never received much attention from me. Developing film, while not expensive individually, was something that would add up quite a bit over time. A good SLR camera, like my uncle used, was prohibitively expensive. Even more expensive, from a price-per-print standpoint, was the Polaroid camera my grandmother used.
It was that Polaroid camera that was the first camera I experimented with. And since the film was so expensive, I kept every shot. From the backlit shot of my Star Wars action figures sitting on the table to the shot where light got in and ruined the entire frame, each one went in the photo album. (That latter shot, by the way, I titled “Coffee with Milk in it.” Because it was too expensive to throw away but otherwise too useless to keep, it needed an abstract art name.)
The Polaroid produced instant results. But less expensive to operate was the Instamatic camera that I picked up at a garage sale at some point. It took 126 film – a square format – and used flash cubes. Simple and almost impossible to misuse, it was the point-and-shoot camera of its era. I was, however, jealous of classmates that had the Pocket Instamatic cameras; they had a sleeker form factor, a smaller film cartridge (using 110 film), and an electronic, reusable flash. Still, my Instamatic camera allowed me to take pictures when we took a trip to New York City, record my cousin’s high school graduation, take pictures at the now-defunct theme park Boardwalk and Baseball, and take general pictures around the house and local environs.
These rolls of film required processing, and I would use a mail-order service to process the pictures. The last roll of film I shot, however, never went out for processing. It sat in my drawer, it sat in a box in the basement, it sat in a small tin canister of assorted junk — it sat just about anywhere. I would see it every so often and think to myself, I need to get that developed. And I never did. And then I would see it every so often and think to myself, I wonder if I can still get that developed. And I never did. And then, long after digital cameras had established their dominance in the market place, I would see it and think to myself, I wonder if anybody can develop that anymore. Twenty-five years passed.
One day I took that roll of film up to the local camera shop and asked if they could develop it. Yes, they could, but there was no guarantee that there would still be usable images on the negatives. So I left it with them, figuring that if they couldn’t get anything off the film I was no worse off than I was at the moment. The told me that it should be ready in two weeks.
Five weeks later, I got a call from the camera shop. The pictures were developed and ready to be picked up. I drove out to the camera shop, thanked the man behind the counter profusely, and took my first look at these surprise pictures. I had no idea what I would find.
Of the 24 frames on the roll, 21 were usable. I had a photo of my brothers playing ball in my grandmother’s driveway. I had a photo of my parents in my grandmother’s living room. I had photos from Ohiopyle State Park. I had photos of a riverboat cruise through downtown Pittsburgh I had taken with my church youth group. Each photo was streaked with some amount of light damage and was grainy and faded, but each photo also held quite a lot of sentimental value. One photo in particular caught my eye. It was a photo of the old Clark candy bar sign in Pittsburgh. I had remembered taking that photograph; I didn’t know where it had gone, but I remembered taking it. Turns out it was sitting there, in the drawer or the box or the tin or the wherever the whole time.
After I had been using my Instamatic camera for a few years, I started using disposable 35mm film cameras. These were readily picked up in grocery stores and gift shops, and the camera body was nothing more than a cardboard box with a cheap lens and shutter system built in. Some of them even had electronic flashes. You bought the camera, took your pictures, and then sent the whole thing in to be developed. It was this type of camera that I took on the high school band trip to Walt Disney World.
It was on this trip that I took the first photo I can remember actually taking the time to frame in the viewfinder. At one place in EPCOT, there is a boardwalk over the central lagoon from which you can see the Journey into Imagination and the monorail track. I wanted the monorail to pass over the Journey into Imagination in my photo, but that was not a possible angle while standing up. And so I delayed our group for a few minutes while I lay down on the boardwalk, hold the camera somewhere out over the lagoon, and snap the picture. As I look at it now, there’s a host of things wrong with the picture, but at the time it was exactly what I wanted. That should be considered a success.
Disposable cameras lasted me throughout college. Once I was out of college, though, the desire for a “real” camera was strong. I still had no clue what all the levers and buttons did on a SLR camera, what an f/stop was, or anything like that, but I knew I wanted something a little better than disposable cameras. Not really knowing anything about cameras, I decided to get in on the next latest-and-greatest thing in camera technology – the Advanced Photo System camera.
The APS camera was distinguished by its film cartridge. Information other than the negative was stored on the film, information such as the date and time of the photo, aperture and shutter speed used, desired print aspect ratio, things like that. After the film was developed, you received the negatives back inside the cartridge, protecting them from scratches. As photographic systems went, it was considerably more advanced technologically-wise than anything else on the consumer market.
And it failed.
APS cameras were only on the market for about 10 years. The reason for their failure was two-fold. Professional and serious hobbyist photographers did not care for the smaller film size; APS film format was slightly smaller than the 35mm film they were accustomed to, and a smaller negative size meant that the prints could not be enlarged as much without significant loss of quality. This limited the market for APS cameras to those people who only needed the camera for point-and-shoot applications: fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles — those people who just needed the camera to take snapshots of family memories. And those people would quickly find all the advantages of the APS cameras in another form: digital cameras.
Digital cameras had the same advantages as APS: metadata about each image was recorded in the image file itself. The negatives couldn’t get scratched because there were no negatives. Digital cameras also had advantages the APS cameras did not. A digital camera could take more than 24 or 36 pictures at a time, and you did not need to get prints of all the images on the roll to see which images you wanted prints of.
I had my APS camera for about five years. During that time, it shot pictures of my uncle’s wedding, the births and early childhoods of my two sons, and a trip to Boston. But by 2003, I was tired of sending rolls of film to be developed. I was ready for digital.
My first digital camera could fit about 60 images on its memory card, more if I reduced the image size. The first picture I took with it was one of Michael asleep in the back of our car. It would prove to be a serviceable camera, one that would last a few years and then be upgraded to one that supported more photos on the memory card. But it would still take a decade – and, oddly enough, getting interested in kites – that would lead me to getting my first DSLR with all the levers and buttons that did I-still-didn’t-know-what that I had envied as a child. But that is a story for another time.