To see it on the shelf, you wouldn’t think it was an instrument of torture.
As children, however, we dreaded every time it was pointed in our direction, because we knew suffering was in our immediate future.
The evidence of our agony is preserved in images carefully collected and mounted on black album pages. Our eyes are squinted in pain and our bodies are twisted with impatience to return to our games.
Administering the punishment was our grandfather, who just wanted some pictures of his grandchildren, but who took too literally the guidelines in the instruction manual that accompanied his venerable camera.
The manual demanded that he subject his subjects — we might have employed the term “victims” — to the full glare of the merciless sun. To quote the anonymous author, “the subject should be in the broad, open sunlight, but the camera must not. The sun should be behind the back or over the shoulder of the operator.”
How convenient for the operator.
Not so much for us, judging by the grimaces that were the closest we could get to smiles, considering the white-hot rays incinerating our retinas into ashy residue.
The camera was a Kodak No.2 Folding Autographic Brownie, and since camera references show more than half a million were made between 1915 when it was introduced and 1926 when supplanted by more modern models, one can only surmise how many millions of juvenile eyeballs were seared to temporary blindness while posing for their own family snapshots.
The camera resides on a bookshelf now, a keepsake rather than a photographic tool. A century after its manufacture, the leather bellows is too delicate to fold and in the digital age it would be difficult to find the once-common 120 roll film it uses.
Sometimes I look into its lens, and if I narrow my eyes just so, I can almost see my grandfather holding it at waist level, his hand shading the tiny viewfinder while he framed his shot and we whined at him to hurry up.
In the end, the best picture of all is not one captured on film. Instead, it is the image preserved in my mind of the man who taught me to fish, the man who showed me how to lay a fire and allowed me to start it with matches, the man who fooled me into believing mowing the lawn was fun, the man who put me behind the steering wheel of his wooden Chris-Craft speedboat before I could walk, the man who my own father called dad — and occasionally “pop” in moments of irreverence — the man who told us sharks bit off his thumbs when he was in the navy, who pulled peanuts out of our ears, who convinced us the miniature plaster animal heads on the wall of his lake cottage were magically shrunken heads, who took us for ice cream knowing full well we would drip it on the seats of his new Chrysler.
There he is, and the sun is shining over his shoulder.