It was a damp, drizzly day here in Blacksburg, fuzzy cloud blankets snuggling the mountain tops. There was no direct light, just a gray, overcast sky – a perfect backdrop for the saturated colors of slick, wet leaves, dripping and mostly green, but with October pops of yellow, orange, and red. And a perfect diffused-light day for photography.
It’s been a while since I’ve paid much mind to my photography. Mostly I snap quick shots to make sure we have mementos of our kids’ childhood – their cute chubby faces, their missing teeth, the glee in their eyes at Disney World. But lately, especially after hiking in the mountains here, I’m feeling an itch to photograph more – the dozens of varieties of mushrooms we saw on the War Spur Overlook, the white blazes of the Appalachian Trail on our first return to it since my husband’s 500 mile hike in 1996. But more importantly, I want to take more care in the photographs I take.
So I took my fancy digital camera over to John’s Camera Corner, a little downtown shop tucked in next to the hookah lounge and across the street from The Rivermill (the bar that inspired my Life in a college town. With kids. post), to get the lens cleaned up and get a filter to protect it from grubby little fingers.
I walked in and it was like walking back in time. The walls were lined with scores of old cameras – film cameras. Brownie, Pentax, Minolta, Canon. A darkroom condenser reminiscent of the ones I used during a workshop at SCAD was propped in the corner. Old camera bags, lenses, and filters littered the floor and shelves, and by the glass display case at the cash counter, there was a postcard spinner with antique photos of Blacksburg. I wandered around with my mouth open, touching cameras, recognizing equipment, until John asked if he could help me. While he searched for his lens cleaning kit, patting his pockets like the grandpa in The Princess Bride, feeling absently for lens tissue, lens cleaner, lens caps, or whatever else he might have misplaced, I told him, “Wow, this is awesome. I used to be into photography in high school. Look! Photographic paper!” On a rack in front of me were the distinctive white boxes of Ilford black & white paper. “Makes me miss my old camera, and film…”
“The smell of fixer,” he said.
And I could smell the distinctive ammonia odor again. “Yeah,” I smiled, “And the smell of fixer.”
John found an old Nikon UV filter for me ($10 vs. the $40 a new one would have cost), and while he cleaned up my lens, I wandered over to the Minolta wall of camera bodies. I wondered, could it be here? And there it was – my very first camera. The Minolta SRT 101. My grandfather’s old camera. The camera he used to photograph his family and the world on his tours of duty in the Air Force. The camera that captured my adolescence.
I picked up the Minolta in John’s shop, and as soon as I held it in my hand, I was 16 again, photographing my best friend on black and white film. The camera went straight to its natural place in my hand, the heft of it supremely satisfying, my right thumb on the film advance lever. I pushed the lever and savored the phantom feel of film advancing. Pushed the shutter release and felt the solid, gratifying shudder of the shutter mechanism. All of my senses were engaged when I photographed with that camera. It was completely manual, so I was present in the taking of each photograph, adjusting for light, framing each shot, taking care because unlike digital photography, film was not only finite – 24 or 36 frames – but there was also a tremendous time lag between when you shot the film and when you could actually see what you shot. It was important to be precise and get it right with each release of the shutter, and that need for precision made me very mindful when I photographed.
These days, I set my fancy dancy camera on automatic and carelessly press an insubstantial button, thinking “eh, I’ll just take a bunch and then edit on the computer when I get home.” And then take weeks to even put the images on the computer. And then never make a print of a single one. The images are just pixels of light that disappear with the click of a mouse button, and the whole experience is like eating refined flour. It leaves me hungry.
But as I stood there in John’s camera shop, not even forty years old and already reminiscing about the good old days, I recognized that as much as I loved that old Minolta, and as much as I loved shooting and processing and printing film, it is outdated and has gone the way of the typewriter (RIP). My manual Minolta forced me to be present, and I’m thankful for that because it taught me the principles of photography. It made me work for every image, and because of that work, the images are imprinted in my brain as much as they are printed on that Ilford black and white paper.
I also recognized, feeling the sturdy weight of the camera, that we no longer live in that time. And I’m okay with that. Holding that old Minolta in my hand reminded me of my old love for photography, and of the good old days, but as I placed it back on the shelf, I remembered the limitations of film that led me to a digital camera – a young family, precious little leisure time, a budget that does not allow for endless film and processing. A digital culture that is phasing out film and the processing of it.
I loved my Minolta. It is as much a part of my shaping as the clink of my dad’s ring on the stainless steel wheel of our boat. Now that we have kids, I hope my gorgeous digital Nikon will find a similar place in my heart.
Thanks to John, that gorgeous Nikon is all cleaned up and ready to go shooting. And thanks to this drizzly gray day, and the heft of that Minolta, I’m ready to take the time to work for a shot, and bring home a pretty picture.