Entry 10: Kodachrome Memories

My dad was an amazing photographer. Okay, he was no Ansel Adams. In fact, I really wasn't referring to his skill at capturing images at all. But he loved taking pictures and over the years as we watched him in action on numerous family vacations, the only word I can use to describe his work is "amazing".

He didn't have the world's greatest photographic equipment. Dad carried around a Kodak Pony rangefinder 35mm camera. It did have adjustments for shutter speed and f-stop, but as far as I know, those were pretty much glued to 1/60th of a second and f8 for the entire time Dad used the camera. It wasn't that Dad didn't understand the physics of light - he just enjoyed the events and locations he was photographing too much to sweat the details.

The Gibson photographic traditions really started in the fifties. My dad, along with my Uncle Jack Hickman and Uncle Larry Maus, all shot slides. When the families got together, it was not uncommon to drag out the slide projector, pop some popcorn, and subject everyone to a couple of hours of reliving every summer vacation, Christmas, and major birthday gathering (along with assorted weddings and funerals) along the way. As dorky and boring as it sounds, it was actually a lot of fun.

But my dad was the true volume shooter. He probably cranked out a couple of rolls of Kodachrome for every one my other uncles managed to produce. When it came to photography, my dad could really get into the moment, too. Things like foot paths, guard rails, rope barriers - they held no meaning for him once he had his eye fixed on his photographic target. I saw him climb the fence next to a major waterfall in Yellowstone because the angle out there on the edge of the rocks was so much better.

The 1966 trip to the Grand Canyon nearly killed my mother - Dad's artistic sensibilities were utterly unconcerned with the potential thousand foot fall to the canyon floor. At the end of the summer, back home with the slide projector and the popcorn, you could easily tell how impressed Dad was with something by the footage of Kodachrome he devoted to the subject. This trend was revealed most perfectly during our 1960 trip back east.

To start with, Dad was a fan of open spaces. So the canyons of steel that make up Manhattan weren't given too many slides in his collection. In fact, we have more photos taken at a Washington Senators baseball game than we do of downtown New York. But Dad was given one glimpse of open space and clear skies during the visit to New York and he made the most of it - on our visit to Ellis Island.

Yes, the family made a typical tourist visit to see the Statue of Liberty. Based on the photographic evidence, it is safe to say that Lady Liberty impressed Dad. She impressed the hell out of Dad. In fact, in retrospect, 'impressed' may not properly convey Dad's feelings about that statue. 'Obsessed' probably comes closer. In the family slide history, the Statue of Liberty sequence begins with a shot taken from the parking lot. Dad was barely out of the car - in fact the tail end of our station wagon is visible in the photo. By the time they got to the ticket window for the ferry ride, Dad had shot another photo. Waiting in line to board the boat, he shot another. On the boat over, every couple of hundred yards brought another angle and another view so impressive, Dad shot again. And again. Then once more as we disembarked on Ellis Island. And again as we walked up to the base. And from inside the statue. And …

Well, all in all the sequence comprises 18 slides. That's half a roll of Kodachrome which was a significant piece of the vacation budget in those days, after you include processing. At the family slide show gatherings, the third or fourth shot tends to evoke comments. After about seven or eight, Dad would begin to hear some giggles at his expense. Around slide eleven, it was outright laughter. Somewhere around slide fourteen, the laughter began to die out a bit uncomfortably as this amusing sequence started to look vaguely disturbing. By the end, people were beginning to edge away from Dad on the couch. Meanwhile, at that stage, Mom was beginning to give him the stink eye. And who can blame her - that copper-clad woman with the torch was the only woman who ever diverted Dad's attention away from her that thoroughly.

In Dad's defense, some of those pictures are pretty good. His only defense was to say that as impressive as it looked from the parking lot, it just kept looking more impressive the closer we got. And let's be honest - for a farm boy from Kansas, that had to be the biggest gosh-darned statue he'd ever laid eyes on! Personally, I've always been inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Since that period of time - from the fifties through the sixties and into the early seventies - was Dad's most productive period, there is very little that escaped his photographic eye. Somehow, we've forgiven him for that. We've forgiven him despite Roger's extremely dorky Cub Scout salute photo; and despite Kathy's snazzy red training bra and slip, an image Dad cleverly captured in a bathroom mirror; and despite those shots of me at age 7 in my tighty whiteys playing with a Tonka truck on Christmas morning; and despite Janet's puzzling lack of appearances in the family photo history …

Well, you know how it goes. The first couple of kids are an amazing change to your world and everything they do is a first. It all has to be captured on film. The third kid finds it a lot harder to impress Dad enough to get a lot of photo time. Child four is generally considered pretty much a non-event. You have to be a special fourth child to get more than a fraction of the camera time the first two kids got. Janet was lucky in one sense - she was the only one of us with brown eyes, which Dad just loved. So we have a few cute ones of her up to about age eight which was when Dad's photographic output began to taper off.

While my brother was in Thailand during his Air Force days, he brought home a Konica SLR that he gave to Dad. The Konica was definitely a better camera but it was also heavier and more complicated. Dad tried to like it, but he never really got the hang of it. That camera always seemed too big and too complicated for him. The problem is that when he got the Konica, I basically took over the Kodak Pony, teaching myself how to actually use the different settings. So basically, Dad lost interest in being as photographically active. He and Mom eventually bought a cheap, easy-to-use rangefinder and switched to shooting prints. And also, shooting a lot less often.

I ended up taking the Konica to college with me and shot a lot of photos with it over the years. My brother now has both cameras - Dad's old Kodak Pony is an artifact and a bonafide piece of family history. Before I die, I really want to load that baby up with a roll of Kodachrome, head to New York, and fire off half a roll on the boat out to Lady Liberty. But no matter what I do, I know the results won't be half as good as Dad's.

He really liked that statue.