Some cameras are cold, calculating and inanimate. My camera is a twelve-year-old sidekick whose black moods and ability to frame me on important occasions have left me alternately ecstatic and morose.
In the beginning we were silly about each other. With clear contrast of black-and- white we captured basketball players for the college newspaper, my dorm-mates in the thick of bull sessions and classmates by moonlit pillars. In the darkroom it seemed magical when the pictures came up on the paper, and I thanked her reverently for delivering each silvery image.
When wanderlust hit we added color to our perspective and went off to Europe, where we passionately recorded everyday scenes. To our eyes the exotic included: a small Frenchman selling spring flowers from a kiosk, a bronzed Spanish child peeking from a king-size cardboard box, an Italian mother draping colorful blankets outside her second-story window to air. When we tired of foreign sights and smells and of making the trivial important we returned home to develop and savor the past.
Thereafter a triangle formed, and my sidekick photographed and was photographed by a new friend who liked her. When friend became husband she refused to record this marriage ceremony with infra- red film in her firm black body. She was not entirely at fault: a new film, a new experience -- she was still my trusted partner. It was more important that the marriage last than the photographs.
Travel always brought us closer together, and when the opportunity arose to go scuba diving in Jamaica for three weeks we jumped at it. Around Discovery Bay, she admired the sunsets, the women in the open meat and vegetable markets and the fishermen in their boats hovering over their large mesh cages. She excelled when I strapped her into a waterproof case and dove down fifty feet every day to visit the fish of the reefs. She found eels, flounder, damselfish, sea fans, endless coral varieties and even caught a fish eating another fish in an action sequence. I never felt better about her than on that expedition to the Caribbean, and I expected the same on our next excursion.
Mexico was two years after Jamaica. A grand tour included the temple ruins, Mexico City and diving off Isla Mujeres. Encased in a new leather bag and stocked with two dozen rolls of Kodachrome she seemed to respond well during the journey. She snapped the terraced temple of Chitzen-Itza silhouetting our unique guide, who wore matching white belt and shoes, the one who'd learned his clipped English from the short-wave radio and his dressing from the tourists. She clicked at Lake X, and at the guitar makers of Y, names I've forgotten because when we returned the darkroom magic turned to disillusionment.
There's been some terrible mistake, I had thought when I went to fetch my film. My camera would never do this. The perfect high-country vision of the Indians gliding in their canoe on Lake X (or Z?), our guide, the people we met diving. We felt betrayed, tricked and cheated out of our vacation. Who'd believe us if we had no slides to prove it? I stared uncomprehending at the black film, the color of rejection and disappointment.
She went in for a body cleaning and thorough checkup at the hands of an expert who said she suffered from an inability to advance. When she came home she worked again, but it was never as it had been before -- once betrayed, always suspicious.
On a freezing, windswept day last winter, my husband walked a mile in the snow to photograph a fogbound boat frozen into the Potomac, and she wouldn't cooperate. Out of respect for our years together, he carried her useless body back to me and I hid her away, protesting that she wasn't washed up. We'd been through too much to let a limp shutter separate us.
Shortly after, I went for a spring ski trip, leaving her home. I'd try living without my cheating camera, but initially my dependence was too great. I kept verbal images of what I would have photographed, and how trite the words sounded: a "Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco" sign painted on a barn side, an antique bed in our little hotel, a sunset panorama of snow-covered mountain peaks, my husband soaking in the hot tub. I could live without these missed shots.
Why does this compulsion to record my life and actions come over me everytime I go away? Is this cameraderie, or does she control me? Was all this rigamarole with my camera worth it? Maybe our relationship was over. We had all those good years together and now I had to look to the future, to frame my own images for mental posterity.
When the opportunity for a weekend sail on the Chespeake Bay arose this summer, I pulled her out for old times' sake. Without repair, repentence or explanation she started working again. I melted in forgiveness, and now we're back on the best of terms, as old friends should be. We're going hiking this weekend. I bought her this special pack that fits on my back, and there will be shots of the trail, the tree-covered mountain peaks and my friends. All those things I'm going to want to remember in the future.