As a child, my parents took pictures with what I seem to recall was a 110 Instamatic and some kind of 35mm box camera. We never had a 1970’s Polaroid, and I vaguely remember running across flash cubes in the record cabinet in the den, so it had to be an Instamatic or something like it. Anyway up until 1977, I had little interest in photography — I was more focused on Legos and Matchbox cars. Then in March 1977, everything changed when we took our first family vacation to visit my aunt, uncle, and cousin in Washington, D.C.
Not satisfied with the photography stylings of the Instamatic, Dad went off with my uncle to Ritz Camera at Tyson’s Corners, perused the selection of SLRs and rangefinders, and opted to purchase a Minolta SRT-201, flash, Rokkor 50mm lens, and a Quantaray 135mm telephoto. Mom was quite “happy” with Dad’s purchase as he blew nearly all of our travel money, thus turning our vacation into a very different kind of adventure. Fortunately for me, I didn’t notice (but knowing now does explain a few things that happened on that trip).
Armed with his new toy, Dad shot literally hundreds of slides and since everything was in slide form, we had to get the slide projector, numerous carousels, and a screen. Our den suddenly became a multimedia warehouse aching to become something much more. I think Dad was determined to prove to Mom that the camera was not a waste of money, so we turned our trip into a full multimedia show complete with music and voiceovers. Hours of production time later, our vacation became a multimedia show that haunted me for the rest of elementary school (when teachers ran out of ideas for class, they contacted Mom to do the slide show). Admittedly, it was quite cool and the whole experience probably defined my career, but I digress.
The little Minolta was virtually indestructible. Dad took it everywhere, and as a volunteer firefighter, it literally did go everywhere. For example, there was one particularly terrible blaze only blocks away from home that claimed a friend’s home in the dead of a North Dakota winter. It was between -20F and -40F (not wind chill, but actual temperature), and there was Dad, fighting the fire with the camera around his neck. When he came in to warm up, he was literally covered in about 1/2” of ice and sealed within the ice was the SRT-201 as he had it on the outside of his fire coat the entire time. We peeled the camera off of him and let it thaw and dry out. The pictures that came out of that camera were unbelievable.
One of Dad’s customers was the local camera store and when they could not pay their service bill, he traded his work for a new camera and accessories. He moved up to an XD-11 with a winder and a Honeywell Strobonar 770 (same as the gray flash gun in Austin Powers), and passed the SRT-201 down to me. Armed with the indestructible camera, I became one of the junior high and high school photographers for both the school newspaper and yearbook. Because the photography class had gone the way of budget cuts, I had to learn how to use a darkroom the hard way. Eventually I figured out black-and-white processing and printing.
I shot almost exclusively in black-and-white and became the school’s action and sports photographer. The upshot was that I could go to virtually any sports event, the downside was that I had an entirely manual camera that made it difficult to get the perfect shot. At the same time I was “doing the photography thing,” I was also active in Science Fair in my senior year, I made a bet with my parents — if I took first place and went to International, they would buy me a new camera. Well, needless-to-say, I ended up with a new camera.
When I won the bet, I wanted a semi-automatic camera with a winder and better metering. At the time, Minolta had just released its Maxxim series and had the X-700, but neither caught my eye. Instead, I shifted to a Nikon N-2000 with a relatively fast Vivitar 35-200mm zoom. Right about that time, I picked up some tips from the local newspaper photographer and with my new equipment, my photographic skills began to improve dramatically. At about that time, Dad loaned his Honeywell flashgun to me. Aside from being the perfect tool for turning a night football field into complete daylight (it could throw about 700 feet!), it was great for flash fights. Everyone ran away in terror when the whine of the capacitors started — it could cause oval “sun burns” if fired directly against bare skin (yes, I tried it).
Anyhow, I headed off to college and decided to take a photography class to learn what I was doing all along. On my first class assignment, the Nikon failed — the electronically-controlled shutter didn’t want to trip. After fussing with it for a few days (and yes, I did change the batteries) and becoming exceedingly frustrated, I called home and my parents sent the SRT-201 down to New Orleans, and it performed flawlessly. I took some fantastic shots during that time, including my award-winning photo, Punishment.
A while later, I had the Nikon repaired, but it was never the same. Shortly thereafter and once my access to the darkroom ended, my interest in photography waned as I became more and more interested in video production. Eventually, the Nikon ended up in a camera bag on the shelf and the SRT-201 went back to North Dakota.
Many years later, I was getting ready for my first trip to England and decided that I wanted to take some real photographs. Digital photography had not blossomed yet, so the only real option was film. A couple of days prior to my trip, I pulled out the Nikon N-2000 for a test run to make sure it still ran correctly. I shot a roll of film and took it to a highly recommended one hour photo lab. When I opened up the packet, I was horrified. The exposure on every shot was off. I checked over the camera and nothing was set wrong. Could it have been me? Had I lost the edge? Would I be doomed to point-and-shoot?
In a panic with only one day left before my trip, I grabbed the N-2000 and marched over to Shutan Camera (when it was still on Randolph Street in Chicago). I looked through all of the Nikon SLRs and decided that I wanted to replace the body with a manual one. I picked an FE-2 off of the shelf, traded in the N-2000 (with a cheap 35-70mm zoom I picked up years ago), bought a 50mm f1.4 Nikkor lens, and headed out to test the camera. I shot a roll of color film and took it to the same lab. An hour later, I opened the packet of photos and the images were dead on. The pictures were incredible. I had made the right choice.
Today, I shoot almost entirely with digital equipment with both mirrorless and DSLR gear. However, I still have my Nikon F3HP and the worn and scarred Minolta SRT-201 that Dad sent me just months before he passed. When I hold them in my hands I remember that photography is more than taking pictures; it is also a process captures memories.