When I was a child in the mid to late 1980s my parents gave me my first camera. It was very well chosen because it had a wonderfully textured rubber shell that was tough but didn’t feel cheap. It was a fixed focus 110 format point and shoot with a socket for a proprietary type of flash bar that was hard to find. I took a fair number of color pictures for a child under the age of ten. My mother indulged me with a few film cassettes and drugstore processing every year. The prints were small, reasonably sharp, and generally chronicled holidays, school events, and family travel. I have some nostalgic prints of A-6 Intruders and F-14 Tomcats on the deck of the USS Forrestal when it came to visit New Orleans in 1987 and we went on a tour. (My brother and I frequently watched our bootleg VHS copy of Top Gun complete with a Pepsi: A Choice of the New Generation advertisement.)
At that time my father didn’t really do still photography of his own. When he was in the Navy in the early 1970s he had a small 35mm camera, but few pictures of his travels remain. Sometime around my birth in 1980 he really splashed out and bought a fancy VHS home movie system. We once had a conversation about it where he expressed his satisfaction at mastering the new technology. I’m told it was a bulky, two piece affair. When he upgraded to a much smaller red JVC in the later ’80s my mother seemed to have mostly taken over the videography.
Besides running the video camera my mother ran through a succession of three or four 35mm point and shoots from the late 1980s through the 1990s. I marveled at the way the little motorized lens scooted in and out and a shutter closed over the aperture when it switched off. They had a way of breaking after a couple of years of moderate use. My mom wasn’t really hard on the cameras and her volume wasn’t especially high. I distinctly remember going with her to a camera store in the early 1990s when she asked about getting her point and shoot fixed. Everything in the store was interesting to me, but I managed to pay close attention to the salesman. He explained that to make it lighter and cheaper, all the mechanical bits were nylon, and when they broke it was not practical to repair them. My mom metaphorically threw her hands up in the air and just bought a slightly less fancy new one. They also talked about shooting in dimly lit rooms and he told her to use faster film. My mom took a lot of good pictures, but often cut people’s legs off just below the knee in a way that seemed odd to me. I put much of the blame for this on the viewfinder arrangements in her point and shoots. If she had used an SLR she would have realized that her subjects’ legs were awkwardly cropped.
My grandmother’s bedroom was right down the hall from mine at that time. She also used point and shoot 35mm cameras. Her pictures looked pretty good more often than not.
I knew that my Uncle Jack was the most knowledgeable photographer in the family, and that he used more advanced 35mm cameras.
All the evidence was in, and sometime in middle school someone noticed that I wanted a 35mm camera. I can’t remember whether I bought it with Christmas money or it was an outright gift, but I got a great little Kodak 35mm camera. It came in a plastic clamshell package. It had manual winding and rewinding and a switch to go between two shutter speeds for ISO 100 or 400 film. It was fixed focus, fixed aperture, but it had built in ELECTRONIC FLASH! Since I had not seen my oddball flash bars in drugstores for years this reopened the world of indoor and night photography. The flash took two AA batteries and in retrospect it was rather weak. It had a clamshell type hinge so that when the flash flipped down the lens was protected. I took a lot of pictures with it, and it was a fantastic value. It was absolutely reliable and I was pleased.
I was pleased with my Kodak’s overall quality for the price, but I realized that I could do with a sharper lens and some exposure control. I suspected that my dad might have an old, disused camera in one of his deep gadget drawers. I asked him if I could use a camera if I found one, and he was fine with it. I found a 1970s era Konica rangefinder. Jackpot! It was lightweight without seeming cheap and it was silver colored. It had a match needle in the viewfinder, aperture priority exposure system, and a leaf shutter with a top speed of 1/500. It was my first camera with a traditional hot shoe on top, though I did not have a flash for it. It was supposed to take a mercury battery that had not been manufactured for many years. The mercury battery was the exact same size as a modern alkaline battery, but had a different voltage. I tried a modern battery and it worked, so I didn’t worry about it. I used the camera for around a dozen rolls of film around New Orleans and for high school events. The quality was amazing to me at the time! My youthful eyes had no problem aligning the yellow parallax image with the main viewfinder image. Every picture looked like the sharpest picture I had ever taken. That prime Hexanon lens was fabulous. Even though the metering cell was below the lens instead of through the lens, my exposures were spot on. Unfortunately the meter died very suddenly. I was in the midst of composing a picture in the viewfinder when the needle suddenly popped up to the top, then slowly sank down and never rose again. It might have been old age, or it might have been inaccurate voltage. Either way it was good while it lasted and I knew I wanted a better camera again sometime in the future.
For my 18th birthday in 1998 my Grandmother gave me $500. That was a lot of money for a teen back then. At that time I already had a decent computer and access to the family car now and then. My main hobby at the time was looking at the planets and moons through my six inch reflecting telescope. I had taken a fluffy high school elective on classic cinema and Michelangelo Antonioni’s movie Blowup made me really want an SLR. I generally understood and enjoyed the hip photographer archetype spoofed in Austin Powers. While the media vilified the papparazi stereotype for supposedly killing Princess Diana, the devil-may-care lifestyle seemed cool. I also wanted a serious yet affordable camera that I could take to college.
At that time the chatter about digital cameras was just starting to build and my mother asked if I wanted a digital camera. I told her I was certain I wanted a 35mm film SLR because of everything I read in Popular Photography and Shutterbug. In 1998 digital capture was orders of magnitude more expensive for anything approaching the quality of 35mm film. My high school had a subscription to Popular Photography for around 20 years and I read extensively in the back issues. Every year there was a big spread of new SLR models and their features. There were so many worthy choices! There were also lots of fancy rangefinders and medium format outfits that were far out of reach, but I really just wanted complete creative control through an entry system. Every year in the magazine there was a big spread about all the new film emulsions available. At the drugstore I only saw a half dozen common color print films from Kodak, and a similar equivalent range from Fuji. In the magazine I saw a whole WORLD of film. Agfa? Ilford? Forte? Efke? Adox? Orwo? Infrared sensitive color film, hot damn! Infrared black and white! Real black and white panchromatic and ortho! A range of developer options! Slides! It had never occurred to me that ordinary people sometimes took slides for themselves. I had only been exposed to slides in a school setting. Every film had a different quality to the grain, exposure latitude, color palette, and color sensitivity. The world of film photography in 1998 was an abundant feast for the senses and many choices beckoned. Film meant the freedom to experiment with a single roll of film, and switch to another type if you didn’t like the look. The price of entry to completely changing the look of your work was very low. With digital at that time a $500 camera had maybe 1/3 or 1/2 a megapixel resolution and you were stuck with a fixed lens. The ergonomics were strange and batteries were weak and expensive. Consumer editing software was sort of limited by modern standards. There was simply no comparison.
Besides mainstream magazines my extended family indulged me with some good educational books on photography, so that I learned about the traits of aperture, depth of field, shutter speeds, composition, color, and the looks of different focal lengths. I had some books about art photography as well as general purpose technique.