My First Camera

My first camera was a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye that took 12 square pictures on a roll of 620 film. It was a Christmas gift in 1954. I was 12.

I'm sure Mom had to beg Dad to buy it. He groused about the cost of film and processing, but then he groused about everything. He had a knack for souring even the best of times. But he was right. It cost money to take pictures.

The cost of film and processing seemed to be a big deal in our garden apartment complex in Belleville, N.J. The place had been built right after the war. The people in the two-family houses around us referred to the apartment complex as "the projects." It was a place where young families lived briefly on their way to bigger things and better places. I guess we stayed because Dad's work history was too spotty for mortgage lenders or we couldn't scrape together the down payment for a house. Probably both.

My friend Paul lived in the projects too. I learned how precious film could be from from his grandmother. She drank and watched soap operas during the day while her daughter, Paul's mom, worked as a waitress in Newark.

One day, a bunch of us kids were playing war behind the apartments, mowing each other down with imaginary bullets. We fell into the hedges or onto the ground and tried to out-writhe each other in death throes drama. We were all dying on a stretch of lawn near Paul's apartment when he suddenly had an idea. His mother's camera had a couple of shots left on a roll of film, he said. He would get the camera and take a picture of us all. A minute or so later Paul came out with the camera and began to arrange us for a group shot.

Paul never got to press the button. His grandmother shrieked from the back door for him to stop. She was clutching her threadbare house dress, half hiding behind the kitchen door. We had probably interrupted her third high ball of the afternoon; she was in a foul mood.

"Don't you dare waste film on those people!" she screamed, her face contorted in contempt. But she didn't really say "people." I can't remember exactly what she did say, but it was strong enough to hurt a kid's feelings. I had never heard a woman make that kind of a noise.

So the picture of us kids, rumpled, dirty, and happy as hell was not taken. Too bad. It would have been a great shot.

But a lesson was learned. On Branch Brook Drive, you didn't snap pictures lightly. Film and processing were serious business.

A year or two later and despite Paul's grandmother, I asked for a camera. Luckily I didn't have to explain precisely what I had in mind for it. If anyone asked I would have lied. The truth was that I thought I could be a great art photographer. I would take the kind of dramatic photographs that were in the photography magazines -- stark patterns and off-kilter compositions. I just knew I could do it.

I did try the few times I had the chance, when there was actually film in the camera. I remember shooting a close-up of lawn chair legs -- not the seats, just the legs. It would win photo contests and lead to fame as an artist, I was sure. But when the shots came back from Kodak a week later, the photo wasn't art, just lawn chair legs. It may still be in a shoe box around here somewhere. But most of the Hawkeye photos were pretty mundane, like this one of me on the couch. I don't remember who took it.

Miserable old Dad was right. Film and processing cost money I just didn't have. My allowance was still only 25 cents a week. Coincidentally, that's exactly what it cost to get into the the Saturday matinee at the Capital Theater. So, I pretty much skipped photography until 1960 when I got my first job. Then, I remember shooting pretty young Ann Valentine as she posed on a rock at Garret Mountain Reservation. I was crazy about her and was sure I would take knockout pictures.

They turned out to be just plain ordinary. It was hard to make a mistake with the Hawkeye, so I had only myself to blame. All I had to do was aim the damned thing, but there was apparently more to aiming a camera than I thought.

I never used the Hawkeye again. We sold it at a garage sale 20 years or so later. Still worked as far as I could tell.

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