Life in Black and White
Behind the lens
“Just scooch in a little closer — there you go! Thank you. Now, hold the pose… just a few seconds… look right here and smile!…”
Click! Whrrr… “Beautiful!”
Clint was satisfied. He had a feeling this one would turn out well — a photograph that told a story without words. A story of the love of a father for his children.
It was Clint’s dream to open his own photography studio someday. Until then, it was a hobby. His fascination with photography had begun when he was young, maybe the age of the boy in this family he had just captured on film.
He had started saving pennies, but it would take a long time before he’d have the dollar necessary to buy a camera. Mama gave him a jar, so he could drop the pennies in. Clink! One hundred pennies! That was a lot of money. A lot of clinks.
“That’s almost as much as Daddy earns in a day, after expenses,” Mama told him. His daddy worked as a Pullman porter. Clint wasn’t very sure about the expenses part, so Mama explained that Daddy got paid a certain amount every month — but out of that he had to pay for his food, his uniforms, and even the shoe polish he used on the passengers’ shoes.
“I’m proud of you for saving! Just keep doing it. There’s no point in buying a camera until you have enough money for a roll of film to use in it,” Mama said, giving him a quick squeeze around his shoulders. Clint kept saving his pennies. Clink!
In 1930, the Eastman Kodak company had its 50th anniversary. To promote interest in photography, they gave away a Brownie Hawkeye camera to every twelve-year-old in the country.
Clint didn’t qualify; he was nine at the time. His sister Dorothy, who was twelve, received a camera, but she wouldn’t let him try it. She was afraid he’d waste the film. He continued saving pennies. Clink!
By and by, Dorothy lost interest in the Brownie Hawkeye. She filled a roll or two of film over the next couple of years, then abandoned the camera. She preferred to save her money for a sewing machine so she could make her own dresses, and maybe someday sew for other people like Mama did.
“Can I use the camera?” Clint asked. Mama heard.
“‘May I’, Clinton,” she reminded him. “And remember your manners, please.”
Mama was a stickler for being proper in all things; the children were always clean, neatly dressed, and had impeccable manners. She was strict, but kind.
“Yes, Mama. Dorothy, please may I use your camera? I have money to buy the film,” he added quickly.
“Here,” Dorothy offered. “Just keep it.”
The tiny photographs were a little disappointing, but Clint persisted. Any money he received went to his film fund. Clink!
Little by little, his skill increased, but the small square box had limited effectiveness. He needed better equipment.
For extra money, he set up a shoeshine stand. Daddy showed him how to achieve a lustrous shine. Sonny Gibbs, the barber, let him operate just outside the barbershop doors, and he became a fixture on Saturdays. Clink! Clink!
“May I take some pictures of you at work, Mr. Gibbs? You could use them for advertising, if they turn out well!”
Mr. Gibbs chuckled, a deep, rumbling laugh.
“All right with me, Clint — better ask the customers before you do it though.”
“You need a better quality camera, Clint,” Mr. Gibbs remarked a week later, when he saw the first results. “You have talent, and that little Hawkeye doesn’t do it justice.”
“Yes, sir. I don’t have the money, sir.”
“Well… let me see what I can do.”
Sonny Gibbs dropped a word in the ear of Jakob Schneider, a regular at the barbershop. Jakob operated the pawn shop a few doors down.
“Ja, I have some cameras,” he acknowledged. “You come by — I show you.”
There were three cameras in Schneider’s shop. One was a Brownie Hawkeye, just like the one Clint was already using. The second was an almost new model, too expensive for Sonny’s intent. He eyed the third, a Leica Model A.
“Made in Germany!” Jakob proclaimed proudly. “One hundred fourteen dollars new, neunzehn hundert — ah — nineteen twenty-five.”
“For you, for the boy, twenty dollars.”
Mama wouldn’t allow Clint to accept the Leica.
“Mr. Gibbs,” she explained, “that’s very kind of you, but it won’t teach him responsibility.”
