Sunday, January 04, 2009

Nostalgia for a Camera

Yesterday I was writing about how we sometimes want everything new and refreshed if not replaced. But we have a strong nostalgia for the past way of doing things. People collect tintypes and old photos, even if they are of people or places they never knew. People collect LPs, swearing they sound different (or that changing the record is part of the charm or that the cover art and liner notes in that large size are incredible).

It's been all over the news that Polaroid is going to discontinue its instant film. There was a piece in The Times, I think, and one on CBS Sunday Morning today.

I don't even use film these days and I gave away, finally, my Polaroid Automatic 101 camera that I acquired in 1964 or so during the great downsizing of 2008. I used Freecycle to find a camera collector who took some old digital cameras and wrote me about working on them and then I offered that camera to him. He claimed in an e-mail (I never met him) that he fixed a pinhole in the bellows and worked on it.

But Polaroid film and the ownership of that camera (see above picture for one virtually identical being peddled by an ebay trader) had a great influence on my photography vision as well as my relationship to and desire for gadgetry.

Examples of the photography with that camera are in lots of albums I still have and I have scanned quite a few in the service of online journals and blogs like this. as well as to do various family projects. Today, though, I offer the example below. It is a picture of my brother-in-law in 1967. He is smoking a cigarette in my parents' home. He did not yet have children. He was a lieutenant in the Air Force, if I'm not mistaken. I do think there is a difference in the colors, the skin tones especially, in these old prints developed instantly with a package of emulsions given sixty seconds to do their work after being triggered by compression between stainless steel rollers.

That camera! It was top of the line (trimmed with leather and stainless steel). I had two lens adapters with gadgets to put over the viewfinder to make close-ups or portraits. I mostly took portraits of people. Especially after my brother-in-law and sister adopted a daughter in 1968 and my sister had her second daughter in 1970. I wanted the camera for months, maybe a year. I got it while I was still in high school, maybe Christmas 1964. My mother surprised me with it. I think it blew the Christmas budget. (I think it cost about $120 which was real money then.) I had been cadging Green Stamps (remember those) to try to get one. I had, I think, thirteen books of Green Stamps. I think it took forty or fifty to get one. That Christmas my mother convinced me I'd never get enough of these trading stamps. You got them from retailers, mostly the grocery store, and pasted them in books and there was a catalog of gifts you could get. Anyway, she convinced me it was futile and used the stamps to buy other Christmas presents. And she secretly found the money somewhere to give me the camera. I took so many pictures, finding the money somehow for film and those crazy exploding flash bulbs. (The gadgets I got had an extra plastic diffuser for the flash to soften the explosion for close-ups and portraits.)

I used that camera for a good decade, I think. And I knew all the ins and out. I knew to keep the stainless steel rollers clean and I could load film and pop in flash bulbs with my eyes closed. I pulled the film out with a firm, confident motion. I could count to a minute while taking another picture. I deftly folded the emulsion waste and discarded it. (Much later I would use this waste with an artist friend's help to make artsy transfer prints by using the film to take pictures of slides with a gadget that used a similar film.)

I knew that camera and its limitations and mine. I have had six digital cameras (maybe five, but, I think, six). Sure I know a bit about them and have learned to use some editing capabilities on the computer for the resultant pile of pixels. But I never learned all the ins and outs of those cameras. I never coveted owning them like I did that Polaroid 101. I'm not sure what that means, but I think it means that flat packs of magic film and exploding flashbulbs are things I experienced that the young folks can't begin to understand. I think they probably blow through gadgets before they really learn how to use them. Just as I do today. Time is compressed. But nothing can take that memory away and, now that I've floated my brother-in-law's image on the Internet (probably not for the first time) the Polaroid colors and his dream-like smoker's state take on a new life albeit in pixel-land.

[Ed. Note: Tomorrow is the penultimate day of Holidailies and the writing prompt today is "Your favorite Holidailies post(s) this year (yours or someone else's)." Which is a great prompt as is tomorrow's: "The One Thing I Want for Holidailies 2009" and the last day's, appropriately, "Epiphany." I hope that I can write about some of this in the coming days. I need to do some reading before declaring favorite(s) and I need to work on my idea for epipany to make it sound less, um, bitter. As to what I want for Holidailies 2009, well one always fears making a 'feature creature' out of a bit of programming that is pretty great the way it is.]

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