When asked, I usually tell people that I've always been a photographer. Obviously that's an exaggeration (I'd like to see a baby try to hold a camera! ... no really, I would love to see that), but it's actually not that far from the truth. I've been working with cameras and using them to shape my worldview for so long that it's difficult to pinpoint when it all began. I've always been and introspective and artistic person, so that might have inevitably led me to this career path at some point, but really I would have to say that it all started with my father. Or, more precisely, my father's camera.
From the time I was born (and as far as I know, for many years prior), my dad owned one of these babies. Canon F-1, 35mm film SLR with a 50mm lens and an old, woven hippy camera strap. My dad is a surprisingly good amateur photographer in addition to being a biologist, so when he wasn't taking pictures of snakes or wild cats, he would turn the lens to me, his only child. Almost all of the pictures of my early childhood were taken with that camera, and some are honestly studio quality work. Unfortunately for him, I always wanted to be behind the camera, not in front of it. Credit where credit is dues, though, he learned to embrace my enthusiasm quickly when he saw my passion. I'm sure there was a point when I was too young to be trusted with the precious family camera, but I don't remember it. My memories are all of him being incredibly open and receptive to my interest, and patiently teaching me the basics. Once I knew how to load the film, hold the camera securely, and adjust the basic settings, I was usually free to borrow it as long as I supplied my own film. By the time I was 8 or 9, most of the money I earned from household chores went directly to buying film.
Without any formal training in composition, lighting, or subject matter, I experienced my childhood organically through a lens. The results were often odd to the point of abstract, but I immensely enjoyed myself, and some of it was halfway decent work. Except not work, so much as play. I have so many happy memories of using the camera to document my life, express my emotions, and create art, all in a completely carefree way. This intimate connection between art and play is still intrinsic to my process as a photographer, and it all derives from my early experimental years. Having access to a fairly high-quality camera as a child also taught me one of the most important lessons I've ever known as a photographer, which is that you can't have any self-consciousness in the picture-taking process. I have seen so many people miss the perfect angle on a shot because they don't want to lie down, sit down, or turn their body at an awkward angle, but children don't have this same reservation. Kids are more than willing to look weird and get messy, so I grew up with a nonchalance to looking foolish that has helped me take some of the best pictures of my life. These lessons are a part of my daily working process, reminding me that sometimes the best photography is purely intuitive.
Starting out with a film camera also taught me to think about the technical aspects of photography critically and deliberately. Having only 24 exposures in a roll of film (or 36, if you bought the good stuff) forces you to think a few steps ahead. I'm still incredibly grateful that I had to buy my own film, because I knew exactly how much of my allowance I had wasted if I flubbed a shot, and it drove me to strive for technical perfection. As much as I love the fact that current photographic technology allows me to make small mistakes without any guilt, the world of photography lost something important when it transitioned from film to digital. Being able to get your settings right first time every time is a dying art, but it used to be standard for even amateur photographers. Despite the modern computing power of high-quality DSLRs, I can't stress how important this skill is for any professional, and how frequently I still use it to this day.
None of this would have been possible without that trusty old Canon F-1, or its owner. Throughout my life, my father has been unwavering in his support of my photography. He was always happy to answer my questions about technique and theory, and encouraged me to read and learn as much as I could beyond what he taught me. We were never exactly rich, but when I started getting (more) serious about photography at the age of 15-16, my Christmas present that year was a Nikon 2020 and two good lenses, which I still have to this day. When I decided to double-major in photography and art history in college, he and my mom were both happy and supportive, never once asking the dreaded question of "do you really think you can make this into a career?" As I've gone on to build a professional portfolio, they have continued to offer honest critiques at every turn to help me advance in the field. Today, despite using all Nikon equipment in my professional life, I have a vintage Canon of my own (an AE-1, which is a very similar model). Sometimes when I need to decompress and remember that photography isn't all about answering emails or drawing up invoices, I'll buy a few rolls of film, take it down from the shelf, and spend the afternoon indulging my inner child, shooting the weirdest, most nonsensical pictures I can come up with.