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Before Instagram, there was photography

If you like gawking at people and the lavish wealth displayed in shop windows in malls like I do, you will have noticed how taking selfies is the in-thing.

It is a good idea to take photos of yourself, friends, family, colleagues; you never know whether it will be the last enduring image. Things happen, but I am not a prophet of doom.

As a lowly-paid scribe who may ill-afford the finer things of life such as a smartphone, I am amazed at the gadgets in the market, and I don’t mean Gikomba where I buy most of my clothes from.

Of course, the fact that I am referring to them as clothes should warn you that they are different, radically different, from what folks in high society call apparel.

I know you get the drift: it is like the difference between hotel and hoteri, as my folks back in the village refer to it. One has the menu done in a leather-bound case, serves five-course meals, and waiters do not take tips in coins. The other has its menu on the wall, serves fairly humble fare, and the waiters don lab coats that were once white, but have turned pale yellow from grime and years of overuse.

But we have digressed.

I was telling you about modern gadgets that have changed life so much so that old geezers like myself are perpetually aghast.

I hear a smartphone can take pictures, which can be shared immediately with other folks. I also hear that sort of thing happens in real time.

Back in my time, and that could easily be eons ago, photography was an art. I do not mean like Instagram. This is far too complex for my humble scholarship background.

When I was a little boy, there was just one bloke in the entire village taking mostly family pictures. Few could afford any other pictures. A picture was paid for in tens of shillings.

A photo session was an elaborate affair, with preparations starting days in advance. Everyone knew Sunday was picture day.

So, come Sunday and we all trooped to church, where one Father Walsh, immaculate in his vestments and shiny black shoes celebrated mass.

After this, your mother ensured no one ventured too far from home, lest the photo man appeared suddenly like a genie from a bottle. For some reason, he was the only one to own a bicycle for miles around.

At his prompting, the entire family posed for the photo, never mind that most of us were barefoot.

The hero of the day would unfurl from his satchel what was known as box camera. It was actually shaped like a box, with the top lid opening like a tetrapak box. You know the way juice packets open? In flaps?

One more thing: the sun had to be shining. If it suddenly got cloudy, the photo session aborted, to be repeated after perhaps weeks of further preparation.

As the entire family sat (on stools) and stood for the session, complete with the family transistor radio, encased in a green cotton cloth cover, the photographer would start his antics.

He would hold the camera near his tummy, peering into the camera from on top. So, he looked like he was studying the ground below him.

If the family was well endowed, and some folks were out of the frame, the photographer looked up, gave some firm instructions to squeeze in with the rest and look down again.

And then came the moment: he would say one, two and three and everyone smiled until the cheeks ached as he focused.

Since his camera used a roll of film, this had to be taken to a studio where the photos were processed. If anything went wrong with this process, the entire photo-taking session had to be repeated.

The guy would say the photo got “burnt”, whatever that meant.

After the pictures “came out”, they were prized family heirlooms and were promptly framed, to occupy pride of place on the wall in the sitting room. With time, the wall got pretty adorned with pictures of various family members on various occasions. You could trace the growth of the family, on the walls, and I don’t mean growth in physical size.

Most times, the sitting room doubled up as the kitchen, so both residents and visitors enjoyed a ringside view of whatever was being cooked.

If your mum was making chapatis or chicken, a rarity those days, you ensured you hovered around home for reasons that should be clear to you by now. However, that is a story for another day. Have an aroma-filled week, folks! —The writer is Special Projects editor, People Daily

  

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