It was on a late afternoon sometime in April of 2009 that I decided to poke around my basement. We had already been living in the house for two years by that point, but as is wont to happen with new houses, things got packed into boxes and bags and were shoved into corners and cabinets. Upon moving into the house in 2007, I claimed the basement as my dwelling as it was thoroughly large, and it felt like I had my own apartment. Yet, that also meant I lived among everything that would not be unpacked. And so, on that late afternoon in April, I opened a cabinet underneath my desk, and inside I found a black camera bag.
It was a black Tenba camera bag, with a White House press pass affixed to the strap, that belonged to my grandfather on my mother’s side. He was a photographer for the Archdiocese of New York for several decades in the mid-20th century. Fearing its fragility, I carefully slid the bag out of the cabinet. I didn’t know what I held in my hands at the time, but the bag looked alright after having been out of commission for roughly 20 years.
Inside, I found two cameras: a Pentax K1000 and an Olympus OM77-AF. Both were new machines–new in the sense that I never had experience with a proper camera before. I had used crummy instant cameras from the local drug store in years prior, but I never held anything like the two that rested in my grandfather’s Tenba. The Olympus was a softer, less intimidating plastic-clad unit to the Pentax’s heavy, armor-like tank of a shooter.
My first instinct was to acquire a roll of film and take one of these cameras for a spin. I figured I might as well pick up where my grandfather left off. I sided with the Olympus as it seemed a bit more intuitive for a photographic neophyte.
There was a learning curve for the OM77-AF. I had no manual whatsoever. Like most men who acquire new gadgets, my grandfather probably discarded the manual shortly after acquiring the Olympus. How could he have had the foresight to know that his grandson would happen upon his retired OM77 nearly 30 years later? I learned the camera’s controls largely through trial-and-error, and Adelphi University served as my petri dish. It was at the end of my freshman year that I discovered the Tenba and its contents.
It is with that photo that I realized I was onto something. “There’s something there,” I thought. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing. With no classes or formal training, I was the clueless new kid who found an old shovel that he brought into the sandbox where the other kids were creating cities. Photography was then a new reality, one that would quickly become a part of my identity. I got my start with the serendipitous discovery of my grandfather’s bag, and I have since moved on from the Olympus. I’ll save the rest of my journey for a later post, but it’s been love ever since.
The thing is, my family history is deeply rooted in photography. My great-grandfather on my father’s side was a photographer who ran a photo lab back in Czechoslovakia in the early 20th century. In the post-war years, he sought to leave his home country for America, but he needed to a decent amount of money to make the trip. With my grandfather and great-aunt in tow, he would show up to local events, be they weddings, funerals, etc., and photograph them. He would then rush back home, develop and print the photos as fast as he could, and get them back to those folks before the other photographers did. With enough cash finally raised, he left Czechoslovakia through Austria and landed in Argentina, where he lived with his family for several years before making it to New York. It is there that he opened Foto Motal which my grandfather took over. One of his steady customers was my maternal grandfather. My parents have known each other since they were seven.
I often say that I was born of a camera.
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