the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

NOT (QUITE) MY FIRST RODEO

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By MICHAEL PERKINS

YOU SEE HERE THE ONE CAMERA I OWN THAT IS BOTH the primary cause my lifelong love of making pictures, and the only camera I have that I have never taken a single image with. It seems absurd, but upon examination, it makes perfect sense.

I was a small child when my parents bought this Kodak. I never touched a dial or button on it, but it nonetheless shaped my earliest awareness of what happens when you perform the magic of freezing time in a box. It preserved family gatherings, first steps, birthdays, vacays, and the everyday rhythms in the suburban midwest life of the 1950’s and ’60’s. The images that it produced, 35mm Kodachrome slides that took three full days to come back from the processor, splashed big-scale color and delight across our living room wall for over ten years. The arrival at our house of a new yellow and red Kodak box was like getting an extra Christmas.

The Kodak 828 camera was one of four fairly simple “Pony” models that Kodak cranked out by the millions from 1949-1959, and ours was the only one of the models that used 828 roll film. The format  was designed to allow for the manufacture of more compact, entry-level cameras that could use what was essentially 35mm stock and yet produce substantially larger images by eliminating the use of sprocket holes. It had a 51mm fixed lens that could only shoot at one of four shutter speeds, with apertures ranging from f/4.5 to f/22 and a rudimentary distance/focus dial. The use of even amateur cameras of the time required deliberate calculation, planning and not a little luck, and so, as you might imagine, our family’s near misses (and outright fails) with the Pony became the stuff of family legend, every bit as much as our keepers.

More importantly for me, the camera taught me, as its admiring non-user, to dream beyond my own limits. Once I got my own no-controls box camera at the age of thirteen, I went through a period of horrible discouragement, realizing that my piece of plastic junk wouldn’t automatically deliver the kind of pictures Mother and Dad made, even if I wished real hard (and, trust me, I tried). I learned, in short, just how much I had to learn, that good images had to be, in a very real way, earned. After the disappointing revelation that I couldn’t easily make what I saw in my mind come real through the work of my hands, my mistakes gradually became my teachers instead of my torturers. The Pony gave me the hunger to make that happen. And, in time, the pictures came.

I’ve purchased a lot of old cameras just to run a roll of film through them to see what happens, but the near total disappearance of even expired 828 stock has kept me from shooting with my own parents’ chosen kit. But maybe I don’t have to: maybe I have already pulled as much delight out of it as I ever can. I see them, young and smiling, filled with dreams and desires, every time I pass the camera on my den shelves. That’s a pretty premium image all by itself. Don’t know if I can ever top it.

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