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FOOD FOR THOUGHT: “My Father’s Camera”, by Sean Patrick Hill

In December of 2023, I boxed my father’s camera – a Pentax K1000, its manufacture dated, I believe, to about 1983 – and shipped it to Abilene, Texas. For a long time, the camera had sat on my shelf in Kentucky, the aperture ring bent, and its 50mm lens jammed on, the whole thing locked up and inoperable. It had been my camera, by then, for twenty years.

I’d long considered Abilene Camera Repair, ACR, as the place to have my K1000 not only CLA’d but completely restored. Kori, who does all the work, has been repairing 35mm cameras since 1978. I paid the refurbishment price, $295, for which he would entirely dismantle the camera, thoroughly cleaning it, removing corrosion, and replacing any worn parts. The mirror cage would be completely removed, each mechanism inspected, and all the light seals replaced. He would provide, on top of that, a DVD with images of the camera’s interior.

Sean Patrick Hill – Rodin’s Thinker, the University of Louisville, Kentucky

Ansel Adams once said you could come to feel affection for a camera, and I agree. I feel that way about all my cameras to varying degrees, but I especially feel deeply about my Pentax K1000. I often interchangeably call it my camera or my father’s camera, though I tend to go with the latter. Part of my affection for the Pentax, and the reason I would never give it up, is that my father gave me that camera in 2003 when I was living in the high desert in Bend, Oregon, where I taught high school English for a number of years. When I was young, he wouldn’t let me touch it; instead, when he bought the Pentax from a friend, he gave me the camera the family had been using for a decade and more, the Kodak Instamatic.

I’m not sure what precipitated my asking him for the camera all those years ago – I was engaged at the time, and my fiancée wanted to take a community education class in photography with me. It chagrins me to say that I was still confused about the relationship between aperture and shutter speed even after having hosted an afterschool photography club at Cascade Middle School, which I’d done for three years in Bend, starting as a volunteer in the AmeriCorps. For my part, I’d mostly been shooting on old 35mm point-and-shoots since the mid-90s. Getting the Pentax was life-changing. Back then, there was still a camera store in downtown Bend that sold and developed film and made prints. I shot with Dad’s camera constantly – in town, in the desert, and in the mountains.

Sean Patrick Hill – Teagan, Carnegie Center for Art & History, New Albany, Indiana

My wife and I moved to Portland, Oregon, just after we married, and I continued to shoot there – I did all my business with Blue Moon Camera in St. John’s, which is still very much in business – but after a while, my wife somehow talked me out of shooting film and instead into buying a digital point-and-shoot. We got something, a Sony, I think, from some store like Best Buy. It was easier, admittedly, to just shoot and upload the photographs to the computer. I was writing for a blog at the time, Travel Oregon, and that little camera made things easy on long hikes. My father’s camera went back into the box he’d mailed it in.

Ten years later, living in Louisville, Kentucky, my wife and I separated. The next year, in 2014, my father died of cancer. I found myself living in a rental in Crescent Hill, a single parent of a preschooler. The Pentax, of course, stayed with me. Once, when I was dating a photographer during what was the hardest time of my life, I took it down and realized there was a roll still in there; I shot the rest of the roll, developed it, and then put it away again.

Sean Patrick Hill – Teagan, Carnegie Center for Art & History, New Albany, Indiana

But by the late summer of 2017, living in a house I’d purchased with a down payment from money my father left me in his will, I took the camera down, thinking that to shoot on it was a way to honor him. I loved the camera, too, and I always had a love of film. Since then, the camera has never gone away. I shot black-and-white, then color, then slide.

This April, after months of waiting, the mailman came to the door, and I signed for the package from Abilene. I took the camera out of the bubble wrap, held it, and thought of my father. Then, I loaded a roll of Kodak Tri-X 400 and set to work again.

Sean Patrick Hill – Teagan, Louisville, Kentucky

I shoot all formats of film. I own a large-format rail camera, my 4×5 Sinar F2, and two medium-format cameras, the Pentax 6×7 and a 1950’s Ansco Super Speedex 4.5 folding camera. Since 2017, I’ve had numerous 35mm cameras too, including a Canon AE-1 Program and a Minolta XE-5 that I especially loved, but now that collection is whittled down to my Minolta SRT-201 (which I used to tide me over while the K1000 was on the fritz, including on my trip to England and Wales last summer) and an SRT-101 I rescued from a Goodwill and that badly needs servicing. But it’s the K1000 I’m most attached to.

The Asahi Pentax K1000 SLR began production in Japan in 1976. Though it lacks some of the features of earlier Pentax K-series cameras, and even my Minoltas, like the self-timer and depth-of-field preview, it is still considered one of the premier workhorse cameras. It weighs less than a pound-and-a-half and yet is sturdy, and it can operate fully manually – only the light meter is powered by a battery. In 1983, around the time my father purchased it, the cost was $220, including the 50mm lens (mine is the f/1.7), and by then, the camera production had moved to Hong Kong, but the cameras still bore the name Asahi.

