I have been thinking about photography lately. In this age of instant photographs, of immediate gratification, in which every individual carries a camera in their cell phone, many readers may find this essay boring. Actually, that idea is what made me start typing. Those of you who are photographers at heart will probably enjoy it.
Many who know me today don’t know that I was a professional photographer for about seven years, owning and operating a photography studio. In the years prior to that, I was an avid amateur photographer. I have had a lifelong relationship with the art form.
I come from an age when making a photograph that caught your interest and imagination was a fairly unique art form. Today, almost everybody has the technical ability to do it, if not the creative capacity.
Back in my day—and I seem to start a lot of sentences these days with “back in my day”—not everyone had a camera. Many families had none. If they owned a camera, it was “the family camera.” Many people my age will remember having to change clothes and clean up because “Dad’s going to take a picture.”
A week or so ago, I happened upon an E-Bay ad for a Polaroid Model 100 camera. And the memories came flooding back.
At age nine, I was one of the few kids I knew who owned his own camera. It was an inexpensive plastic box camera and I don’t remember the manufacturer or the model. I didn’t give it a lot of thought and had no particular interest in photography, so I don’t remember why I owned one. But maybe it was destiny.
In 1967, I was sixteen or seventeen years old, working on my high school newspaper staff as the resident sportswriter. My good friend Terry Andereck was our editor and photographer. Terry was taking black and white photos with a 35mm camera and I was struck by that. Struck, I think, because he was doing interesting portraits of people and had control over the lighting and angles. His shots were interesting to view. And I wanted to do that. Terry was an influence on me.
Our “family camera” was a brand spanking new Poloroid Model 100. It was state-of-the-art and cutting edge. My dad bought it to replace the old Kodak #2 camera that had served my parents since they were in high school, probably. Polaroid cameras are old-school now, old enough that today they have a certain kitsch. But they were our version of instant gratification. The very idea that one could see his photograph within sixty seconds was, frankly, amazing to us.
I don’t remember the day, but I clearly remember taking that Model 100 around town and for the first time in my life, holding a camera in my hand with the intention of creating something rather than simply “taking a picture.” I knew nothing about photography. I didn’t know what an f-stop was, or how shutter speed affected a photograph. The phrase “depth of field” would have gone in one ear and out the other. I needed some film, so I purchased black and white film because it was less expensive than color. I no longer have those photographs. I lost them or discarded them years ago, but I can still see them in my mind. One was a pastoral setting of black Angus cattle grazing on a hillside, and I liked the feeling of the black and white film. It probably wasn’t as good as my mind’s version, but it wasn’t bad.
I started getting better. Terry showed me his 35mm camera, and I remember being amazed that he could see the actual photograph he was taking, through the lens of the camera, rather than an approximation of it through a viewfinder, as I was doing with that old Polaroid. I was soon to learn that Terry’s camera was a single lens reflex or SLR. I had to have one.
And again—more destiny–my next door neighbor was the town’s local professional photographer. He hired me for a summer to “help out” at his studio. I was more bother than I was worth, but he taught me some basic, very important things about photography. He taught me that it wasn’t about the camera—it was all about the light. I began to study photography. I went to the library and took correspondence courses. There was no internet because Al Gore was only about nineteen and hadn’t invented it yet.
It’s about light. The very meaning of the word photography means “painting or drawing with light.” The camera is just the tool. It’s like a shovel; if you don’t know how to use it, you’ll never dig a hole. I’ve owned some very expensive cameras in my life. But the truth is a question: how can you improve a shovel?
And so I learned. What followed were fifty years of learning about photography, and I’m grateful for them. On the day I took that Model 100 out and took photos of cattle on a hill, I discovered that I enjoyed the process. Years later, when I saw those old photos, I realized that, even then, I had what was needed to change a “picture” into an art form. I had the eye. I could visualize the finished photograph. When you have the eye, you don’t care what kind of camera is around. You are basically just saying “Somebody hand me a shovel!” Great photographers can create art with an old Polaroid Model 100. And there are people around with $5000 cameras wondering why they haven’t dug a hole.
I don’t practice the art much anymore, because it’s been devalued by the cell phone. Everybody has a camera and everyone, apparently, is an artist. I don’t see it that way. What I see is that lots of people have shovels in their hand.
Photography was a way for me to come into the world. It got me noticed. Girls noticed me, finally. And it was something upon which I could hang my hat. It turns out I was very good at it. It’s a little sad to me that the creativity in it has diminished with the advent of cell phones. But nobody can take the experience of it away from me.
I bought the old Polaroid on E-Bay. I’ll probably never take a photograph with it. But I’ll clean it up and hold it and remember how I dug holes with it and how it changed me.