Camera Obscura, Camera Perspicuus


My very first job, when I was 16, was working in a photography studio located in a department store, one of those places where anxious parents and snotty children would buy a portrait for .99 cents, a loss-leader that was intended to lead to more sales. A good friend worked at this department store and told the studio manager that I would be the perfect person. “She’s good with kids, really smart, is done with school at 1, and really, really likes photography.” Really liked photography was a stretch. I worked on the school yearbook and had a crush or two on the photographers. Owning a camera was something that seemed completely out of reach.

In what was my first — but certainly not my last — success at talking my way into a job for which I had no qualifications, the job was mine. Not only was I able to work as many hours as I wanted, at a time when the minimum wage was $2.30/hour, I was raking in $3.95. I thought I was rich! Suddenly buying a camera didn’t seem so impossible. I started in April and quickly took to learning how to pose children and to make them smile.  Say Pickles! seemed to work wonders.   I quickly mastered loading the camera in a black bag.  We had to be able to load in the middle of the store during a shoot.  Lastly, because it took little skill, I quickly learned how to setup the camera. I was a bit disappointed that lighting and aperture settings were adjustable. The only adjustment to the camera was tripod height and focus.  I loved the job as much as the money and worked as often as I could.

With my earnings, by the start of Fall, I was able to buy a camera and a telephoto lens. My father, who had always had cameras — a few old Brownies, lots of Polaroids, and, his favorites, movie cameras — but never an SLR was a bit jealous, and perhaps a little hurt that I had not asked for his input when I purchased it. I wanted a Canon AE-1, but I wasn’t willing to wait to earn the extra money needed. Besides, for the same amount of cash, I could buy a case and a flash and put a telephoto lens on lay-a-way. I thought it was so cool until the photographers at school told me that girls couldn’t be photographers (how I wish I knew who Margaret Bourne-White was at that time!) and they called my camera a “Yashica-shit”.  I asked our yearbook advisor if I could learn how to develop and print and was declined.  “You don’t want to do that.” was all he said. I wonder how long it was before he let a female in the darkroom.

It didn’t matter though: I had my camera and a much better part-time job than they did. Besides, I told them, “I don’t need to know how to develop because I just focus on the creative part.” And so I did, but not very much.  Even though I had what I thought was a great paying job, film was expensive and prints were too. Much of my money had to go to my college fund, so I wasn’t able to shoot much.

In college, I started out as a journalism major. Photojournalism was a requirement and I couldn’t wait until I could take the class. The class taught me how to develop, but it didn’t teach me much about composition or exposure settings. If you can’t shoot an entire roll on one subject, it isn’t worth shooting, the prof instructed. A poor college student, I had to figure out how to pay for my food and my film; 36 exposures on one subject was an expensive endeavor. I was frustrated throughout the semester. The night that someone set my dorm on fire — and I forgot to take my camera with me — was when I realized that I wouldn’t be a good photojournalist. It never even occurred to me that I could have been taking pictures of my dorm mates in their curlers and robes for my “spot news” assignment. Had it been in the student newspaper the next day, I would have earned an ‘A’ for the course.

Disappointed and convinced that I would never take a good photo, I only used my camera for snaps for the next few years. Eventually it went into the back of some closet.  But, the dream, though it had receded, didn’t die. Years later, I remember my brother-in-law having a moving sale. Among the items included was an enlarger and developer trays. I didn’t have the space for a dark room then, but I knew that someday I might. Years later, just before the dawn of the digital age, I sold the enlarger to an art student.  By the time I owned a house where a dark room was feasible, film had become a thing of the past.

Fast forward 20 years to 2009. On a whim I told my husband I wanted a camera for Christmas. I was thinking a small point-and-shoot. “I use your digital a lot when I travel” I told him, “and you always want it back.” As Christmas approached, he started asking me about what kind of camera I had previously. “Don’t you want to use what you have?”

“Naw!” I replied. “Film is dying. I want digital. I don’t even know where my camera is — somewhere in the basement, I guess.”

