Looking At Life Through a Different Lens

Over the weekend, Ron was cleaning and organizing things in the basement when he called up the stairs to me that I’d have to decide what to do with the stuff on a particular shelf. Unaware that I had anything stored in the basement, I approached said shelf with equal parts curiosity and trepidation.

And I found a treasure trove.

It’s actually all stuff I knew I had, but I hadn’t thought about it in years, and I’d forgotten where it was. There were a couple of rotary dial phones – a plastic one from my father’s office in the ’80s that still has his old phone number in the middle of the dial, and an even older cast iron one that I used right up until I got rid of my landline less than 15 years ago. There was also an old camera in a leather case, with a side mount flash attachment that uses individual bulbs, and a neck strap made out of a shoelace.

But the best were the various devices for viewing slides.

These things.

Many years back, when my mother was getting rid of all the things she and my father had pack ratted over the years, I asked if I could have the family slides and the old slide projector. She said sure, and some time later, I loaded some boxes into the trunk of my car, not realizing just how much I’d gotten.

Starting with the smallest, there was this.

When I use the “New 2-Lens Guild 35 Viewer,” I feel like I’m a character in an old movie. A glamourous character, of course. Maybe a famous photographer from back in the days when women wore white gloves and pearls to go shopping, and were picked up by dashingly handsome men in crisp suits and big cars when they were done. And I am, of course, picking out the perfect shot for for my upcoming magazine cover.

In reality, of course, it’s cumbersome to load and unload one slide at a time, and while it has a focus ring, it doesn’t seem to do much of anything, so you end up jamming it tighter and tighter against your eyeball until you can see what you’re looking at. And while I have no doubt it’s got ‘the largest magnification of any viewer,’ well … I expect anything’s going to look bigger when it’s two inches from your eye and the only thing in your field of vision.

Can’t beat the fun factor, though.

The next viewer, the “Admiral Slide Light,” is a step up, as it’s battery operated, with a light.

This was a favourite of mine when I was a kid, and I was very excited to use it again. I also wasn’t terribly surprised when it didn’t work. I figured the bulb was the problem, but upon opening it up discovered that it had been stored with the batteries in it, and they’d leaked. Of course, after cleaning up the corrosion and replacing the batteries, it turned out the bulb was toast, as well. It being a specialty bulb, I had to order it online and wait for it to arrive before discovering that it still didn’t work. This led to two days of finicky futzing, mostly on Ron’s part – my hero, as always – to get all the little bits and pieces perfectly lined up to make all the proper connections.

Which it would do! For five or so slides, until things wiggled out of alignment, and it had to be opened up and fiddled with again.

But it was worth it. (Well, it was worth it to me, at least. Ron might disagree.) Because to activate the bulb, you have to push on the slide carrier, and the click it makes when you do that took me back to my childhood. I’d sit cross legged on my bed with boxes of slides strewn around me and look at photos for hours.

It’s a very personal experience, looking at photos on this viewer, oddly even more so than on the one you hold right up to your eye. I think it’s the light that engenders that feeling. It feels kind of decadent, like you’re hogging the screen.

Although my favourite part is the box.

While the directions to, “view vertical slides vertically, view horizontal slides horizontally,” are awesome, it’s the instructions to the seller that really kill me. From the casual chauvinism of the, “Mr. Dealer,” salutation, to the detailed instructions on how to cut the box, to the gently formal suggestion to insert a slide into the carrier at the end, it’s a thing of beauty. Nowadays, the best you’ll get is a terse, “Cut here to display.”

Next up is something I never used much.

The main reason for that is, the “GAF Pana-Vue Automatic” is a piece of crap. The theory is that you put a stack of slides in the tray on the right, and when you pull out the slider, one of those slides drops down into the slot. Push the slider back in, and it shoves the slide into the screen part in the centre, the light comes on, and you can look at your slide. Repeat the process, and the new slide pushes the previous one out of the way, into the tray on the left.

In reality, more often than not, it does this:

Yep, it catches two slides at a time and jams the whole works up. Even when it doesn’t do that, the ejected slides don’t land flat in the tray, so you constantly have to restack things. Plus the light flickers – it always did, that’s not just because it’s old – and the cardboard frame still being visible detracts from the image itself.

Interesting side note: GAF also makes asphalt shingles, which I have installed on my house. And my fuck, I hope they work a damn sight better than this thing does.

And now, we come to the crown jewel of the collection: the one I’d actually asked my mother for. It’s a “Golde Manumatic Slide Projector.” (And can we please take a moment to savour the glory of the word manumatic?)

This was not on the shelf in the basement. No, this baby is on display in the office.

Remember when I said as a kid I’d spend hours using the Admiral viewer? Well, what I was doing was creating slideshows. I’d choose some slides, then hand draw tickets for my family inviting them to come view said slideshow at a particular time. The way that the house where I grew up was laid out, the hallway leading to the bedrooms sort of flared out at the end. I’d put some chairs from the dining room table in that space, prop the slide projector on the foot of my bed, and close my bedroom curtains and the doors to all the other rooms to make it as dark as I could.

And every single time, at least one member of my family would show up. I’d tear their tickets, they’d take their seats, and I’d project my chosen slides onto the wall across from my bedroom door.

There was no rhyme or reason to which images I chose. It was totally random – no theme, no category, nothing. There was also no commentary. They were just photos I liked, and I’d cycle through them in silence. I’m pretty sure whoever attended would make approving noises, and if there was more than one of them, they might have a little conversation about a particular picture. But for the most part it was very businesslike, and very short.

And I loved it.

Today, the Golde Manumatic (snicker) Slide Projector got fired up for the first time in … 35 years? 40, maybe? A very long time, anyway. And the bulb worked, and the fan worked, and the wall lit up, and I was as entranced as I was all those decades ago.

I remember my father setting things up for slideshows when I was young, and it always seemed to take forever to get things right. And now I understand why. I had to move the dining room table to sit the projector on it, and take a frame off the wall to clear a flat, light space for the projected image. Then I had find something to prop under one corner of the projector because the image on the wall was crooked – although based on the above photo I’d say I overcorrected – and fiddle with the focus.

And then I spent some time playing because it turns out I haven’t lost my childhood fascination with the way the image projects on my skin.

Even with all the headaches these devices have caused, and how slow they are to use, they’re wonderful things. Because we’ve grown so used to having a camera in our phone that we can whip out to snap a pic – or a dozen, or a hundred – and then scroll through them as quick as we can swipe a finger, that I honestly think we’ve lost something.

After all the effort I’d put in to setting things up, and with the mechanics involved in removing one slide from the viewer and loading another, I found myself slowing down other things, as well. I didn’t sneer and fling aside photos that weren’t properly centred, or were over or under exposed, or had somebody’s head cut off. Instead, I examined every one – sometimes laughing at how bad they were, sometimes finding a little gem in the background that I’d have missed if I’d sped by, sometimes both.

Don’t get me wrong. I love digital cameras. I love how they give us the freedom to take as many photos as we want until we capture the perfect image.

But real life isn’t perfection. Real life is off centre. It’s flawed, and it’s out-of-focus, and we often look silliest when we’re being terribly serious about it.

I remember growing up, one of the worst days of the year was family photo day. My father was obsessive about family photo day, spending hours and hours trying to get the perfect photo. And over all the years and all the rolls of film, he only ever managed to get one. Sure, the best one from each year would get printed to get mailed out in the Christmas card. But he only got that perfect shot once. I still have it, in print format, in a physical photo album. And I love it. When I picture my family during my childhood days, that’s the image I see in my head.

But after today, what I most want to see are the shots that were rejected.

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