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Al Batt: They cut off heads of birds at the drugstore near here

Tales from Exit 22 by Al Batt

I couldn’t find a short pier as someone had suggested I do.

But I went for a long walk anyway. I’m a chronic walker and often put my camera on a leash for company. I take photos of birds because I’m a birder and of wintry things like snow and more snow.

I fell in love with photos because of Ansel Adams, the iconic American nature photographer known for his striking black and white landscape photographs. Thanks to his artistry, I looked into another world via a View-Master made of Bakelite.

I grew up in a household that had a camera. One camera, one car and one telephone. It was a Kodak Instamatic film camera I think had been found behind a sofa cushion. We didn’t take many photos. There wasn’t the need to take a photo of everything. There were no selfies and incredibly, we took no photos of food. I took a photo of a chicken egg once. It became food, but I’m not ready to talk about that yet.

If we caught someone staring at another, we proved our cleverness by saying, “Take a picture, it will last longer.” We were smart alecks, but no one ever took a picture. Photos were for special occasions. Family reunion stuff. Some folks liked cold butter on cold toast more than having their photos taken. Wearing our best bib and tucker, we lined up around a new, used car. We scooched together so everyone could fit into the picture. We got the dog in the photo. If a loved one was getting to an age where we feared he or she might not live forever, everyone wanted their photo taken with that person.

I love those old photos. Stories without words. Picture Day at school was a big thing. A photographer attempted to make students smile while getting their school photos taken. What was the motivation? One camera-wielder told me not to mess with him because he shoots people. Another echoed Allen Funt, who hid TV cameras and secretly videotaped people doing stupid things. After they’d been filmed being foolish, Funt approached them and — before having them sign a legal release — revealed the location of the camera by saying, “Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!”

I enjoy taking photos with my current camera, which isn’t an Instamatic. It’s digital. The photos appear instantly. Growing up, I needed to wait until the film roll was full (no room for another photo) before taking it to New Richland Drug for development. Because of that, I lived in an undeveloped country for much of the year. The drugstore carbon-dated the film before developing it. It took a short eternity for the film to be processed, which built suspense and anticipation. Picking up the photos there a couple of weeks later, I was often disappointed and sometimes surprised by the quality. I found photos I’d forgotten we’d taken and a few photos in which I could tell what the subject was. There were more disappointments than thrills at the quality of the photos. If I waited long enough, I’d forgotten what the film roll contained. Every photo was a surprise or a mystery. A lot of mysteries. Someone’s head had always been cut off in a photo. It wasn’t done intentionally, but tall people were most often beheaded.

In 2020, I’d taken some photos on a chilly day. I fooled around with the camera settings. Sadly, my camera has no Ansel Adams setting. My camera is better than an Instamatic, but it has many more miles than the Instamatics from my past. Getting decent photos isn’t unlike getting to Carnegie Hall. Practice, practice, practice. I took photos of snowy boughs of conifers with house sparrows perched on them. I did it because they were snowy boughs of conifers with house sparrows perched on them. That scene seemed to be what winter looks like in Minnesota. I keep photos in the camera for a long time before uploading them. It’s because of all those years of waiting until the camera’s film roll was complete before heading to New Richland Drug for developing. When I finally got around to looking at those photos of snowy boughs of conifers with house sparrows perched on them, I began deleting them both lickety and split until I discovered one of the house sparrows had magically become a Eurasian tree sparrow. I’d never seen a Eurasian tree sparrow in my yard or anywhere near my yard before.

I took a photo of that lovely bird without cutting off its head.

Al Batt’s columns appear every Wednesday.

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