“Well, what about your lenses? What type of mount was it?”

“Bayonet, I said. I think it was compatible with a Pentax or Minolta.”

“No, I think you had a Canon.”

“I did NOT have a Canon. I remember it quite well. I would have loved one of the Canons that were available at that time — very cool and advanced — but I never could afford one.” Husband just shrugged and looked puzzled.

That holiday, a Canon Rebel XSI, appeared in my Christmas stocking, along with a telephoto lens and a nice case. “The lenses from that other Canon might fit” he said. Puzzled, he told me where there was one in the basement. It was an AE-1 from the late 70’s or early 80’s. I have no idea where it came from. My Yashica has apparently been lost in a past move or is still in the back of some unknown cupboard in the basement.

A DSLR has allowed me to do what I never could have afforded to do with a film camera in the 70’s: shoot lots of pictures and learn from my mistakes. There are very few of the photos that I took in the first year that I would share with anyone. It was months before I was willing to venture into Creative mode, and nearly a year after that before I started to shoot in Manual — the only way that I operate my camera now. 25,000 shots later, I think I’ve made a good start at learning this art of photography. Although I took children’s portraits at the department store studio on and off for eight years, I rarely take pictures of people.

Since January 1, I’ve tried to shoot every day.   (I’ve only missed once!) Shooting every day has increased my ability to understand the ways to approach a shot and to know which one will produce the results that I want. I rarely go anywhere without my camera. When I do, I can’t help but see things and think “That would make a good shot.” Seeing things with a photographer’s eye has opened my eyes in many ways.  I have learned to not only notice the light, but to notice things that I never would have noticed before:

– Those little yellow wildflowers growing in the ditch across the street? Did they grow there in previous springs?

– The flow of the creek along the trail? Is it unusually low this year and were there this many ferns along the banks last April?

– That graffiti under the bridge — when was it last painted over?

– The woman with the beautiful Golden Retriever.  Did she always walk the greenway trail at the same times I did and I just didn’t notice until I asked if I could photograph her dog?

– How could I have never noticed the interesting patterns reflected in the windows of skyscrapers?

Most importantly, daily shooting has unleashed a creative passion that I never could have predicted. I love the feeling I get when I am out shooting. Time can be fluid, passing without notice, when I’m shooting or editing photographs. I look at other photographs and make critical assessments and use that information to inform my future photographing. I’ve learned about many critically acclaimed photographers and have come to look forward to seeing photographic exhibits, even if the work is not in a similar style to my own.

“That camera,” my husband said a few months ago, “was the best gift that I ever gave you — at least the one most used. I thought you would get bored with it ages ago.” I don’t think that is going to happen any time soon!

The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera. — Dorothea Lange

C is for Camera.

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6 responses to “Camera Obscura, Camera Perspicuus

  1. Neat post Anne! Have never really paid attention to my camera skills till I started this blog! Feeling the urge now to update said skills 🙂

  2. What a great story and thanks for sharing this! My journey went more like this: Kodak instamatic, little baby Olympus (that got stolen), Canon T50 – I still have it and use it from time to time – some more Kodak type film cameras, a series of Canon and Nikon point and shoots, then – in November 2010 – a Canon XS. The cost of film processing was too daunting to ever really learn my way around a camera! But your post is a good reminder of where we’ve been, and how digital technology has made such a difference in many people’s lives.

    • Agree about digital. The cost of entry into photography is much less of a burden when you don’t have the recurring film costs. It sure has made a big difference for me!

  3. Brilliant piece Anne. The story resounds with my own experiences, I took photography at college using Zenit cameras, saved for an Olympus OM 1, freelanced in journalism and portraiture and when the kids came along put it all to the back shelf. Recently the DSLR arrived and re ignited my photographic passion.
    Keep at it

    • Thanks, Chris. I had never heard of the Zenit before. Just read a bit about it on Wikipedia. Interesting. And the Olympus OM1: I remember wistfully dreaming about owning one of those.