The mother finished clearing away the breakfast dishes and nudged the boy. Why don’t you just try it out, she said. The boy had been wrapped up all morning in the instruction manual for a new camera he’d received as a gift for passing grade five with medium-to-high marks. When his final report card had come and his parents asked him what he wanted as a reward, there had been no hesitation. A real camera with a flash and everything, he’d said. And he didn’t want one of those colourful kiddy numbers. He wanted something grown-up-looking. A simple black camera will do, he’d said. What he came down to this morning, in addition to blueberry pancakes, was a box containing exactly that: a simple black camera with a flash and everything. There was a card too, containing a written message from both his mother and his father in their wildly different scripts saying more or less the same thing: we’re really proud of you.
The boy wanted to be taken seriously as a maturing person, so he announced to his parents that he wasn’t going to even touch the camera until he’d read the instructions and got to know the do’s and don’ts of proper camera ownership. I can show you all you need to know, pal, his father said. Thanks, but I want to know what the manufacturers have to say about this model, he replied.
After a summary investigation he was pretty sure the manual was overkill, but he read it in depth all the same. He learned how to put the batteries in. How to open and close the lens cover. How to rewind and eject the film when it was spent. All things that, in the end, he was sure his father could’ve showed him. He felt a pang of contrition, so, pretending he wasn’t entirely clear on the concept of film loading, he went to his father with the camera and the roll of 24 shot colour Kodak and asked him for help. Just to be certain, he said, so that I don’t do it wrong and spoil the whole thing.
Following an overlong tutorial on the proper method of film loading, a tutorial that came with an unasked-for end tag in which his father prattled on about focal points and shot composition and the spiritual nature of still images, the boy was finally released to go off in search of subjects.
The boy’s first impulse was to collect some of his army figures and take them outside to capture their staged battles. But that was a childish impulse—the camera was a sign of maturity and here he was undermining its symbolic value with fantasies of Dinky toys. He chose instead for his subject the bounty of colours and shapes that nature provided in his own backyard. I’ll start with the familiar, he thought, and when I get better I’ll move out beyond my yard to the park and by the time we go camping in August I’ll be pretty good and can shoot all kinds of unfamiliar things.
The boy didn’t know it, but it was a perfect morning for nature photography. The sun was warm and not so radiant that one needed to squint in order to see. In another hour or so the sun would be blinding and any photo not taken in the shade would be overexposed.
He saw some butterflies flitting about his mother’s azaleas and ran to capture them. He snapped off three of what he thought were really good shots. After the butterflies moved on, he got an extremely tight shot of the pink flowers that would have come out blurry if his roll of film had survived what happened next.
As he made his way toward the other side of the yard where his father was still in the process of building a fence, he noticed his recently divorced neighbour Mr. Boyer, watering his small vegetable garden. Mr. Boyer spotted him and they exchanged a casual greeting. The boy thought about how impressed Mr. Boyer would be to see someone so young shooting on a real camera with real film. It crossed his mind to mention the camera, but his neighbour had already returned to his watering. He was, however, standing in a good position to observe the boy and his camera if he were to look up again, so the boy crouched down and meretriciously snapped a picture of a fence post. He repositioned himself so that the camera could be better observed. He even turned the flash on, hoping it would attract Mr. Boyer’s attention. But the sun was too bright for the flash to register.
The boy tried a new tack. He walked the property line swinging the camera from his wrist by its string. He whistled the way old men did when they were strolling or sitting by the fountain in the park. Surely all the movement and noise was bound to catch his neighbour’s attention. And then the boy thought, what if he does look up and see me with my camera, how is he to know that it’s a real film camera? So the boy opened up its back in order to display that there was in fact real film inside. He continued to stroll and whistle until Mr. Boyer was finished with his watering and, without a second glance, retreated indoors. The boy was disappointed, but he mollified himself by returning to his original purpose. He did a good job of covering every corner of the yard until the role of film was spent.
Lucky for the boy, the print shop where his mother dropped the film off did not charge for the exposed roll. And when his father asked what had happened, the boy simply stated that his thumb slipped and opened the camera back. I guess you’ll know to be more careful in the future, his father said. The boy nodded his agreement, too embarrassed to speak.