My twelve-year-old niece grabs my cell phone and photo bombs a litany of selfies in a matter of seconds. She makes a series of duck faces, silly faces, and adorable ones. Then she grabs the device and begins to look at her masterpieces. She’s part of the generation of instant gratification, instalike and Instagram and sometimes I wonder if she’s better off. I can remember a time of picture-taking that had different benefits.
My first camera was a thin, black Kodak Instamatic, with a string handle that I wore around my wrist. I’d put in a special 110 film that resembled the top of a scroll. With no built-in light source, I placed my flashcube with the small bulbs inside on top of my camera and hope it didn’t burn out and ruin the shot.
For me it was less about taking the pictures as it was waiting to see how they turned out. The best deal around was sending the film to a service through the mail. You’d put your roll in the pre-formed pouch and tick off the appropriate information: 110 film, 12 pictures, glossy, doubles (of course) and your address. And then you’d wait. And wait. It took weeks, (but felt like years) for the lab to deliver your pictures. Those days of anticipation probably brought me the greatest pleasure of them all.
I loved that feeling every time the mail arrived. Piles of magazines and letters shuffled through the slot. Rummaging through the envelopes, hoping to see my memories up close. Each day I waited, I’d paint pictures in my head and smile thinking of: my first days in summer camp, the birthday parties I attended, sleepovers. Highlights of my childhood.
Eventually, the thick envelope arrived and I’d devour it, ripping off the sticky top to get a look at my masterpieces. I’d push aside the plastic sleeve of negatives and stared at those 3 x 5 photos for hours, fascinated that I alone created them. The results, however, were usually as follows: two pictures of my thumb, a few where the flash didn’t go off, a series of dots that looked like people. But, if I were lucky I’d find one terrific shot where everyone was smiling. It didn’t matter if all the other pictures were crap. What mattered was that my little fingers created a permanent souvenir of my life.
Sometimes, if you were lucky, you’d get to use a Polaroid camera. This heavy box with overpriced film, would allow you to point and click and within 60 seconds peel off the negative, blow and voila your picture would appear. And to this day, that was probably the greatest magic of them all. That thick picture appeared so magically you just had stare it for a while.
My niece has finished up her photo shoot. Within seconds, she deleted most of her less flattering shots. I began playing with her hair when my nephew took my phone and repeated the same series of selfies. He looked at me, placed his arm around me and squeezed his head close to mine. He snuggled up to me and grabbed my phone and this time took our picture. He’s a teenager and this is the first selfie we’ve taken together. I am beaming. I want to see these pictures he just took, but refrain. I sit on the couch and think of all the love I am getting. I stop to take it in.
I know I can access those pictures instantaneously, yet I still wait a few minutes so as not lose what’s right in front of me. I need to be in that moment and reflect on it before it is immortalized.
I’m a much better photographer than the young girl with the slippery thumb. I know that technology has allowed me to take better pictures. Though still, sometimes, I find myself on rainy days sifting through the few old photographs I’ve managed to keep. I hold some in my hands, the worn paper and the poorly focused shot, barely able to make out the faces. The type of pictures I’d delete – if I took today. I smile thinking I captured that picture on my Instamatic camera and remember the thrill of waiting for it to come in the mail.
I love the selfie my nephew took of the two of us. I cropped it and made it my new profile picture. Every time I look at it, I think of that precious evening, when a teenager wanted his friends to know who his aunt is. And I didn’t have to wait.
Elana Rabinowitz is a freelance writer, teacher and world traveler. She is currently working on her memoir.
Her work can be found here.