Two Snaps Up: Cars, cameras, and the unrelenting march of technology
Kodak Instamatic X-15 camera. Photos by author.
I always had a halting relationship with photography. I inherited my first camera, a Kodak that took 126 film cartridges and was manufactured circa late ’60s, because pictures weren’t being taken at home anymore. A plain-looking little box, it was black and silver, and simple in that late-’60s-sort-of-ultra-functional way. Most of the pictures from my early childhood were shot with this camera (and printed on matte paper). The plastic button on the film winder had cracked, leaving a little metal lever exposed. While I had the camera, I had no disposable income for film nor flashcubes at the tender age of eight. Matchbox cars and baseball cards were a greater priority. The camera collected dust on a shelf.
Polaroid One Step instant camera.
A couple of years later, Polaroid’s advertising blitz featuring a flirty James Garner and Mariette Hartley worked wonders on my pre-pubescent brain, and I decided that a One-Stop was something I needed to own. Pictures? Without having to go to the drugstore? Are you kidding me? WOW! Uncle Ernie had a word with Santa Claus; a couple of 10-packs of outrageously expensive film appeared alongside. The transformation of the photo, from gray matter to, well, full color, out-of-focus, badly lit matter, seemed more important to me at the time than the photography basics like composition, lighting, paying attention to what you’re shooting, and that sort of thing. I burned through the film in record time. No more was forthcoming. In short order, the One-Stop was on a shelf, high up in the linen closet. It disappeared at a garage sale.
Konica SLR camera body.
Dad stepped up to a 35-mm Konica in the late ’70s, and took some lovely portraits—a horse standing stoically outside a barn on a misty spring morning somewhere deep in Monmouth County, New Jersey, I recall being particularly lovely. Otherwise it was chronically underused when new hobbies came on line.
Kodak disc camera.
A few cameraless years passed, and then one Christmas I was blindsided by the arrival of a Kodak Disc camera. Remember the Kodak Disc? It was the size of a pack of smokes, and had 15 teeny negatives on a carousel. Wheat bread has less grain in it than the resulting photos did. Nonetheless, it recorded the few pleasant moments of my teen years—most of them having to do with lighting model cars on fire in the woods. All of my remaining negatives are kept in a Space: 1999 lunchbox, with a handlebar moustache drawn on Martin Landau, in a corner of my office. As often happens with proprietary technology (think Betamax, Digital Audio Tape, and Laserdisc), the format died, and the film disappeared. Can the drugstore even make prints from a Disc negative anymore?
There were common threads: I had no money for film, the appeal wore off quickly, none of them took pictures worth a damn, and the ability to continue using them would have been scuttled by the changing technology anyway. Plus, the operator wasn’t doing things any favors, either.
So, imagine my surprise when I actually became an automotive writer in 1993, had a camera shoved in my hand, and was told “go shoot something.” I walked off with my dad’s ancient Konica, unused for years and donated for the cause of his only child retaining gainful employment. I promptly sent it packing in favor of a Nikon 35-mm body and a small selection of lenses I could barely afford. On-the-job photo training worked more or less like this:
- An editor would tell me to go photograph something.
- I’d get the slides back.
- Coworkers would congregate around the light table with a loupe for an hour. Much laughter ensued. From them, not me.
- Back to #1.
Improvement was gradual. Futures on the silver market jumped 15 cents every time I loaded up my bag with Fujichrome.
They say practice makes perfect, but nearly a quarter-century on, and I’m still practicing every time I’m out on a shoot. I haven’t yet seen perfect. Some things I thought were sure-fire photos have flopped miserably. Images I shot as last-minute afterthoughts have showed up on magazine covers. I’ve stopped trying to reason it out. Still, I’ve gotten to a point where editors seem to want my pictures more than they want my words—a weird feeling for someone who’s always considered himself a writer first.
1970 Chevelle SS 454 LS6.
I made the conversion to digital SLRs in 2003, using a succession of Canon DSLRs, starting with a 10D. (In a not-uncommon move considering my history, the 10D is no longer made, although the lenses, battery packs, and memory cards are universal enough.) The cost of the equipment—camera, CD burner, media—pales in comparison to the savings. I run a pair of 50Ds now—not new cameras by any means, but they’re everything I need to do my job.
Though I do wonder: At what point will technology make the next big leap—again—and everything I own will be obsolete? Will JPEGS really be the default format for the next 50 years? Will CDs and DVDs be able to hold more—or better still, will CDs and DVDs be replaced by something more efficient? Now that I’ve invested in the technology, I expect it to change any minute now. When will phones be able to give SLR-quality photos? Should be momentarily.
1987 Buick GNX.
It’s kind of like cars, really: from carburetors to mechanical fuel injection to electronic fuel injection; from bias-ply to radial to low-profile all-weather 35-series big-inch rubber; from rear-drive to front-drive to (occasionally) all-wheel-drive and back to rear again, this time with traction control; from drum brakes to disc to four-wheel antilock sensors. For years, the SS 454 Chevelle, or else something with a Hemi, was an unsurpassable pinnacle; just 15 years later, and with two fewer cylinders and roughly half the displacement, a Buick was able to meet or beat those cars’ acceleration numbers in a quarter-mile. Another 15 beyond that and there are econoboxes that can be specced out to give muscle cars a run for their money. New Honda Accords offer performance that ’70s Porsches would have killed for. Meantime at the top end, sedans and sports cars alike have 600 hp under foot. An 840-horsepower car is in production. What will I use to photograph the next wave of hot cars?