“We’ll call it payment for advertising then.”
“No, Mr. Gibbs. Clinton will pay you for the camera.”
Finally, they came to an agreement. Mama decided that her son could give Mr. Gibbs earnest money. She consented to the barber crediting him a modest sum for “advertising fees”. She would then allow Clint to use the Leica, so his photography skills could improve.
“It belongs to Mr. Gibbs until you pay the very last penny.”
Through the lens -
The photograph is close to seventy-five years old, still crisp and sharply defined in black and white. It tells a story without words. A story of the love of a father for his children.
He stands, smiling broadly, squinting in the bright spring sunshine. Fully leafed-out poplar trees in the background provide a clue to the season.
A wide-brimmed hat casts a shadow on the man’s forehead. His left arm is around the shoulders of an adolescent girl, perhaps twelve years old. She wears a striped tee shirt, ragged jeans with a hole in one knee, and a tentative smile. She has large, captivating eyes framed by distinctive arched brows.
Against his right side, the father holds his son in a half-embrace. The boy, about eight years old, has a self-conscious smile and his father’s crinkly squint. He’s wearing a dark jacket that could be leather. There is a visible hole in the side of his shoe, and visible contentment in being pressed close to his father’s side.
The youngest child, a puny girl of about six, is not smiling. She wears a sober expression and has a peaked appearance, as if she has been recently ill. Even in the black and white image, it’s evident that the tip of her nose must be pink.
She’s been lovingly bundled in a knee-length coat with a wide collar, slightly out of fashion, and wears a bonnet style hat. Too small to be included in the embrace, she’s tucking herself tightly against her father’s denim-clad leg.
The mother has chosen not to be in this photograph, self-effacingly joking,
“There’s too much of me to fit in the picture!”
Beyond the lens -
Goats clamored to be noticed as they clambered over and upon tree stumps and farm equipment. There were Alpines, sporting horns and beards; Saanens, hornless, clean faced, a bit larger than the Alpines; and charming, chunky, lop-eared Nubians.
The goats were fun — albeit challenging — to photograph. Clint asked the boy to assist him.
“Think you can catch that one? She’s pretty.”
Dexterously, the boy apprehended a large chestnut Nubian nanny with a black face and white blaze. Her silky, pendulous gray tweed ears flopped as she bellowed,
The boy crouched beside her, arms encircling her broad shoulders and neck, restraining her.
Click! Whrrr… “Beautiful!”
Sometimes, at school, he was called “Goat Boy”.
“Hey, Goat Boy, is your coat made from one of your goats?”
In reality, the leather jacket — which his parents could not afford to buy — was a gift from his favorite aunt, his father’s sister. A prize possession, but he almost didn’t want to wear it after being mocked.
The photographer came now and then, usually to take pictures of the animals.
“Any new ones?” he always asked. He had plenty of pictures of goats, chickens, rabbits, pigs…
This day, there was a tiny black lamb. Just a few days old, he tottered a bit on his slim legs as he followed the boy.
“How about if you sit on the ground and hold him in your lap?” suggested the photographer.
Click! Whrrr… “Beautiful!”
The father was a storyteller. He painted pictures using words as his medium. His children had heard them again and again, never tiring of their allure.
Clint came to take pictures, and stayed for the stories. His particular favorite was an account of the father’s cross-country journey from Maine to Nevada. It began with a bicycle ride all the way to Illinois, where the tires wore through and were replaced free of charge in Chicago.
The last leg of the journey was by train, and Clint wondered if his own father might have served as porter on that very voyage. Of course, the young traveler would never have had occasion to enter the sleeping car — he couldn’t have afforded it.
The next time he stopped by, Clint brought a gift for the family. Three large prints of the same photograph —
“One for each of the children,” he said, with a smile.
The father offered to pay for them, but the photographer refused. He wanted to give them this moment in their lives, preserved in black and white.
It is, indeed, a photograph that tells a story without words. A story of the love of a father for his children.
