Once upon a time, my dad gave me a black, boxy camera. My first.
We were in Dehradun. Amaranthus (Amaranth?) flowers in the garden, sun and the clouds in the sky. It was winters, I guess, but I can’t remember anymore.
My Dad loved photography. That day he gave me the old camera and told me its mine. He even got me a ‘cut roll’ – a roll of film made by cobbling together the leftover frames of other unexposed films – of black and white film wound up in a green ORWO casing. ‘Go out, try to click a photo’ he told me.
The camera had no focus mechanism, no aperture control, just a ring to advance the flim by a frame…trrk, trrk, trrk, trrk…and then a button to take a photo…click.
Dad had come out to click photos as well. I now know that he was using a Nikon F5 with a 50mm lens and Kodacolor Gold film to make photos in those days.
Back then the cut roll would cost 45 rupees. A fortune for a kid who was just learning long division and couldn’t yet imagine unimaginable numbers. Probably a fortune for the kid’s dad too. Photography was an expensive hobby! Over the next few years, once every now and then, he would give me money, tell me to go to the photo shop, get a roll of Kodacolor Gold (he began with 200 but grew a preference for 400 over time) and get myself a cut roll as well.
This happened right till the time he stopped clicking pictures – when I was in middle school – and locked the camera away, never to pick it up again. I do not remember the photos I made with the other cut-rolls, but I can recall the Dehradun morning.
The first photo.
I was mesmerized by the blue sky and the white clouds. So I pointed my camera skyward and clicked.
My first photo.
Later, when the cut roll was exposed, it was white. ‘Over exposed’ Dad had said.
I saw the white photo and was fascinated and disappointed at the same time.
When all the photos were printed, of the 12 (or 16?) frames in that first cut roll, 5 photos came out right. The Amaranthus in the garden was one. I was a bit let down by the fact that I could not capture the color, the deep magenta-purple-pink, of the flower in the sun.
My dad thought it was a good photo and put it up as a part of the exhibition of photos shot by kids two even three years older at my school! He wrote ‘Shaurya Agarwal II-A’ in the margins of the Amaranthus photo with a black marker before putting it up on the cord board in the space assigned to me. I felt very proud. ‘The corners of a photo are very important’ he told me. I remember nodding, as if I really understood the importance of that advice.
At the exhibition, I remember him talking to Bro. John Bosco, then the principal of my school, himself a photographer. I remember them discussing how the photograph had captured the shadows just right, how it had ‘potential’. I remember them telling me that I shouldn’t worry about who is praised in the exhibition. That the other photos were clicked by the parents and were being passed around as clicked by the kids.
Next to my photo, a kid had put a color photo of his coloring pens, he was in class III-A. I did not know yet what a cliché was, so I simply smiled at the photo. All I could think of was that my black and white photo was not as beautiful as the Amaranthus I had seen.
Years have passed, I click photos of the sky, clouds, sunset, clouds, sunset, sky, clouds, sunset. Too many landscapes. The photos don’t over expose anymore.
I have not seen Dad in over 5 years, may his soul rest in peace. I have not seen an Amaranthus flower in over 20 years. I have not seen Bro. John Bosco in over 30 years. I have never clicked a photo that was as beautiful as the thing I saw when clicking it.
But I look at the sky a lot and I want to show that white photo to Dad again and see if he says ‘It has potential’.