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More Stories - The Way We Were


I've always really wanted to be a photographer.   

My dad had a love for photography, having his own makeshift darkroom to develop his black and white photos, as did my father's brother, Uncle Dick.   A knock on the door when this mystery was in process provoked shouts of "Don't open the door!!!".  Once Uncle Dick let me come in and watch by the dim light of a red bulb as he unrolled the film, swished it into various trays of solution and then hung up to dry, like dark strings of flypaper.   Then, finally, the printing with a Rube Goldberg looking contraption with bellows, lights and lenses. 

One of the first things that impressed me about my first serious boyfriend was that he, too, knew how to do this mysterious process. 

People who dropped off rolls of film at the local drugstore or photo shop, or paid a premium for Polaroid film for instant gratification, have no idea the complexities of early photography.   What a satisfaction it must have been to capture such essence, early on tin, later on paper!  And imagine now, when photos are snapped with a portable PHONE or an electronic camera; forget the rolls of film.

How long have photographs existed?  You might be surprised!  See History of Photography Timeline.  

A couple of years ago Uncle Dick and his wife, Aunt Edith, were paring and sorting their possessions when he came across an early photo of me with my Mom and Dad.  He had it elegantly framed and sent it to me.   I had forgotten this photo for years, with no idea he had a copy.

When I was four or five years old Mother made me a maroon velvet dress with little pearl buttons and homemade coarse crocheted lace trimming.   This was probably a great choice, as most fine fabrics or light colors didn't stay pristine long on my hyperactive frame, once donned.    

I wore this dress the day we traveled to Buffalo, New York for a family portrait.   Mom and Dad sat on a bench, I stood in between.   The photographer placed us carefully, ducking under a great cloth hood over a large camera on a tripod.  There were electrical cables strung here and there, and when the camera clicked, huge lights flashed.  I didn't want to stay on the bench; I wanted to get down and look at the cables and camera and other stuff all over the studio, to see how it worked.  I would have given my next meal to climb under that black hood and see what the photography saw!

Afterwards, the best photo of several was selected and carefully tinted by hand.  This was a great cottage industry back in the forties and before, as pictures only came in black and white or sepia.  Healthy glows were applied to cheeks and lips, colored accents were added to clothing, and it was important to list the correct colors when the photos were send for tinting. 

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Daddy subscribed to a photography magazine, and those were stored in a closet along with copies of the Reader's Digest and National Geographic, dating back to 1937 when they were married (see photo at right, looking like they were at a funeral).  I used to sneak in and swipe magazines to read.  One time my dad, a very modest and correct man, caught me with a photography magazine with nude women in it, discretely posed and vital  points covered nicely.   Embarrassed, he explained that photography was art, such as famous old paintings and statues, and in such a setting nudity was not necessarily a sin.  His interest in photography magazines was always a little suspect to me after that;  I was a suspicious little rat.

Daddy gave me my first camera when I was barely eight years old, an old Brownie, just before a trip upstate to the Buffalo Zoo, along with a single roll of film.  It was a rainy spring day, and I was terrified I'd get the camera wet.  I carefully counted out my shots;  should I take this one?  Or would a better one come up?  I'd grit my teeth, trying to hold the camera steady as I squeezed the shutter.

Back then zoos were mere prisons for animals, concrete canyons of misery, and human beings were separated from them by wrought iron fences and watery moats.   So between the drab background, the drizzly day and the distance, the pictures weren't anything great, but I was proud of them all the same.  I remember I had a camel, an elephant, a piece of a lion, some apes and a zebra, all recognizable if you looked closely. 

Afterwards I took pictures of my friends, relatives, my grandfather's farm and other points of interest.   Some turned out surprisingly well, probably because a brownie camera was a simple instrument.  You waited until it was light.  You  pointed in the right direction, held it still and squeezed the shutter.  It either came out good or it didn't.   Most of the time the photos were at least recognizable.

Unfortunately most of these treasured mementos disappeared when we moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, as  mentioned in  Who Do We Owe?  Later, we pulled up stakes again and moved to Florida (see Chili Weather).   The Brownie camera disappeared, but Daddy lent me his 35mm, and I took many pictures over the next few years.  It, too, was simple to use, although I got a lot of bizarre results.

An unfortunate fact emerges.   I can use any tool, power or otherwise, I can get my hands on (see It's not too late for Father's Day).  I used to sew well, making my own patterns.  Computers fail to daunt me; in middle age I picked up programming in two or three days and have run with it ever since.   I play the piano expertly and several other instruments passably well.   I took up oil painting some years ago under the tutelage of a neighbor, a reasonably successful artist, and turned out a few pretties;  I have an eye for composition and color.  Despite all this, if you put a camera in my hands and explain how it works, one of three things will happen:

  1. I'll be back shortly because I can't get it to work at all, or
  2. I'll waste a lot of film,
  3. The camera will mysteriously malfunction, never to work again.

As soon as Polaroid cameras came out, I went for it, as I can keep trying until I get something decent.  I've never even broken one!  I've run through a lot of standard cameras in between, some of which I could never even get to take a single picture!  With others the flash fails to go off.  I founder on the technical terms.   Eyes glow, shadows create dark spots, smears and flashes appear mysteriously on the film, at least one person in a group has their eyes half closed, some photos are washed out, others so dark as to be unrecognizable.  Strange colors and tints that never existed in nature appear in my photos.   This is very frustrating, because I ought to be able to learn to take good ones, given my other related expertise. 

As soon as digital cameras came out I wanted one.  But at first, I decided to wait until the price came down and the quality higher.   Now that milestone has passed, why haven't I bought one?  Thriftiness, I tell myself.  Digital cameras are really little computers, and I have no problem with computers.  But what if I can't do anything with a digital camera, either?  What a blow to my "self esteem" that would be!  Is this just procrastination or cowardice? 

My son Mark recently expressed concern that I didn't have one, so I could take pictures of special dishes to pretty up the Sneaky Kitchen some more.   My theory was that no one would want to eat anything that looked like the photo I took of it.

Meanwhile, I consider great photography a major art form, which I have coveted greatly to take part in, and here is a selection for your enjoyment:  

Happy snapping!

The Sneaky Kitchen
Web Site by Bess W. Metcalf   Copyrightę April 1999 - 201

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