My grandmother — my mother’s mother, who lived on Cape Cod — had an attic that was a source of endless amusement for my brother and me during our visits to her home. There were boxes of books, trunks filled with clothes, my mother’s wedding dress hanging from a ceiling brace (under a leak, we discovered decades later after I became engaged and found the fabric rusty and shredded). Sometimes we’d find treasures, like a box of china horses, formerly my aunt’s, that popped up during my horse-crazy phase.
And sometimes we’d latch onto something that my grandmother kept for no reason. This describes the Brownie camera — literally, a Brownie camera, complete with Girl Scout logo — that I unearthed one summer day. Nana and my mother were both convinced that the thing no longer worked, but I begged to keep it. We drove home from the Cape that weekend into a traffic jam and I amused myself by “taking pictures” with my new camera.
My parents didn’t want to waste color film on what they were sure would be a passing diversion for me so they gave me a roll of black and white. I very carefully considered what to take with this. I remember taking a photo of a flower before remembering the black and white wouldn’t reproduce its color. I took pictures of my family and friends. The last photo, I remember clearly, was St. Brendan’s Church, snapped from an odd angle while visiting a friend.
The photos came out well, particularly the church — it stayed on my bulletin board for years — and I was allowed to move on to color. My parents that Christmas gave me a “real” camera, but it didn’t work as well as the Brownie — the flash cubes wouldn’t flash, the film would become overexposed. I lost interest in pictures until high school, where I had your basic 110 Instamatic camera, suitable for prom photos and general teenage goofing around.
Photography wasn’t my thing. I’d rather write 1,000 words rather than take a picture. But I did ask for, and received, the incredibly basic Pentax K1000 35mm camera after my freshman year at Boston University. I figured, while I’d be going into reporting, it would never hurt to know how to operate a camera. I took a basic photography class and spent a happy semester in the darkroom learning about f-stops and apertures, flash bounces and lens filters, contact sheets and chemicals.
I took that camera everywhere. It was heavy and clunky but the photos were beautiful. It saved my job when I worked in Gardner — “I can take pictures, I can run the darkroom,” I said to the cost-cutting publisher — and I continued with the photos even after a photographer was hired, first watching images float to the surface through a chemical bath, then scanning in negatives on this remarkable new computer system called an AP Leaf Desk.
I went back to just picking up the camera every now and then when I switched newspapers. We had the best photographer at this paper, period. Oh, I snapped a picture here and there and he begrudgingly said they weren’t bad — “for a reporters” — but the Pentax more or less stayed in its camera bag. I even switched to a smaller point-and-shoot. There wasn’t need.
I took pictures of our puppy, of various trips, our kids as they came along. Every once in a while, I’d break out the Pentax when I felt like being artsy. At work, I moved to the copy desk and spent a lot of time studying photos. This photographer took excellent portraits, that photographer liked interesting shapes.
I’d toggle back and forth between photos, trying to decide which was the “better” image. Sometimes it was facial expression that decided it. Other times it was the overall juxtaposition of the elements, the cropping of the image, the way it conveyed the story. Sometimes I’d have arguments with the photographers over which photos I used, and how; sometimes they’d compliment me on how I used them.
I guess all those years I was studying photography. I’d watch Allan as he shot an event or put a subject at ease. I’d listen to Ken talk about how he staked out a certain spot to get just the right shot of an event he covered every single year. I looked over their shoulders as they decided what to submit and what to discard. I’d play with the finished images on my pages — here’s the color that would pop for the front, here’s the shot that needed to be played large for full enjoyment.
And then I started blogging. As any page designer knows, the eye hates a page with just a bunch of type on it. I needed to put something in to break up the big blocks of gray. So I started carrying around a camera and found myself kind of enjoying it. When I was laid off and started taking even more pictures, I even spent a freelance check on on a better camera.
It’s still rather unnerving to go out to an event, Greater Grafton Camera in hand, knowing I’m the photographer. I nearly had a nervous meltdown over graduation. I’m still shell-shocked over my first fire. I know my limitations. I still shoot fairly well “for a reporter.”
Gotta admit, though, I’m improving. Don’t you think?