It was around the age of eight that I vaguely remember developing an affinity for photography. I honestly have no idea where it came from, but I remember very distinctly wanting to capture experience in an image – not surreality, but depth. At the time, I knew nothing of the art – only that our family photo albums were chocked full of flat, lifeless, images that seemed to document events in a static, “hey, this happened” kind-of-way. They were banal. I felt there was something missing, but at eight years old, or however old I was, I could only describe what I didn’t like as “flatness,” poor aim, or both.
I must have mentioned something. My mother bought me a Vivitar 35mm point-and-shoot film camera, which I sensed was a pretty significant upgrade from the 110 Kodak rectangle that had seen far too many birthdays, holidays, and baths. [The Kodak 110 went to her eternal rest on I-94 immediately following a family visit to the Milwaukee Zoo: my only memory of which is the sound of something sliding atop the station wagon, dad saying “There goes the camera,” and then feeling a sense of irreplaceable loss – I sensed even then that without those photos, my zoo experience was gone forever. And it was.]
Envisioning something akin to a National Geographic cover photo, I took to experimenting to find whatever it was I sensed was missing from the family albums. I remember an anxious anticipation during the three-day waiting period while the film was developed and printed, followed by a sense of failure and defeat when the only real difference I had produced was that the flat, lifeless images were somewhat clearer. I had noticed while shooting that the camera made everything farther away than I wanted, which made photographing wildlife perfectly impossible, and framing scenes the way I wanted a challenge because I could never get rid of the massive, undesirable foreground. This was my first epiphany – the element of composition mattered.
As disappointing as that initial packet of 3.5″X5″ prints was, I studied them to find out what else was wrong. Composition, I thought, was easy enough, a long as you’re willing to take a step off the beaten path to get the right frame, angle, and perspective on the subject. But even if I had, the image was still flat, lifeless – two-dimensional. Comparing my photos with those in magazines like Reader’s Digest and National Geographic, I discovered another element I wanted: narrow(er) depth of field. Of course, I had no idea what it was called. I just noticed that there was something more vivid and lifelike to having the subject in focus and the rest blurry, like the human eye sees things. I also liked the idea of being able to study in a photograph what is otherwise only out-of-focus periphery to the human eye.
Some three years went by without much development. I can only assume that I spent some time studying published photographs, because I became as aware of the concepts of zoom and focus as I was aware of my frustrating incapacity to affect them with my camera.
At some point, I think when I was around eleven, as we were wrapping up the family dinner, Dad randomly asked, “Andy, you’ve developed an interest in photography, haven’t you?”
He proceeded to tell me about a big old clunky camera that he had received from Uncle Mike years prior, the kind with detachable lenses and a big old leather case to carry them around in. (Uncle Mike had suffered an aneurism that paralyzed the left half of his body and rendered the camera useless to him). It had apparently been buried somewhere down in the furnace room, just sitting there all those years. Dad said I was welcome to it.
I opened the case to find my first SLR, the camera that would transform my flimsy infatuation with photography into a sort of weird, whimsical passion. It was a body, and a 50mm f1.5 and 200mm f4.5 SRT 102telephoto lenses. I was enthralled. I had no idea how to use it, and it was far too complicated to figure out on my own. The only paperwork along with it was a depth-of-field guide for the 200mm f4.5 telephoto lens; there was no manual. Finding an address for Minolta inside the guide, I wrote and mailed a letter telling the story of how I had acquired the camera, how much I wanted to learn photography, and asking how I might get my hands on a manual.
Three weeks or so later, I received a package in the mail. Inside was a personal letter explaining that the manuals were long out of print. There were also words of encouragement (I had included my age in my letter). Finally, whoever wrote that letter was nevertheless able to track one down, make a copy, and cut, fold, and staple it to near original dimensions, and included it with the package free of charge. That was cool. (Whoever and wherever you are, THANK YOU!)
A quick browse through the manual – ISO, focus, aperture, depth-of-field, metering, et al – made it very clear that this was going to be hard to learn. It also became very clear that I was in control – not the camera – and this was a terrifically exciting prospect…. if only I could be sure I was understanding the complicated instructions on how to load the film.