This dad touched his world, and his daughter’s heart, through a trusty camera

By Lisa Maria Bell

Originally published in The Fresno Bee, June 17, 2018:

Sometimes the first child in a family is also the most photographed. That was my story. Firstborn of three children, every move in my early years had photographic documentation. And the man behind the camera was our dad.

An introvert like me, my father documented his world on film. That’s how he observed and interacted with his life and his times, the turbulent ’60s and early ’70s — from behind the lens of a camera, mostly the lens of his trusty Nikon.

I asked him recently about his Nikon. He told me: “The Nikon F was the ‘go to’ camera of all serious photojournalists of the ’60s and ’70s. Watch documentaries from then and you will see Nikons being used all over — in Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, assassinations, Woodstock and every other major event of those decades.” 

Born in 1947, my dad got his first real camera in the 1950s. As a boy, he captured images of Sen. John F. Kennedy on a 1960 campaign stop in Mansfield, Ohio. He took photos exploring caves and one-room schoolhouses in the Ohio countryside with his best friend Glenn. He captured anti-Vietnam war protests at Ohio State University, where he earned his BS degree while I was a baby.

When I was 3, we moved to a naval base in Bremerhaven, Germany, where he was stationed during his active duty time in the U.S. Navy. His interest in photography led him to a post as a journalist. 

He took his Nikon F camera there and he used it during his time as editor of the Bremerhaven Windjammer newspaper, and while sightseeing with our growing family — at the zoo, in Spechenbutal park, seeing windmills and thatched roofs in the German countryside, and eating bratwurst at a concession stand outside of a church tower bombed out during World War II.

Dad’s Nikon captured my early years, the births of my two younger brothers in Germany, and relatives’ visits to see us while we were on the base. It documented family reunions after we returned to the United States, and family trips to Texas and Boston. 

That camera has at least 20,000 miles on it. In addition to the trips to and from Germany, it traveled cross country with us when we moved from Ohio to Fresno in 1978. And it criss-crossed back across the country when Dad retired to Georgia 10 years ago. Plus all of the side trips along the way.

Growing up seeing all of these visual reminders of past experiences enriched my memories. I wouldn’t have such vivid recollections of my own history if I hadn’t seen the pictures and home movies repeatedly over time.

They say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. I saw the camera in my dad’s hands, so I wanted a camera of my own. 

My dad took a photo of me when I was about 4 with my toy Fisher Price camera. Like my father, I got my first real camera when I was about 10. And I’ve been taking photos of my own ever since.

It was my own interest in photography that drew me into journalism. When an early career interest crashed and burned, I explored other avenues where I might turn a passion into a career. In doing so, I followed in my dad’s footsteps in another way.

I became the photo editor for The Rampage student newspaper at Fresno City College, and from there shifted to the writing and editing side of the business. I spent the next almost 19 years as a journalist at The Fresno Bee.

As my writing blossomed, my photography grew stagnant for a while. But when I became pregnant with my daughter in 2002, my interest in taking pictures returned. 

I bought my first digital camera before she was born. The cycle would repeat — I documented her every step and smile as my father had done 35 years earlier with me and my brothers. I even have a photo of her with her own Fisher-Price toy camera, bought for her by my father as a Christmas gift when she was 3.

Years pass, and we are all growing older. As my father ages, he talks about passing belongings of his down to us three kids. And he encounters resistance. More focused on a minimalist lifestyle, we aren’t so interested in acquiring vast collections of books, records and DVDs that we didn’t choose.

But I was touched recently when he packed up the trusty old Nikon to send my way. I’m not so interested in shooting with a film camera again — I do love the unlimited magic of digital photography. But I might get a few rolls of 35-mm film to play around with the next time we all get together.

That camera, and the family history it has documented over the past half a century, holds a special place in my heart — just like the man behind the camera.

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