July 24, 2021


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The camera that taught me how to see the world

When I was a kid and it came time for family snapshots, my dad was always heads-down. Chin to chest, eyes locked onto a camera grasped in both hands at waist height. Left hand to steady, right hand to work the controls.

This was no point-and-shoot. Not like the plastic Kodak Instamatic 44 I would receive as a 12th birthday present, or the double-lensed, autofocusing iPhone 11 I carry now. It was a solid, serious, fascinating machine: a Yashica-D twin-lens reflex.

And it was ungainly as hell. The way the viewfinder reversed the image left to right. The buttons and knobs. The heft. That posture.

Think of it as a squat, upside-down periscope.

That was a long time ago now. My dad stopped using that camera by the end of the ’70s, around the time I was heading off to college, but it took a lot of photos over the preceding two decades. Picnics. Holidays. Definitely not action shots.

I’ve been rummaging through some of those photos, and lots more besides, thinking about those distant days and about my dad, Howard. He died in July at the age of 85, having outlived my mom by four years, which isn’t something he’d expected. He was still on his home turf in Portland, Maine, where he’d been born and lived most of his life. We were able to have a small graveside service for him, amid the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus.

The photos run the gamut: Dad as a kid in the 1930s and ’40s, with a mischievous grin. Dad in the Marines. Dad and mom, married in college already and living in an 8-by-28 trailer. Dad at his desk in the basement, working his adding machine. Onward through me and my sister and brother, and the grandkids, too. Many of the pictures are in photo albums, lovingly curated by my mom with hearty captions; others are in frames, or loose in envelopes and folders. We scanned some. The grandkids, mostly in their teens, took photos of the photos with their phones. We all posted a smattering on Facebook and Instagram.

The accessibility of mobile phones and social media platforms like Instagram make it hard to remember how much of an effort it was, not so many years ago, to take and share photos. To remember the delayed gratification: Finishing the roll that was in the camera (sometimes many weeks), sending out the film to be developed and returned (a few days to a week or more). Only then would you know for sure whether eyes were open or the lighting was as good as you thought it was.

Watching my dad take pictures, I was learning about the role of cameras and photos even before I was really thinking about it. And I was starting to learn about who my dad was.

The camera

Besides the photos, I do still have that Yashica-D, a less-familiar camera type from one of a proliferation of Japanese camera makers at midcentury. It’s always been a touchstone for me.

I don’t know why my dad had that particular camera. It was just always there. It’s not like he was into photography in any deeper way. He didn’t have a darkroom or a tripod or any books about Ansel Adams. He didn’t do landscape shots or set up formal portraits. He didn’t pack the Yashica when we hiked up Mount Katahdin during my brief tenure as a Boy Scout. Just family snapshots, mostly around the house, with a camera that seemed… quite a handful.

Long before phones started sprouting multiple cameras, the Yashica-D, as befit a twin-lens reflex design, had a pair of lenses. The upper one was just for sighting, and the lower was for actually taking the picture, letting the light through the shutter to the film inside. That top lens was essentially the same thing as the viewing port on a range-finder camera, only with the same optics as the main lens. Two little dials let you set the shutter speed and aperture. The focus knob on the right side moved the whole double-lens housing in and out.

The viewfinder glass always seemed a little dim, but here’s a neat feature — there’s a magnifying glass that pops out from the collapsible hood mechanism atop the camera so you can get a better sense of the focus.

Given its vintage (it hit the market in 1958), the Yashica-D was all mechanical. No batteries, no electronics.

But there was the flash attachment: a stubby arm that stuck out from the left side, with a shiny metal reflector that fanned out into a full circle. A single naked flashbulb sat in the middle, and when you’d taken your flash photo, you pressed a button to eject the bulb — the hot, hot bulb — onto a seat cushion or into the hands of a daring child.

Read more: https://www.cnet.com/news/the-camera-that-taught-me-how-to-see-the-world/