When I began shooting in earnest in 2017, I only had a few lenses. The 50mm kit lens, of course, and also a generic 28mm, perhaps from Sears or JCPenney’s. I bought two SMC-Pentax lenses for it, including the 85mm – a beautiful lens, and one that I adore – and the 135mm. I even bought the macro bellows set for it, just to try it out, though I sold it later. I photographed anything, everything: my daughter Teagan, people I knew, flowers from my garden, buildings in the city and throughout my neighborhood, as well as requisites like graveyards around town.

Sean Patrick Hill – Ganesha, on the Ohio River, Eva Bandman Park, Louisville, Kentucky

What happened quickly was that I began to build an identity that I never expected. I began to become a photographer. I shot routinely and soon purchased an Epson scanner and a Canon printer. I bought a few cheap studio lights and a backdrop stand with two colors of cloth. I began to frame my photographs, and hung a few in group shows in downtown galleries. I also began to write about photography; I published a piece on film photography in Louisville Magazine, and I reviewed local photography exhibits for the LEO Weekly. I went to the library and checked out every photo book they had, then started ordering them for my collection, and I hosted salons in my house, where I’d talk about the photographers I most admired: Brett Weston, Paul Caponigro, and Minor White. I bought or traded for photographs from local photographers I admired. I went to monthly critiques at the Paul Paletti Gallery.

By the spring of 2018, I was shooting medium- and large-format, and I’d built a rudimentary darkroom in the mudroom of my house, fitting it into a small space with my water heater, washer, and dryer, blackening the windows with thick plastic and installing a door from Lowe’s, sealing it from the kitchen’s light with foam. I did my first workshop with Kim Weston, and I stayed at Wildcat Hill, Edward’s home for all those years, my accommodations the Bodie House, where Brett once lived. Later, I would spend a week with Lynn Radeka in Death Valley, and I’d travel with my daughter to photograph in Capitol Reef National Park (later securing a grant from the Great Meadows Foundation to go a second time).

Last year, I was the photography artist-in-residence at The Bascom Center for Visual Arts in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, which culminated in a solo exhibition in the Bascom’s Joel Gallery and an additional showing in the Highlands Performing Arts Center. In May, I hosted my second solo at Louisville Visual Art, and this summer, I’ll spend three weeks in Sweden, most of it at the Nordingrå Konstby artist residency on the High Coast and the rest touring photo exhibits in Stockholm.

All of this emerged from my father’s camera, which is why I wanted it fixed: so I could take it to Sweden. My only wish is that my father knew that this is where his generosity landed me.

Sean Patrick Hill – Silver Wishbone (by Mark Handforth), Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky

When I think about photography in my life, I think about the idea of redemption. In 2003, my father made an investment in me by gifting me the Pentax K1000. It brought me joy, certainly. But now, it is bringing me far more: recognition, opportunities, grants, and even some sales of prints. My father’s camera has enabled me to build an entirely new life in the wake of his death, my divorce, the pandemic, and even the loss of my professional content writing job in 2020.

The only time I wavered, it seems, was when I returned from North Carolina, and for a month, I had to readjust. I’d spent two months photographing in the mountains, along the Cullasaja River, and throughout Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and I suddenly returned to the city, unsure of what to do. I went to England that summer and took my Minolta and the Ansco and shot Ilford HP5, but when I returned from that trip, so much in my life occupied my attention that the cameras got no attention. The darkroom was idle. Car troubles and the ensuing exorbitant costs kept me awake at night, and I took a teaching assignment at the university to try to make up for lost money. I spent months stressed out, worrying over finances, and slogging through repeated car repairs, not to mention the grueling work of grading student essays.

But by December, I felt that I had to send my father’s camera out if only to give myself a jolt. I knew, too, that it would return me to a root, that it would ground me in the initial reason I started into photography in the first place: for discovery, for activity, for pleasure, for creativity.

I’d forgotten the utter simplicity of the 35mm camera, how easy it is to take quick, unmeditated shots, the flexibility of a camera held lightly in hand or around the neck, and the eagerness that the Pentax encouraged in me. It’s not cumbersome like a view camera or even the 6×7 SLR, and I forego the tripod, which I got used to relying on with the larger cameras. I found a freedom in the K1000 I’d nearly forgotten. I want to go to Sweden unburdened by not so much gear as old ideas, and this practice with the 35mm is critical for me now. I’m experimenting, expanding, questioning.

Today, it’s cloudy in Kentucky, so I’m writing, preparing illustrations for my article, and researching new opportunities for residencies and grants. My camera, cleaned and tuned, waits only for the light to return.

SEAN PATRICK HILL

Sean Patrick Hill is a photographer, freelance writer, essayist, educator, and poet. He is a graduate of the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. Sean was the 2023 photography artist-in-residence at The Bascom: A Center for Visual Arts, and he has been awarded grants and fellowships from the Kentucky Arts Council, the Great Meadows Foundation, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Elizabeth George Foundation. He is the author of five books and has had solo exhibitions at The Bascom’s Joel Gallery and Louisville Visual Arts.

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