OM180 - Fotomats

This week, Ken and John talk about:

Ken’s first camera (OM180)

Ken’s first camera was cheap and bad and it broke soon. He didn’t really have a connection with his childhood cameras, he never got a nice one to take care of, and he was not the kind of kid who would. He had one pretty nice reasonable Canon later that he carried on some international travels. Like all parents at the time, Ken’s parents were camera hobbyists who had nice cameras and made albums of family vacations. A fancy camera was a status symbol and a sing of bourgeois arrival. It is the one object you need to not be big and cumbersome and they were so often that.

This was before there were video cameras or a lot of consumer electronics like the Walkman or digital devices of any kind. Ken's first Polaroid seemed like a magic trick that was as cool as any Walkman or any other gadget he had ever seen in his life. The first iPhone was good, but the first Polaroid camera was probably better. How was it doing that?

John’s first camera (OM180)

John’s first camera was a Kodak Instamatic that he got from his dad in 1975. It was the first camera for a lot of people in his generation. It is a little plastic thing the size of a pack of cigarettes and has a lens with a fixed focal length. The viewfinder was basically just a clear plastic look-through and you didn’t actually look through the lens, probably not that different from the yellow cardboard one-use Kodak cameras that you still see at wedding receptions today.

The film came in a plastic cartridge of either 12 or 20 photos that looked like a pair of binoculars and that you stuck in the back and had to wind after every shot with your little thumb winder. In the end you would pull the entire cartridge out. Disposable cameras were in 35mm format while the Instamatic was in the square Kodak 126 format got its name because after the finishing had happened it was a 26mm square photograph.

The rounded corners of old photos looked fancy, but there is no optical reason. It was just a little bit of hospitaliano that they were putting on it.

It is hard to understate the difference in culture at a time when photography was difficult, expensive and rare. You really prized your photographs! They were a family artifact and they were art, as they were talking about in the Monkey Selfie entry (see OM177). You would invite people over to look at your vacation photos like it was a gallery opening, and they would come under extreme duress. The joke was that it was boring, but you thought it was something worthy of showing people.

John’s photos in the first Long Winters album booklet (OM180)

John brought his camera on his first trip into the Alaskan bush and he still has the photos he took then. A lot of them are out of focus or weirdly framed because he was still getting an idea how to look through this thing. He captured some really interesting moments!

The booklet of the first Long Winters record has a couple of photos John took from that first roll of pictures. He did what they all used to do on a flight, which is when you see beautiful snow-covered mountains you point your Instamatic out the window and take some pictures and John got a couple of really nice ones.

It felt empowering because cameras and photos were such an important part of adult culture. Many evenings did they sit around and look at their own photo albums and somehow they never got tired of flipping the pages, going: ”Oh, remember that car?” It is isomorphic to Instagram! Facebook did the same thing: Check out where you were 5 years ago on this date: It is like bringing out the old family album! John's camera gave him status with other kids. He was 7-8 years old and the other kids immediately lined up and wanted him to take their picture. John still has those pictures, too!

The scarcity was a big component of it. John didn’t take a whole role of 12 pictures at the same event, but he took a picture and two weeks later he took another picture, which is a little sad because there are a lot of pictures from that time where John really wished he had the five pictures on either side of it that he didn't take! He will remember the day, but whatever moment he chose to line three people up against the fence to take their picture wasn’t really sufficient to capture the memory.

Autumn de Wilde conserving film when photographing Elliott Smith (OM180)

John has a good friend Autumn de Wilde who captured a bunch of pictures of Elliott Smith very early on. She is a very well-known Rock and fashion photographer and she always seemed to be where things were happening. John has seen the contact sheet of the first roll of film she spent taking pictures of Elliott Smith.

The first 4-5 pictures are of her cat and some signs that she saw on the road, then there are something like 8 pictures of Elliott and then there are 5 more of stuff she was documenting to give away to Goodwill. If she had used every shot on that roll she would have twice as many pictures of Elliott Smith from those very early days.

Photography as a lifestyle choice (OM180)

Digital photography works as a lifestyle choice, but it really didn’t before. It worked as an art form and they were making do with a terrible technology unless you recognized as a professional photographer that your job was to just burn film. Autumn realized not long thereafter that conserving shots is a false economy in a situation like that and you just have to take all the pictures. Ken doesn’t have the sense because film felt expensive to him as a High Schooler and a college student. It was not a trivial expense.

Instamatic 126 film was cheaper to buy and cheaper to develop while 35mm was a transition to a prosumer culture. Canon and these companies were selling much nicer cameras using a more flexible film format to dumb suburban dads who for the most part did point & click photography. John’s dad had a camera fixation, but all this control he had over f-stop and stuff just baffled him. You had to read the manual which no-one ever did, and as 35mm cameras evolved to get autofocus and automatic exposure it benefitted those people who didn’t know how to really use a camera.

