The life lessons I learned from a cheap old Kodak film camera

I still have my Kodak STAR35.

Members of my generation are probably the youngest generation to be nostalgic about analog technology. We millennials were the last generation to grow up with dimensional televisions, music and films on tapes, and phones with buttons. We were also the last generation to remember when photography wasn’t instant.

Film photography was the norm until the mid-2000’s, when digital cameras started to become affordable and accepted by mainstream consumers. But 35mm cameras stuck around for awhile as the choice for photographers who spent money in increments on film and development rather than on an expensive DSLR that made photography free and unlimited.

I was born in 1995, and so was my first film camera. But I didn’t get that camera until it and I were a decade old.

It was 2005. Gloria, my family’s friend and sole tenant in our Wildwood, NJ apartment building was moving out and in with her family after being diagnosed with ALS. My sister Erin, friend Brianna and I hung around – and got in the way – as Gloria and her daughters sorted through Gloria’s belongings, helping her downsize before the move. The woman who shared our house for my whole life was leaving, but she wanted to leave me, my sister and friends with things to remember her by. She let us go through bins of belongings she had stored in the shed and pick out things to keep.

The photos I took the day I found my Kodak STAR35. Top photo is Brianna, bottom photo is Erin.

I picked up a black plastic handheld camera. It was a Kodak STAR 35 snapshot camera that still had film in it. I spent the afternoon blinding Gloria, her daughters, Erin and Brianna with the automatic flash as we helped Gloria sort through her things in the backyard. When the roll was full, it rewound automatically. The sound of the gears turning alarmed me and I mistook that I broke it.

The Kodak STAR 35 was produced from 1992-1995 and cost $71.95 new. In 2005, it was stored away in a shed and worthless. But it was worth everything to 10-year-old me, who had been dying for a way to capture the childhood I didn’t want to end.

I got the photos developed at a one-hour photo in North Wildwood called Foxy Photo. I still have the prints on FujiColor Crystal Archive Paper. Foxy Photo is long gone, the building that housed it now occupied by a sandwich shop.

In the following years I progressed to hand-me-down digital point-and-shoot cameras from my dad who used them for work. I wanted a DSLR but couldn’t afford the price, so I got the next best thing during freshman year of high school: I found dormant SLR Canon Rebel G in my mom’s desk. It was the camera she used to capture all my single-digit birthday parties and school trips to Storybook Land, and I adopted it as my trendy camera during the hipster revival of film in the early 2010’s.

I photographed my friends when we hung out, and all the arty things I thought were deep and meaningful, like icicles and tree lines. I bought film at Walgreens for $2-3 a roll, and I got the film developed at Walgreens’ one-hour photo for $10 per 24-photo roll. Film photography was alive but not thriving as long as kids like me were using our secondhand SLRs. Then the iPhone happened.

My Canon Rebel G took an unintended vacation when I got my first iPhone 4 in senior year of high school. It was the two-year-old model by then, the kind people get for free with a two-year contract. The camera was significantly better than the LG Voyager I had previously, and it was enough to become my main camera for awhile.

Not many years later, Walgreens, CVS and Rite-Aid lost their one-hour photo. I wanted to get back into film photography, but now my only option of getting my photos developed was to send them away at a pharmacy and risk them getting mixed up or lost forever (and now you don’t get your negatives back, you only get a photo CD) or learn to develop my own photos.

Now I’m far enough removed from having to use these cameras out of necessity that I’m nostalgic about them. I want to get back into using them because of the fun I had working hard on each photo, making them count because I only had so many photos on a roll, and the vintage feel of film photography that reminded me of my childhood photos.

The problems that come with film photography haven’t gone away. To get back into film, I’d have to accept the risk of losing those photos I worked so hard for forever in a photo-developing plant in another part of the country. I won’t get my negatives back because it’s no longer protocol to give them back. Or I’d have to learn a challenging new skill where any mistake could wipe the images not yet solidified by toxic chemicals.

When you get nostalgic about something, the first thing you think of is the happy feelings it provokes. But if you really want to bring that thing back into your life, you have to bring all the negatives (no pun intended) that come with it.

On a shelf in my room I have displayed every camera I own. Some work, some don’t; some I have used, some I don’t even know how to operate. Most were given to me as hand-me-downs, others I bought secondhand. I’m planning to get a darkroom kit and learning to develop my own photos as a hobby so I can bring all these cameras back to life. I finally have a DSLR that I use for freelancing, but I’m so sentimental that I don’t want to let film photography go.

If I don’t get into film photography soon, I’m contributing to the broader lack of demand for film products that will lead the film industry to become totally obsolete. If no one pays for film and film cameras anymore, companies will stop making them for good, or at the least, they’ll become so expensive that they’re hardly accessible. The fact that no one does one-hour development anymore proves that risk.

Learning to develop my own photos will be a way for me to connect with this interest I’m so nostalgic about. It’ll also be helpful to know the skill as the number of people who know how to develop photos becomes smaller and smaller.

Sometimes people accidentally let artforms die. I’m going to use my nostalgia for film photography to keep it alive.

About the Author

Taylor H.
Writing Arts major. Freelance Journalist. Monday night DJ on Rowan Radio. Rowan University 2018. Atlantic Cape 2016. Wildwood/Millville NJ. The man in the picture is named Bruce Springsteen.