Ready, set, smile … say che-e-e-ese

In 1930, Kodak gave away its Brownie box cameras to 500,000 12-year-olds across the country. My mother was one of those lucky recipients, and it began one of her life’s important journeys. She fell in love with photography.

I was about 12 when my mother told me this barely believable story. “Seriously? They GAVE the cameras away?” I asked. “To a half-million kids?”

“Yes. And I was thrilled,” she said. She continued with a little history lesson. “Remember that 1930 was the year after the stock market crashed. Toys and presents were not in family budgets that were barely eking out food, electric lights and shoes for growing children.” It was the first I had heard about the hard times of the Depression. She told me a lot about the joblessness, the shortages and the deprivations of that era. She treasured and used that beloved camera until I was in school.

I still remember the brown box sitting on top of her bedroom chest of drawers. It was made of cardboard, imprinted with a leather-look design. By the time she told me all about her early picture taking adventures, the box just sat, unused, beside her newer camera case. That was the Polaroid. I remember how big and heavy the Polaroid was. Mom was fascinated with its “magic” technology.

We first saw that first instant camera demonstrated at Filene’s, a Boston department store. The cameraman placed a stool in front of a screen near the Santa Claus waiting line. He took all the kids’ pictures, one at a time. After the required minute for developing, he peeled each picture from its backing and handed one to my mom along with a promotional handout. “Don’t touch the surface until it’s completely dry,” he cautioned.

I was fascinated watching him shuttling both kids and parents. It was a real eye-opener for a second-grader. We still have that picture somewhere – of me staring into the camera wearing a winter coat and a pillbox hat with a tall dorky feather – all in a slight sepia tone.

Mom saved frugally to buy her first Polaroid. And of course, she needed the flash attachment and the sleeves of flashbulbs. The heavy camera bag became part of all our travels, even quick trips. Years later, she bought the newer, smaller, color Polaroid.

But she never forgot Mr. Eastman’s gift from Kodak. She also bought one of his 35mm cameras and began learning to use it – a bit. But sadly, before she got involved with more lenses and add-ons, it was stolen. She was heartbroken, and never replaced it.

When the Instamatics came out, she was never without one. The problem was that she wanted our family to pose whenever she wanted to capture the moment. Every moment.

After adjusting everyone’s clothes, hair, and how and where to stand, she would be ready to take the picture. But the flash didn’t work. Or she hadn’t wound the film.

Or the new automatic film forwarder jammed. Naturally, knowing how much she loved her pictures, we indulged her.

She told me once about going to a wedding that had an Instamatic on every table for the guests to take each other’s pictures for the bride and groom. “Weren’t they smart?” she said. “I would love to have done them all.”

Mom would have gone gaga over today’s lightweight cell phones housing their quality cameras. At least she wouldn’t be fussing with flashbulbs. And – she’d have loved this – not paying for prints that are out of focus, with closed eyes, or cut-off heads.

At the end of a day of snapping pix, she’d have been happy to delete, delete, delete any less-than-perfect shots. The quality and the economy would have pleased my thrifty Scots mother, a lifelong shutterbug.

My stepdaughter, Valerie, is an award-winning photographer from southern California. She takes her vacations with small photography groups while constantly learning advanced techniques. Val has photographed people and places around the world – from Zanzibar to Iceland, from Mongolia to Patagonia. She even learned underwater photography swimming with whales in Tonga. As I write this, she is in England capturing dawn’s early light in the hills and dales of Dorset and Devon.

Do I sound jealous? You bet. But I’m a big fan and a mini-collector of her stunning work.

My mom had a simpler love for her hobby. She chronicled her travels, her friends and her family. All of them. All the time. I still have the mega-dozens of albums and boxes of snapshots to prove it.

I wonder how many of George Eastman’s thousands of lucky children carried that joy into their adulthood? I am only sure of one.

It was a happiness gift that kept on giving. Thank you, Mr. E.

Mary O’Brien writes from Warren, Pa.


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