Statue in Elmwood Cemetery – Memphis, Tennessee.
I bought the camera of my dreams in the early 2000s. I ordered it by telephone from a store in New York City after researching ads in photography magazines. I remember that the order taker was scornful that I didn’t know which aperture range to specify for my lens. Ignoramuses had no business buying such a lovely camera. I didn’t care.
When the box arrived at my home, I was beside myself with excitement. Carefully unpacking the goods, I laid out all of the equipment on my bed, a soft surface that wouldn’t mar the perfection of the gleaming black and silver. I gently affixed the lens to the camera body and peered through the view finder. An unidentifiable speck floated before my eye. A little alarmed, I examined the glass lens and the view finder and found nothing amiss. I took the cleaning cloth included with my purchase and wiped the glass surfaces methodically, barely touching the crystal. I looked through the view finder again and saw the same speck. Finally, I unlatched the lens from its mount and looked inside the camera body.
A minute piece of lint was stuck on the focusing screen, mocking me and my joy.
I could have tried flicking away the intruder with the tip of a fine art paintbrush, but the stakes were too high. I needed the only expert I knew to perform such surgery: my dad, a camera buff who had spent some time shooting professionally and whose passion for the craft was legendary in my family. I telephoned him and explained the problem. Sure, he said, he could give it a go.
Half an hour later, he was cradling the exposed body of my new camera in his lap, a rubber bulb in his hand. A slim camel-haired brush attached to the bulb would dislodge the lint as a soft puff of air propelled by the bulb sent the speck aloft. That was the idea, anyway. And it might have worked, too. But as Dad carefully squeezed the bulb, the device belched a thousand microscopic pieces of dust accumulated from the previous 20 years spent rolling around the bottom of his camera bag, and every nook and cranny inside my new, fancy camera became inoculated with the stuff. I stifled a scream. Dad was apologetic. He tried his best to undo the damage, but aside from reducing the camera to a pile of screws and hinges and running the whole thing through a dishwasher, there was no way to make it clean. I repacked my still-gleaming equipment, thanked my dad for trying, and drove home in silent contemplation of the ways of the universe. Once in high school I lied to my dad about how a camera of his that I’d borrowed had come to be dinged. I’d accidentally dropped it on the basketball court during a varsity game that I was photographing for the school paper, but I fudged and told him I had no idea how the dent got there. Was this Karma showing up now, revisiting my crime with magnified impact?
Maybe. I had my new camera professionally cleaned twice, but finally the camera shop staff threw their hands up in defeat. Tiny spots and scratches scarred most of my photos where the dust dragged through the emulsion-coated film like a fork through frosting. Dad gave me his home darkroom equipment, and I set it up in a tiny room of my home and learned how to doctor my own photos in the lab. I bought special pens in 10 shades of grey and black to cover spots on black and white photos. Twenty-plus years after dropping that Nikomat on the basketball court, I had it repaired and returned it to my dad in mint condition. I don’t think he was ever the wiser. (Then again, I’m a parent now, myself. He probably knew.)
I still loved photography, somehow.
Eventually, digital cameras took over the world. It was harder to get paper and chemicals to process my own film. We moved to a house that didn’t have a convenient spot for a darkroom. I boxed up the enlarger and trays and safelight and timers and donated it all to Goodwill because I couldn’t find a buyer for a hobby that was growing obsolete. I bought a pocket-sized digital camera and used that periodically. I found the lack of heft and long lenses completely embarrassing. I tried to tell myself that size didn’t matter. My denouement as a camera buff was complete the day I traded in my flip-phone for an iPhone. The iPhone’s camera was good enough for recording the odd cute pet moment, and I put down the stand-alone camera for good.
But a funny thing happened on my way out of the world of photography. It became fun again with no pressure to make something worthy from all that complicated equipment. My phone was usually close by, so I captured candid shots with ease, and a new world opened up when I discovered editing apps and filters. It’s easy to pop off a shot when dinner’s ready, making writing a food blog a natural progression.
Things have a way of working out.
Next: Karma, Is That You? (Part 2): Taking photos in an old Memphis cemetery.