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Through a lens brightly
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Through a lens brightly

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Bill Perkins

There were several cameras around the house when I was growing up, most notably an Argus C3 rangefinder that belonged to my father. His mother had been fascinated with photography, and would always have her Kodak box camera; as a result, we have a wealth of family photos from that side of the family.

When my dad shipped out for military service, MawMaw told him to take lots of pictures. He spent his tour in Europe as a radio operator, and just before he processed out at the end of his enlistment, he bought the Argus and got a buddy to go around on a whirlwind sight-seeing tour to snap pictures to take home to his mother. MawMaw was thrilled, and deftly ignored that my dad and his pal were wearing the same clothes in every shot. She called the stack of scallop-edged black-and-white prints The Lenny and Me collection — Lenny and me at the Eiffel Tower; Lenny and me on the Champs-Élysées; Lenny and me at the Moulin Rouge.

The Argus never got much use after that. Mother had a variety of Kodaks over the years, and that’s where most of our family photos originated. I don’t remember being tempted by any of them. But at one point, I came into the possession of a Polaroid Swinger, and when I could scrape up enough money, I would ride my bike to Eckerd’s and buy a package of black-and-white film, then race home for a photo binge — if you can call 10 pictures a binge. The draw of the Swinger is that it used Polaroid’s instant film. You’d take a photo, and the camera would spit out a thick rectangle. You’d wait a prescribed around of time, and then peel the photograph away from the backing. Voila — a picture.

I came across a few of them recently. They didn’t hold up well. Most are hard to make out. There’s one of a Corvette in the intersection of Main and Oates streets, a couple of our family dog, Poochie, and one that appears to be Daffodil, a neighbor’s dog. I’m assuming it’s Daffodil, because the dog is barking at me. Daffy was always barking at me.

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When I was in college, I took a photojournalism class. Each of us was assigned a Pentax K-1000 single-lens reflex camera to use during the term. It was a bit more complicated than I was used to. The Swinger required only that you turn a knob until the word YES illuminated, and then you’d press the shutter button. The Pentax had dials and numbers, and we had to learn how different settings controlled light and time, and I wondered if I would ever get a photograph.

Once it all fell into place, I began to enjoy taking photographs. I sold my bicycle and bought a Nikon and shot a million rolls of film. When I got a job as a newspaper photographer, I shot a million more. Much of the film I used outside of work was color negative film and the occasional Kodachrome, but I loved black-and-white film. Much of my personal black-and-white film was developed by Frank Gaines.

I was dismayed last week to learn that Frank had died. I’ve known him most of my life, starting with Boy Scout Troop 109 at Calvary Baptist Church. Years later, when I needed some black-and-white film developed, I would drop it off at his shop. Much of his business was commercial photography, so finding him there was a crapshoot. When he was there, he was always ready to talk about cameras, films, photography in general, or Dothan history. Frank amassed a tremendous collection of photographs of Dothan and the surrounding area, and was the go-to guy for anyone who had a question about the past. Frank would, more often than not, answer a question with an image. And it was always exactly what the inquirer would be looking for.

I’ve thought a lot about Frank in the last few days. His family and friends mourn him, of course. But from the perspective of our area’s pictorial archive, and his encyclopedic knowledge of the history of our area, Frank’s passing leaves a tremendous void yet to be realized.

It leads me to wonder about how we’ll chronicle images in the future. I still have film equipment, but haven’t used it in years. Film is near impossible to find, and developers are scarce. Like most everyone else, I take photographs with my cell phone, and those images are to the Polaroid black-and-whites what a Maserati is to Fred Flintstone’s yabba-dabba-do-mobile. They’re also intangible and ethereal; you won’t find an iPhone photo in a desk drawer in 50 years.

I have the “Lenny and me” Argus C3 somewhere; the Polaroid is lost to time. But it made me remember a barking Daffodil and a $19.95 song — “Meet the Swinger, order a Swinger …”

Bill Perkins is editorial page editor of the Dothan Eagle and can be reached at bperkins@dothaneagle.com or 334-712-7901. Support the work of Eagle journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at dothaneagle.com.

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