Dusting off the oldest camera in the world

I went to the Boundary Waters a couple weeks ago and didn’t bring my camera, but I came back with a full memory card.

When I lived in New Zealand, one of the most picture-perfect places on earth, I often saw tourists who seemed to view the whole country through the monitor of a digital camera. A two-hour boat ride on Milford Sound, and Joe from Ohio was squinting at the back of his point-and-shoot the entire time.

Without a camera to distract me in the BWCA, I just sat and soaked it all in, the images recorded impermanently for the benefit of no one but me.

Remember when pictures were rare, and therefore valuable? Those grainy black-and-whites of your ancestors? The faded colors from Christmases past?
Now I have 40,000 pictures on my hard-drive, and 99 percent of them suck.
The digital revolution in photography had its benefits. It made photography cheaper and easier. Nowadays, a monkey can take better pictures than Louis Daguerre or Mathew Brady could.
Click the shutter a hundred times, and you’re sure to get a decent shot or two.
To the professional photographers, it’s a real come-down. The grand canyon that once separated the pro with his SLR from the amateur with his Instamatic is now no bigger than County Ditch #4.
I routinely see pictures taken with a point-and-shoot that rival those taken by professionals with thousand-dollar cameras.
Hard-won skills ain’t worth diddly.
I should know. I learned to take pictures as a teenager at Split Rock Lighthouse with my dad’s Kodak SLR — one of the last the company made.
He taught me about shutter speed, aperture, depth-of-field, light meters and “ASA” (now known as ISO). He had the standard 50 millimeter as well as a 135-mm telephoto and a 28-mm wide angle. He showed me how to use his close-up lenses, which let me take great pics of flowers, bugs and eyeballs.
With my newfound skill, I decided to become a National Geographic photographer, so I took the Kodak and my dad’s tripod to a park by the river and shot a roll of pictures that would get me a free trip to the African savannah, courtesy of Gilbert Grosvenor. Afterwards, I went to the drug store and sent them off to be developed. When they came back a week later, I decided to be a writer.
I never got much better at photography because film and developing were too expensive, but when I first came to the Messenger, someone else was buying the film, and I got paid to take pics with a hand-me-down Canon AE1. Not exactly Nat Geo, but not a bad gig.
Before long, though, my knowledge was mostly obsolete as digital cameras became idiot proof, cost was no longer an issue, and good photos, once priceless, were suddenly a dime a dozen.
Great photography can still inspire, as my subscription to National Geographic shows me every month, but some of the magic has died.
That’s why I’ve dusted off my old camera — not the Kodak, but the oldest camera in the world. I’m happy to tell you it works like a charm.
Forty thousand jpegs aren’t worth one memory of the sky gone purple over Tuscarora Lake. My best frozen image of a dolphin on Milford Sound doesn’t compare to the wet gray beast still swimming through my mind.

Brett Larson is the editor of the Messenger.

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