I was born in 1959. That put me right in the sweet spot of what would become the new wave of inexpensive, easy to use–and even instant–photography. The Kodak Instamatic camera was introduced in 1963, and by 1970 Kodak had sold more than 50 million of them. Polaroid introduced their first color instant camera that same year.
My dad gave me an Instamatic 104 for my 9th birthday. I remember how precious each snap of the lens was–the film, flashbulbs, and development were all more than I could easily afford. I would save a little by shooting in black and white. I have a few of those picture somewhere, but it would take some digging to pull then out.
I remember one picture in particular. We were snowed in for a few days, and I was bored to tears. I decided to take a picture out my kitchen window. It was not any kind of special view; we looked out on the back of two three-deckers from the next street. One three decker was well maintained, the yard tidy, the back porches painted.
The other three-decker was ramshackle. The first floor had a corner pharmacy I would work in years later. Trash barrels and boxes crowded a small shed under the second floor porch. The building had needed a coat of paint for decades, and the grey paint had given way to rotting and blackened shingles underneath.
I pointed my camera at the ramshackle one and clicked.
When I developed the film a couple of weeks later, my oldest brother riffled through the pictures, paused at the one from the kitchen window. “What did you take this one for?” He didn’t wait for my answer before declaring. “It’s stupid. You wasted your money.” My career as an auteur was off to a bad start.
If we now live in an age where nearly everything is photographed and even filmed, I grew up in that very different age when every picture counted. Yesterday I put away the summer furniture. Our outdoor dining table bedevils me each spring when I look at the six legs, the supporting bracket, and the dozens of nuts and bolts and plastic caps that cover them. So in the fall I was always take a set of pictures of the table while it’s still assembled. Yesterday I took six–six high quality color digital photos. I do this each year. The table is six years old. Do the math.
The picture above was taken by my good friend JoAnn. I was outside our elementary school with her brother Walter and our friend Chuckie. That’s me on the left, looking all James Dean, then Walter looking a bit irritated at his sister, then Chuckie. JoAnn and I guess that it was probably fourth grade.
I love the details. My belt buckle, shirt, and pants don’t quite line up. My collar is open and my shirt seems to be a bolder print than the others. Walter looks as big and steady as he is today. Chucky is the most dapper and put together, though I can see the gleam in his eye that made him the wildest among us. Chucky become the kid with the motorbikes and the BB guns and the fast cars. As soon as he could drive he had a Dodge Dart GTS. I can still rattle off the specs: a 340 cubic inch engine with a Holley four barrel carburetor, a Hurst shifter, and Cherry Bomb mufflers. I road shotgun in many a drag race with Chucky at the wheel.
Aside from that picture (which of course I only received as a scan decades later), I only have one other picture of Chucky. It’s his yearbook picture. He was a big handsome young man, with aviator glasses, and the full head of hair, combed straight back, that signaled the ’70s were ending. In the yearbook, the picture was marred by an odd mark in the middle of his hair. It was almost if something had been chipped out of the picture. Everyone was upset about it, but there was no recourse back then. The yearbook had been printed.
That weird mark haunted us a few years later when Chucky died snowmobiling; in hindsight it seemed like a weird premonition. In the odd times I happen to go through my yearbook, I can only pause on that page for a moment.
Pictures have that deep, evocative power, even when they’re not the ones that win Pulitzers, even when they’re not of the famous person or the famous moment. We all carry those images with us, don’t we? A wedding picture. A picture of a grandmother in her kitchen. A picture or a child playing ball or on a swing. A picture of an old friend, long gone.
So we hold onto the ones we have. We frame them. We secure them in albums, keep them in dry places. We scan them and share them. We post them on Facebook and hope for warm comments. We share them in email and messages. We look at them, sometimes furtively and sometimes at length. The memories come rushing back and we drink them in.