My first camera was a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye that took square pictures. 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 grouse about everything. He had a knack for souring even the best of times. But he was right. The cost of taking pictures was high.
The cost of film and processing was a big deal in our garden apartment complex in Belleville, N.J. People in the two-family houses all 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 lendors or we couldn't scrape together the down payment for a house. Probably both.
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 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 interupted 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. Photopraphy was a 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. I wanted to be a great art photographer. I would take the kind of dramatic photographs that were in the photograhy magazines -- stark patterns and off-kilter compostitions. I just knew I could do that.
I did try the few times I had the chance, when there was actually film in the camera. I remember shooting a closeup 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. The picture may still be in a shoe box around here somehwere.
That pretty much ended my first photography phase.
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.
It was not a tough decision.