Saturday, March 12, 2005

My Father's camera and what he left me

My father died a few years ago. During the course of his life he pursued many interests, one of which was an interest in photography. As a young man I often went along with him on the short trips he took in order to pursue this interest.
Our equipment consisted of several manual cameras, a variety of lenses, and a hand held light meter. Living in New Orleans we naturally gravitated toward the French Quarter area and the Farmers Market for photo opportunities because of the unique nature of the area and the chance to photograph a style of architecture that is found in very few places in the united State.
These trips began in the early morning, often finding us set up along the banks of the Mississippi river. In the early morning, the Mississippi is more often than not overlaid by a layer of fog. My father loved to shoot the many different types of ships that traveled the river, carrying their cargo to New Orleans for offloading, and leaving the port city for destinations around the world.
He often spoke of using the camera as a way of preserving the world around us, of capturing moments in time that could not be repeated ever again. These images of ships pushing their way down a fog shrouded river captured the essence of the port and the working lives of the men along the docks, plying their trade in the morning light while the rest of the city slept around us.
While newer cameras were emerging onto the market, cameras with built in light meters and so forth, my father believed that these devices reduced the person behind the camera to a mere picture taker. What he tried to pass on to me was that the camera can be an artist's tool, but to do so, the artist had to develop a feel for the camera, an intimate knowledge of light, and the different ways it can be captured by a camera and a knowledgeable photographer.
As we wandered the levee and the streets of New Orleans, he would point out different features of the camera and how they could be used to create dramatic effects that amplified the spirit and the nature of the city.
I was required to know the effect of film speed on an image, how changing the aperture of a lens changed the depth of field, how shutter speed could be used to create intentional blurring, and an endless litany of other things he felt any good photographer should learn.
In doing so, he created a passion within me for creative photography that stays with me today, and he created memories that I treasure, a connection that come back to me in full force when I hold the cameras he passed down to me.
I often find myself on these excursions again, wandering the streets of the French quarter in the early morning when the atmosphere of the previous night still hangs in the air, yet the dawning day is battling its way through the fog.
I carry his old Olympus camera, the 40 year old light meter that still works as well as it ever did. I appreciate the time he spent with me, not merely because of what his love of photography taught me, but because carrying that old Olympus camera allows me to reconnect with him, to feel like he is there beside me as I capture the line of Spanish and French architecture, the movement of the peddlers as they bring their produce in from the country as they have for hundreds of years.
I still have his equipment and I guard it carefully. Among the items he gave me is a 1/2 frame camera. It uses 35mm film but produces 72 pictures on a roll of 36 shot film. I have to develop and print these pictures myself, as there are no labs that I have found with the capability of handling this format. I like it that way. When I'm in the darkroom, it's just me and my dad together again with the years melted away, and he hangs over my shoulder giving me advice.
While I have entered the digital age, and enjoy the simplicity and economy of electronic photography, nothing compares to that connection to the past that taught me what photography can be.
While those around me snap away with their digitals, knowing that 1 shot or a hundred carries the same cost, I find myself looking at a scene from every angle, analyzing my shots before I take them, because after all, film is expensive and not to be wasted on just random shots. As a result, I take fewer but better pictures, and since I know what I'm trying to capture before I press the shutter I know in a glance whether I've accomplished what I set out to do.
I'm happy that I do things the way I was taught, that I take the time to plan my shots, and to force my eye to see what the camera will capture when I finally pull the trigger.

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