Back in the ‘70s, my parents gave me a Pentax K1000 camera for 8th grade graduation. It was the coolest thing ever. It was completely non-automatic. You had to manually set everything from aperture to focus.
I fancied myself quite the photographer after getting that camera. I remember taking a photography class during my freshman year in high school and doing an assignment that was supposed to tell a photographic story about who I was. I artfully arranged my toe shoes on my parents’ entryway slate floor, along with my tap and jazz shoes. I took a self-portrait using a mirror. I took photos of my Standard Poodle, Fred. I felt like an artiste. I was ready to move to Santa Fe to live with the Hippies.
The best part about that class was that we got to develop our own photos in a darkroom. I loved the chemical smells and watching blank paper blossom into a black and white masterpiece. I’m sure all of the toxic fumes from those chemicals–that are probably now banned–led me to believe that all of my photos were of professional grade.
The following summer my parents had a party. It was a beautiful evening and I decided to take pictures of their friends and relatives as they milled about in the backyard sipping wine and being fabulous.
I loaded my camera with 400 speed film which was, at that time, the fastest film available. It always took several attempts to load the camera because you had to line up the holes on the sides of the film with the cogs on the loading device of the camera. I chose the lens I wanted to use and attached the flash. It took some time to set up my cherished Pentax K1000, but it was worth it because I was a P.I. T. M. (professional in the making.)
With that camera in my hands I was Victor Skrebneski. I was Irving Penn. I was Annie Leibovitz. I was capturing moments in history. I was so excited and so proud.
I walked over to my Aunt Aldine to show her my new camera. “Oh, that’s nice, Dear,” she said, not even looking at me or the camera in my hands. And then, to my absolute and complete horror, she took her cigarette and snuffed it out in the open camera case. She thought I was bringing her an ashtray.
I mean, there I was, 15 years old, standing there waiting for my Aunt to admire my pride and joy. I was holding it with the attached case open so I wouldn’t lose it. And then with complete ignorance and innocence, my Aunt scarred my prized possession for life.
When I think back to that frozen moment in time, I see myself looking down as if floating above, watching the carnage. I remember exactly what I was wearing. I remember having used empty frozen orange juice cans in my hair the night before so my hair would be straight for the party. I remember the psychedelic headband I wore with my bell-bottom jeans and un-tucked white button down shirt.
I still have the camera and I still use it. And, it still has the cigarette burn in the case, which brings my husband Richard to tears from laughing every single time I show it to him because he thinks it is one of the funniest stories he’s ever heard.
It was sad, but it was hilarious, too, because now, every time I open the disintegrating camera case, I see the burn mark and remember Aunt Aldine in all of her Caftan-wearing glory, flaming red hair and matching flaming red lips as she nonchalantly snuffed out her cigarette in what she thought was an ashtray.
At the time I was mortified. I was stunned. I was angry. But, there was nothing I could do about it. I didn’t say anything to her or to my parents. In fact I just recently told my parents about it and we all laughed at the complete absurdity of the whole scene.
So even though the case is marred, every time I hold that camera in my hands I feel like a true photographer. It’s not at all like my “point-and-shoot-idiot-proof” digital camera that does everything for me. It takes careful balance and thought to take a photograph with my Pentax K1000. I have to remember to set the film speed, and the distance, and many other things to capture what I see in front of me as realistically as I can.
But, the truth is, I can’t take a decent picture with that thing and never could. I’m sure if I spent hours taking pictures and learning about light, color and shadows I could become at least a decent photographer. And if I can’t, I can always blame Aunt Aldine for blowing my dreams up in smoke.