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I really liked this story. I love the little cameras as story breaks and the overall nostalgic feeling throughout. Well done!
Thank you for the read and comment! My writing often has a nostalgic tone. Guess it’s my natural style… I’m glad the cameras worked - just seemed to fit the theme.
I liked the sound effects in the story
Thanks! I really enjoy imagining the sounds and trying to put them into words.
Very well written.It feels like a great page turner.
Thank you - glad you enjoyed it!
Wow, loved this - dipping in and out of moments, like the photographs. Lovely sentiment to it too. A photograph tells a story without words, but your words painted a picture perfectly!
Thank you - glad you enjoyed it! We had a “picture drawer” when I was growing up. I frequently dipped in. I have lots of really old family photos, and I’m sure there are more stories in them!
I think you chose the perfect title for this one, Cindy. This whole story is a portrait of Clint's life, told so tenderly and beautifully. I'm honestly amazed at how few words you used here, because the story was so rich and detailed that it felt like we got a novel's worth of information in a few thousand words (if that). Really enjoyed the structure of this one. It had me wondering at first about the plethora of line breaks, but once I finished it, it seemed like the right choice. Every section is a snapshot of its own (bonus points for u...
Thanks for a very nice critique, including your uncertainty about the line breaks. I’m glad to know it ended up feeling right! I stuck one in on impulse and liked it myself. I love the photo that inspired the story; I can see the fatherly love in my grandpa’s posture. That’s what prompted the repetition of that phrase. Your comparison to a song is rather fitting. I like it! The whole family is inclined to be musical. Grandma (the one who chose not to be in the photo) was a piano teacher.
Such a sweet, realistic story. I can almost see the photos in my mind with your powers of description. I liked the way you showed his progress as he grew and his appreciation for family. Did Kodak really do that? Wonderful story I really enjoyed it.😻
Thanks! I immediately thought of that photo when I saw the prompt, and enjoyed writing the story. Yes, Kodak did that - and I didn’t know until I was doing a bit of research. (I’m always doing a bit of research! 😉) It wasn’t altruistic, it was a marketing move to sell more film!
Cindy: What a tribute to your dad on this Mother's Day. Such a tender, loving portrait of a man's love that they are often too tough to show so easily. I loved the repetition of Clink, that really helped move the story along. Such a series of slices of life shown through the lens of a camera. The young boy's trials in trying to save to afford that first camera reminded me of one of my husband's silly stories. When he was six or seven, he found one of those ads in the back of a comic book. I sent away with an ad like those and got a ...
Maureen, We must have been commenting on each other’s stories simultaneously! It’s kind of funny that the story about my dad’s family is timed for Mother’s Day, huh? Maybe I’ll do a Father’s Day story about my mom’s family… My grandpa passed away when I was 8 (he was born in 1894! Started family late in life) but I remember him as a very tender, loving man, full of energy. My dad is just like him in so many ways! The photographer was a real man who visited the farm many times; I don’t know his name or background, but had fun making it up! I...
I like the cyclical nature to this. Clint is reminded of his own childhood, of the adults that helped him realize his dream, when he looks at the boy in the picture. When he gifts the family 3 prints, it kind of follows the same idea, and I'm wondering how this child will look back on this. Perhaps not at all, but perhaps it will be a fond memory. I also like the duality of "a photograph that told a story without words" and "He painted pictures using words as his medium".
Thanks for the like and comment. Honestly, I struggled to finish and debated whether or not to post it. I had 2/3 written and then developed acute bilateral vertigo. Very challenging to concentrate when the world is spinning! In fact, I first read “cynical” instead of “cyclical” in your comment! I can answer your wondering: the boy is my dad, and he cherishes that photo. And he, like his father, is a storyteller.
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Thank you! I’m glad the kindness and warmth came through - that’s what I was trying to achieve. And I quite enjoy “transliterating”sounds into words. I just read and commented on “Zulie Dragon and the Magic Cricket”. Loved it!