People today not knowing what a darkroom is (OM180)

A big challenge of having a camera in the 1960s and 1970s was that you had to take your film in to be developed and you didn’t have a home-darkroom. There was a viral clip from Stranger Things this week where somebody was sincerely asking what happens in this red room where people get some water on the picture and somehow that makes it more clear. Was this an old film technique and what is it called? (see here)

Being the editor in High School (OM180)

Ken had access to a darkroom in High School because he was the yearbook editor, which explains a lot of his typography and design obsession and the fact he is wearing a green visor every time they do this show. He was never a photography guy, but he would go into the darkroom with the photographers and hope that stuff came out right. He hated the weird vinegary or sulfurous smell!

John was editor of the High School newspaper at East Anchorage High School called The Zefir. Ken’s friends were newspaper editor of The Spirit and they let Ken do the cartoons, but he did yearbook instead. It was a real tragedy in John’s own life because he spent most of his High School years preparing to be editor of the Zefir.

It was his destiny and in his Junior year he was entertainment editor, but then the newspaper teacher got burned out and was not going to teach newspaper next year. John’s school hired a carpetbagger, a young woman who arrived at the school and John went there a week before it started specifically to find the new newspaper teacher. He introduced himself and told her that he was going to be the editor next year and he suggested to get to know each other and start making a plan for the paper.

She said that she was going to be the editor of the Zefir herself and John was welcome to submit his material. She was 24 or so. John had worked on the paper for four years and he introduced himself as the new editor because there had always been a line of succession. There was an editor and then the entertainment editor became the editor. When last year’s teacher said he wasn’t going to teach it anymore it was clear that the newspaper was in good hands because John was so devoted to it, it was the only class he did well.

Her reply was devastating to John! She did edit the paper at first, but halfway through first quarter she decided she was going to appoint a student editor and she appointed John’s girlfriend Kelly who was not at all interested in newspaper and had only taken the class in order to pad her transcript so that she could get into an Ivy Leage college. She couldn’t have been less interested, but this teacher had just decided to teach John a life-long lesson because she was objecting to his presumption that he was the editor and John is still mad at her about it.

Ken’s wife has some crazy story about her High School putting on a spring musical, like Annie or Oliver! and they had the teachers play all the adult parts and the kids got to be the orphans. These teachers did not 100% understand the concept of school. Their own High School went so bad that they needed to recreate it and perfect it for themselves later in life.

In John’s case the teacher lost interest, his girlfriend Kelly had no interest in it and John ended up editing the newspaper anyway. He was there every Thursday night until 10pm, working on the light board, and he spent a lot of time in the darkroom, but not with Kelly because by that time she was going out with David Brest and they had gone splitsville. David is probably still selling natural food at the Carrs grocery on Debarr Road.

The power of the darkroom (OM180)

Developing your film, printing your prints the way you wanted, and seeing the image appear in the darkroom is very powerful. We now have all these powers with digital photos to crop and enhance and color-modify with two fingers while watching TV with your other eye. We take it all for granted, but in the old days if you framed a photo weirdly or if there was somebody in the background you were stuck with it.

The power of the darkroom was absolutely formative for John. Developing film not only seemed magical, but in most cases you took it and dropped it off and came several days later and only then did you even know whether you had succeeded in capturing your daughter’s wedding. You had often forgotten what all the pictures were, so at least there was that moment of surprise when you discovered you took the camera that day or that the kids had stolen the camera and took this picture.

One nice thing about the Instamatic and the 126 film format was that it popularized the pocket camera, just as Kodak had done earlier with its brownie camera. They kept coming out with new products that made taking pictures easier and in 1965 nothing had seemed easier than putting this preloaded cartridge into the back of the camera, pointing it, pushing a button and then popping the cartridge out and handing it off to somebody.

Ken’s mom working at a Snap-y-Photo (OM180)

Ken’s mom's first job out of High School was working at a local Seattle-area Fotomat-clone called Snap-y-Photo, her friends all called it Crappy Photo, and she would sit in this 5x5 foot space (2.5 sqm) for an 8 hour shift. It was an ideal summer or college job because she would just do her homework, occasionally someone would drive up, and all she had to do was to file it in an envelope or find the envelope they filed it.

They probably didn’t have names for their employees. Snappy Cathy? They did have a funny uniform, a red wool jumper over a gold nylon turtleneck, which sounds like the uniform for Hotdog on a Stick with the gold hats. She was up in Lynnwood on Highway 99. There were four of these places in Seattle and every day somebody came in a truck and picked up all the film and took it to a lab two hours South in the Centralia / Chehalis area. It might have not been 24-hour turnaround in that case.

It was a great job! Ken’s dad would come over when he was done doing his janitorial job at Sand Point Naval Base and maybe they would canoodle in the off-brand Fotomat. The only downside was that she got robbed twice because she was just one fotomate sitting there with a bunch of today’s cash. She got robbed twice by the same guy and the only thing that made her nervous was that he clearly was new to the gig. You want to be in good hands if somebody is robbing you and he was nervous, his gun-hand was shaking and she was afraid something was going to go wrong.

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