At some point early on in life, I’m not quite sure why, I was shown how to put film into this camera and take it outside and actually take pictures! I must have been pretty young at the time, but I had already apprenticed for many hours with the top flipped up, staring down into the thick glass, trying to get my bearings with the mirror image in front of me.
There were not many things more exiting in life than swinging the camera one way and having a mirrored square of the world speed off in the opposite direction.
I knew it was a camera. It had to be with its deep claret red circle on the back that you could just see the light through. It wasn’t particularly special when the back was open ; but when the shutter was pressed the little red circle was bathed in light. Combine this with the sound of the metal leaf shutter sliding out of the way and it was pure magic.
If a camera is a nothing more than a black box with a hole in it, then this one was a real step up from the one I had. Capable of taking the most sophisticated double exposures with alien hokey-bokeh effects and lomo craziness that even the most dedicated hipster would die for. Not to mention the black and white retro cachet.
I’m still impressed with the stunning design job done by the Kodak team on such a simple machine. From the pebbled sides and great proportioning to the black plastic strap that could have been made straight out of a box of Broadway licorice ribbon.
Sling it around your neck, look down (and sideways just for fun) and you were suddenly part of the wilder world of Weegee and the front page of the daily news.
Once it actually had film in it, I didn’t really know what to do with a camera . And I certainly didn’t have a clue what I was doing.
Up to this point, a camera was pure technology. Something that made cool noises, came apart so you could explore the inside in order to guess what everything did, and once closed up you could point directly at light bulbs and watch the red circle light up with astounding precision whenever you were ready. The duaflex II featured one added bonus, the ability to explore the world in another dimension. A world in reverse.
My first and only camera up to this point was a Kodak Baby Brownie. As much a point and click machine as you are ever going to see. A pocket-sized art-deco masterpiece in bakelite. An indestructible 2 piece monster that represented the first step away from the paste-card and leather boxes that evolved into the iPhone today.
That is, it would be pocket-size if you had a special pair of cargo pants and didn’t mind a block the size of a rubiks cube banging against your leg. Granted, it did have wonderfully curved features and epic design capable of making todays cellphone fanatics wet their pants. And for small hands, it was a treasure to hold and easy to use. That is if it had film in it, which never seemed to be the case.
For some reason every memory I have of the Baby Brownie is when it’s apart. Or in some stage of being taken apart and reassembled. Thing was, I was going to be an inventor even if I had no idea how to get there. But with my germanium-Rocket-Radio and Girder-and-Panel building set figured I could just start taking things apart and put them back together again while observing carefully and eventually I would arrive. I knew I was onto something. Science, technology , progress – it was bound to work out. Like the communists and americans with their space race, how could it not???
But once I got the back of this sucker open I found there were a few more parts. Here my friends was something else. Originally it wasn’t my camera, that would come later. It was my mom’s.
She showed me how to take out the old spool and put it in the bottom with the wide side out. Put in the new spool facing the right way, pull the paper down and thread it through the slot. Give it a few turns to make sure it folded over properly and then close the back.
The round red window now took on new meaning as you slowly wound the film through, carefully watching the line and letters until the number 1 lined up center in the window.
Now you were all set! The next 12 times you pressed the button would get you a picture. The idea was that each one of them could be separate, as long as you remembered to advance the film. Forgetting the lens cap wouldn’t come until later with even more complicated equipment.
Somehow, Kodak had managed to take a bulky and unmanageable process; wet plates of glass, tin and collodion and sliding them into heavy wooden boxes pulling out slides, pressing the shutter, putting the slide back in and hanging around to deal with physicality of chemistry before moving on to the next picture; put it all onto a roll the size of a shotgun shell and drop it in the hands of ordinary people. This idea would change the world.
At the end of the roll you simply wound up the paper, licked the gummy tasting seal and taped it shut and dropped it off at the drugstore where it would be sent away for upwards of a week and return with the pictures you thought you’d taken.
I already knew from looking at other pictures that they would come back square and mostly grey with great deckle edges that I pine for today. Sometimes they were washed out, sometimes too much contrast, but mostly they were perfect. A little like reception on TV.
If you worked at it like some grown-ups did, you could get a great picture that everyone liked. A skill akin to adjusting the rabbit-ears on top of the set. All of a sudden the world tuned in and everyone was happy. Mostly pictures were of people. At least they were if you pointed a camera at them which seemed to be the one thing most people did.
The thing is that the people were either posing or doing stupid everyday things they always did at special occasions. I already knew most of them. Knew their poses, and knew the routines they were famous for. In real life they were always happy to repeat their pose or performance on command so what was the point. That’s what memory was. For when they weren’t around. And somehow pictures never ‘captured the occasion’. Even if there were two, three or even four of them.
All the sights, smells and sounds. The great way you feel when you laugh. The squabbling and mini-crisis’. The conversations and jokes and renewed acquaintances. As a document of who was there okay, but I was a little young to be into that. I loved to remember and remembering wasn’t pictures. I didn’t know what pictures were, but I was determined to somehow to find out.
As far as I know, this is the first picture I took. The toboggan run in Waterloo Park.
If this isn’t my actual picture, the one I took was so similar it may as well be. I seemed to take a lot of pictures like this. I wanted to use the camera to explore. To capture things like “skiing’ at the new north hill at Chicopee. To catch the exhilaration and expanse. The quality of light and it’s effects on objects. To say something about movement and space. To somehow make sense of and snatch at this backward universe that so brightly glowed my glass.
It’s a like taking pictures with a radio telescope. Or knowing how to study chromatography, especially from space. The elements are there, there’s no denying something happened, but previous knowledge and educated guesses have to guide us along.
To this day, even with a smart phone, photographs always come from the past. From another dimension. No longer inhabiting the universe we’re in and only hinting at an outline of what was. An affectation of the soul. An act of imagination.
And it’s still the same. Always looking down into that little black box; down into an alternate world that has its own rules, its own dimensions, and hopefully in a desperate act of magic I try to understand what it is I see and press that button and pray. Close my eyes and wait to see what comes back.
- Harness the power of radio waves and germanium crystals !
- No batteries !
- No electricity !
- A scientific wonder !
- Trouble free – private enjoyment with Hi Fi Tone quality !