This is my first camera.
These days I am a dedicated Nikon photographer, but I got my start with my father’s old AE-1. Today it was returned to me after 17 years. When I graduated from Eastern Kentucky University, I left this camera in the collection of my best friend and mentor, Tim Webb. Tim is a historian. He has an affection for old cameras and he likes tangibles that are tied to memories. He always promised, that if I ever wanted it back, it would always be mine. But as a young kid, just starting out on my new life and adventures, I didn’t really have room for a camera I had out grown professionally. Knowing that this camera was safe under protective glass in Tim’s house was reassuring for me. I left it behind, but in good hands.
I can still remember getting the first roll of film I shot with this camera developed. It was so much richer and had more depth than anything I had ever created. And this camera likes contrast! Not really… I now realize the high contrast of the black and white prints was probably a matter of film choice and the preference of the photo lab and not actually the AE-1, but liked that depth those first prints had, and to this day, I prefer photos with deep rich colors and strong, deep blacks. Don’t get me wrong, I like the light and airy style that is so popular, but that just isn’t how I compose.
I started working as Tim’s apprentice in the fall of 1996. I came into the Public Relations office at EKU to interview with PR director Ron Herrall. The job would be writing for the yearbook. At the end of the interview I mentioned that I might like to learn a little about photography (why not add another skill to my resume?). Ron went back to the photo department, got Tim, and introduced us. Why on earth Tim took me under his wing, I will never really understand. He already had two student photographers, why go through the effort to train some newbie with nothing more than her Daddy’s camera? And yet…he did. I went to work bulk loading film, developing, eventually printing and just soaking it all in. The other two students chose to follow other paths and pretty soon Tim was glad he had kept me around. I began shooting. He began kindly critiquing. And that was the start of my career. Strange, how something as important as choosing the path of one’s life, could be completely unrealized while it was happening. Now I see clearly how important those early days were. At the time, they were just ordinary days like any other…
It didn’t take my parents long to see that photography was not just a passing phase for me. They bought me my first advanced amateur gear and within a year of that, they cosigned my loan to buy pro-level Canon gear including a couple of sweet 2.8 lenses. After I got my hands on those, I never used the AE-1 again.
Tim and his family are currently on a drive across the country. This trip is a high school graduation gift to their oldest son. As they got to their hotel and we parted company Tim said, “I have something for you.” We walked to his car and he told me to close my eyes and when I opened them, he put this camera in my hands.
Tim has realized that I am making Montana my home. God willing, this is where I will live out the rest of my life. I am happy here. So, he brought the camera back to me. Before they leave for Yellowstone in a few days, he wants to get a photograph of me with the issue of Time magazine that has one of my photos in it. (Time magazine was a big moment for me. Tim is one of the first people I called when it was published. He is still my mentor.) I don’t really love being photographed, but I’m going to allow this because he’s proud of me. And isn’t that the best compliment ever?
Tim is a great example of the power of mentorship. I have such an elevated opinion of that word because Tim was truly a mentor. He was: friend, teacher, father-figure, trusted advisor. He quietly opened doors for me, introduced new ideas, offered challenges, and best of all, praised genuine advancement. He kindly critiqued and offered suggestions and inspiration. He gradually offered/nudged me into greater responsibility and greater risk. And when I shrank back or gave less than my best he called me out on it. Tim and I are not related, and yet he is my family.
So now I have this old camera again. It is a connection to my best friend, my teacher. It is a connection to the passion that first inspired me to chase photography. And it is a connection to my mother and father who supported me and my dreams. So many things came together to bring me to this place in my life. So many blessings. And they are tied to this camera.
There isn’t a roll of film in it, Tim checked. When he put it in my hands, I couldn’t resist pressing the shutter button and moving the lever that would advance the film if it was in there. I remember that sound. It sounds good. It sounds like home. And I think I’m going to have to go buy myself a roll of T-Max…