When I was 16, my camera was stolen. Well, it wasn’t really my camera, it was a camera I had borrowed from my father, which made it doubly difficult to bear: I had allowed my father’s cherished German camera to be stolen. In the years since, I have thought about it thousands of times with great regret.
It happened while I was at a special summer camp for high school journalists. I had applied to something called the California Scholastic Press Association for it, and had been chosen from among hundreds. Both my parents and I had felt special to be chosen, as if this were the beginning of a brilliant career.
That August, my parents drove me up to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, a lovely campus in central California. I had never been on a college campus before, and it was a heady experience. It was run by a famous Herald-Examiner journalist, Ralph Alexander. My fellow students, I imagined, would later turn out to be my colleagues at the Times, the Tribune, and the Post, variously, so I tried my best to whip their asses in the daily writing competitions. I was very serious.
Celebrity journalists came to speak to us every day, and one day, some guy named Jesse Owens even showed up. I had no idea who he was or why he carried himself with such self-importance, but during the student press conference, it turned out he was a four-time Olympic gold medalist in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, a feat that had been a slap in the face to Hitler himself, and I suddenly sat up higher in my seat.
But there is one moment from that week that stands apart from all others. I was in the student union buying lunch alone. I brought my tray over to a table, set my camera down, and then realized I had forgotten ketchup for my fries. I would be gone for only a second, I reasoned, so I left the camera. When I returned not 30 seconds later, the camera was gone. I stood up and swiveled around, searching desperately for the thief, but there were no suspects. I immediately started sweating with dread.
Over the next couple days, I anticipated with horror how my father would react. Before leaving, he had hesitated loaning it to me, but my mother had encouraged him.
“It says in the checklist that they should bring cameras,” she said.
“I won’t lose it, Dad,” I said.
So hesitantly, my father handed it over, but with a caveat.
“Be careful with it.”
Every time I thought about that conversation, I closed my eyes. In fact, I had not been careful enough with the camera.
When my parents picked me up at the end of the week, I avoided the subject. We all drove home in a happy mood down scenic Highway 101. In fact, I didn’t bring up the subject of the stolen camera until I had to, when we had arrived home and were standing in the foyer.
“Dad, I have something to tell you,” I said, my head bowed in shame.
He looked up at me in anticipation. I hesitated. He straightened up and looked at me straight on.
“What is it?”
“The camera was stolen.”
And so I outlined what had happened, including going back for the ketchup, being gone for just a few seconds, and then coming back to my sinking discovery. After recounting the story, I timidly looked up at him, and for a moment, all I saw was a kind of shock on his face. I waited for him to rage, to punish, to yell. But instead, he surprised me.
“That’s all right,” he said , an unemotional look coming over his face, and to my own shock, he just walked away.
My mother and I were both stunned. He never mentioned it again. A year later, I saved up and bought another, better camera–a Rolleiflex SLR 35 with a Zeiss-Planar lens–and began taking photographs with it. In a way, I was trying to replace the old one. I offered it to him, but he didn’t want to have anything to do with it.
I took photos with my Rolleiflex for the next eight years or more, until I made the decision that trying to frame everything I saw interfered with the direct experience of life, and stopped altogether for several years. I had to find a more direct way to experience the world, I told myself, and I have.
But for years, my father’s unfazed reaction remained with me. Gradually, in the years that have followed, I have begun to understand what was going on. In the late 1940s, my father had wanted to become a professional photographer. He had studied photography in college, learned the technical aspects, and saved up his money to buy good equipment. He learned that Germans made the best cameras, and spent his hard-earned money to buy something that would make him feel like a professional. I don’t remember the brand, but it was a brown model with a bellows that folded out from the lens. He loved that camera.
But then I came along. He took a few wedding-photo gigs, but discovered that the business was hit or miss. One customer refused to pay because his pictures made her look ugly, she claimed. And my Dad wasn’t a natural salesman, to put it mildly; he was more suited to the role of technician/artist. Not only that, but he now had responsibilities. He had to choose between being an artist and being a provider for his family of four.
So he took a job as a draftsman. It was a good, solid job in light of the building boom that was then sweeping Southern California as the WWII and Korean War veterans had their families and moved into the suburbs. On top of that, he had had a terrible childhood. His own mother had slid into mental illness, and spent hours berating her boy about imagined sleights and paranoias. He was determined that his own children would not have a terrible childhood. They would have everything, including all the love he could give them, but in order to give them that, he would give up his creativity. He resented what he had given up, it was clear, but it had been his decision.
When he suffered the loss of that camera 20 years later, then, it wasn’t just a camera that was stolen. It was the youthful dream he had once had. It was everything he had worked towards for 10 years until the world threw cold water on it. It was his passion and his soul.
I replayed in my mind that moment again and again.
Dad, I have something to tell you….
And it gradually occurred to me that in that moment, in those brief ten seconds when I told him about the theft, a sad thought had passed through his mind.
You were never a photographer. You were never a dreamer. Don’t kid yourself. It doesn’t matter. It never mattered.
My father is long gone now. Recently, I discovered a large box filled with his negatives. They’re beautiful. They’re exquisitely preserved. They’re meticulously organized. They are a piece of history. And I want to share them with the world, because they say something about my father that he didn’t want to say about himself.
You were an artist. You were a dreamer. It did matter. It will always matter.
I have only begun to work my way through his cache of photos. I will share them with you as I can.