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Photographic Memories

Last week, I ventured into our basement’s “catch all” room and lugged a couple old trunks upstairs. The contents hadn’t been rummaged through in years. Nearly twenty, in fact. I spent the evening going through old magazines, letters, baby books and memorabilia. Discovering the stash of pictures, I had long forgotten about, was like uncovering buried treasure. Dozens of photos I had taken – dating back as far as 1981.

I was ten years old when I got my first camera. It was an old Kodak Brownie; a hand-me-down gift from my dad. He showed me how to open the back to insert fresh film and warned me of the consequences of opening it before I reached the end of the roll. I quickly learned how to look through the viewfinder and snap a photo by pressing the metal tab that protruded from the camera’s side. And I mastered twisting the knob to advance the film to the next frame. Not too far, though! The camera was a clunky, handful of clumsy corners and features. But there was something special about it. And unlike my other childhood possessions; it wasn’t a toy.

I took my first photos in Custer State Park with that camera. Standing alongside Needles Highway and looking out across the treetops, I captured an image of the granite spires. Then, somewhere further down the road, a quick photo of a burro. This park holds a piece of my heart, and is, to this day, my favorite place to seek solitude and take pictures.

A year later, I carried the Brownie on a fieldtrip to the Hills. Only two pictures from that trip have survived the years. Both grainy black and whites. One taken at Crazy Horse Memorial, the other at Mount Rushmore. Holding these photos in my hand transports me back to that day and I have vague memories of riding on the bus, sack lunches and being more interested in the chipmunks begging for handouts, than I was in learning about the presidents.

There are a few shots of my dad, building his dream home. A getaway cabin, where my beautiful mother now lives. Looking at these photos is bittersweet. They spark memories of being a child, playing in the shade. Images of watching my parents and the sound of saws and hammers, busy at work. But we lost Dad in 1999 – just months before my folks were to make the cabin their permanent home. Like I said; bittersweet.

Not so many years ago, being a shutterbug required patience. After reaching the end of a roll, I’d ride my bike to the grocery store to drop it off for processing. I’d fill out the form on the big envelope, drop the roll inside and seal the flap. Then, wait. A week later (sometimes longer) I’d tag along with my mom, and as she shopped, I’d spend my saved-up allowance to pay for my developed photos, then stand at the checkout counter, flipping through them.

My next camera was purchased at a pawn shop when I was twelve. The little Kodak 110 was a dream, compared to the Brownie I’d practiced on. Its slender design – not much bigger than today’s smart phones, made it easy to carry, shoved into my hip pocket. For the next several years, it accompanied me on trips, into the halls of my high school and then adulthood. I snapped countless pictures of my babies on that little 110.

As a young wife and mother, funds were always tight. Paying for developed photos meant counting change and digging for stray dollar bills at the bottom of my purse, but I always managed to come up with enough to claim my memories and take them home with me.

By the time I got my first “new” camera, my kids were in grade school. It as 1994, and next to our microwave, that Pentax 35mm was the most amazing bit of technology I had ever owned. It advanced frame automatically and would rewind a roll of spent film at the touch of a button.

I continued to take pictures of my kids. Oh, how I love looking back at all these candid shots of birthdays, summer picnics and teddy bear hugs. Along with all the family photos, there are stacks of blurry landscapes. The trees are out of focus, and the skies are too dark, but the images trigger memories of road trips and places I’d forgotten.

Sorting through them all, has reminded me that my love for photography started at a young age. It began on that day in 1981 when my dad placed a clunky old camera in my hands. I think of him, often, when I’m out on the trail, trying to capture the sunrise, or walking through a car show, looking for the best angle. Like the Canon I now shoot with, I carry his memory with me wherever I go.

Now, more than ever, I’m on the lookout for moments and memories; images I can look back on, twenty years from now. Whether I’m sorting through an old trunk or a long-lost scrapbook, I want to be reminded – of everything. Because there’s something magical about holding an image in your hands and feeling like you’ve been given permission to relive a piece of the past.


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