Saturday, July 04, 2009

The Box Brownie in the Cupboard

We all know of cultures who think that taking a photograph of them captures their soul, but what of the relationship between the camera and the photographer? What lingers inside the camera?

Not long ago I had one of those amazing interactions that stretches my thinking. I like that. I try to embrace a sentiment I got from Maxine Hong Kingston's autobiography years agoin which she has her alter ego express the goal to "make your mind large enough to incorporate paradoxes." The interaction came from an exhibit at the nearby glass works (North Lands Creative Glass in Lybster). I might not have gone to see the exhibit except that two of the artists had come to do a show and tell of their residencies at a closer to home venue--the new museum in Thurso.

The work that interested me the least --at first--was a young American whose work had been taken up with vintage cameras. He found them, repaired them as needed, took at least one photograph with them, and then used the camera as a mold--juxtaposing the permanent and the transient. Having long been daunted by the mechanics of photography, I did not expect to be captivated, but I am drawn to photographs, especially the anonymous faces staring so keenly out of old glass negative photos, so I listened and looked intently.

The artist shared some of the history of the cameras, including the democratizing of both history and art with the advent of the Box brownie camera. Now transient moments could be captured by more than the elite or the technocrat, and candid photographs were possible. Arguably, this ushered in an era of overload of vacation snaps of seaside visits or children in best clothes, but those were the photos of someone choosing a moment that they wanted to remember--to hold on to.

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When my husband found this old box brownie in the cupboard, it brought back to me all those associations and a few more came with it. I remember a friend whose husband--now decades ago--showed me his collection of 19th century photographs carefully preserved and framed. They were beautiful, tiny photos of what I took to be sleeping infants. When he told me they were dead and that there was in the 19th century a tradition of photographing these infants as a last memory for the grieving parents, I was appalled. I remember sadly how hurt he was, "I thought you would understand," he said as he picked up the nearest photos and put them out of sight. Now I understand. I understand why the parents wanted, needed, and cherished those images. I understand why the photographer thought of it as precious gift to the parents. I understand why he saved those photographs. I also understand now why he thought I would appreciate them. I am honoured that he had such faith in me and very sorry that it took me so long to grow into that understanding.

And for all those reasons and more I took photos of this little box brownie out into the garden where it was many years ago. I photographed it on the garden wall overlooking the sycamores and in the honeysuckle and in front of the newly painted front door.

9 Comments:

At 2:35 PM, Anonymous ampiggy said...

When I saw only the title of this post, I thot it would be about baked brownies!

The Brownie looks oddly at home in the garden, as I remember the old-timey things in the house, especially the cozy bedroom I slept in. I bet that not a few photos around the house were taken with that camera.

I keep trying to relate your comments to the current pastime of scrapbooking. That's how some people preserve their memories--photos, souvenirs, and written comments.

 
At 8:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

beautiful memories of days gone by with this old camera, yet not really gone at all but still here and still close // one of your very best // scorrie //

 
At 10:03 PM, Blogger Ruan Peat said...

Will you be getting it going? I had one when a child and loved it but my dad got rid of it one day when I was at uni, I did have 2 slr's, a minidisc and a polariod at the time so you can see I wasn't useing it often but I missed it and would love to think you will be useing this one :-D, I know our modern views of death and memory are much changed, I have one blurred photo of my childhood mate who died, I never took her picture as she was always beside me, never thought I needed too.

 
At 8:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow // what an excellent foto of a foto machine from long time ago // superb // the story matches the foto // scorrie //

 
At 4:32 PM, Blogger Hayden said...

again, so beautifully written, so wise that it brought tears to my eyes. thank you.

some believe that everything has a soul, even manufactured items like old cameras.

as Newtonian physics dissolves around us and we reluctantly let go of the notion of solids and separation (as physicists did many decades ago) we are left with an energy web. All things, those we traditionally dub sentient, and those we do not, are energy. Is it too much to wonder about how that dancing cloud of energy reacts/interacts with our own?

 
At 7:11 AM, Anonymous scorrie said...

what beautiful fotos of the foto machine that a Box Brownie was // scorrie

 
At 11:01 AM, Blogger landgirl said...

Ruan, we are going to try to get it going again. What a sad sweet story about your childhood friend. Thanks for telling me but it gave me a lump in my throat. If you come to next SNB, could you please bring her photo?

 
At 11:02 AM, Blogger landgirl said...

Ah, Hayden, a web of energy I do like the image of that. It seems much more accurate a way of those connections that are not so tangible but all the more compelling for that.

 
At 1:32 AM, Blogger msmith66 said...

I wonder if you got it working? I suppose it takes 127 film which is hard to find - maybe impossible in Scotland. Central Camera in Chicago has it though. http://www.centralcamera.com/Film/Film-for-Older-Cameras/

Please let me know how it turns out. I have two old brownies. I used the one my parents bought back in the 50s to experiment with darkroom and printing techniques when I was in 7th grade. I still have it.

 

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