When I came to Boise in the mid-70s and needed a camera, for personal use and in my newspaper work, I knew where to go: the downtown Idaho Camera store.
I bought a camera there, but that was not all. The staff helped me choose the right one and also helped me learn how to use it properly. I often had film – remember film? – processed there too, so the interaction was an ongoing process. I learned a bit about photography that way. My wife recalls doing much the same thing at Idaho Camera. So do a lot of other people.
The owners of Idaho Camera recently announced the business, which was founded in 1946 and expanded to several outlets around southwest Idaho, will be closing its last store, on the Boise bench, soon. I’m sorry to see another long-time Idaho business close, but the closure also led me to think about some social trends beyond cameras.
The idea of a camera store even surviving these days may seem a little counter-intuitive. I still have a couple of discrete cameras, but they sit on a shelf; like most people, I have for some years taken nearly all the pictures I snap with my smartphone, which has capabilities equal to or better than any stand-alone camera I ever had. (And it doesn’t need film.) Odds are that if you have a telephone, you also have all the camera you need. The phone store is now your camera store too.
And there’s been an explosion of picture-taking, and video-making. People took pictures two and three generations ago, of course, but doing it was more difficult and costly, and people tended to take fewer pictures than they do now. Even if they had taken them, where would they have put them all? Instagram and Facebook and Twitter, by contrast, seem to have almost inexhaustible storage space. But the use of a small smartphone as a camera also means you probably have it with you most of the time; old-style cameras, by contrast, were usually too bulky to carry around much unless you were a tourist or a professional photographer.
Along with the purely personal uses of picture-making, there are social benefits. Think back on the news stories of this year and ponder how many of them were prompted, or even reliant on, the ability of someone to take a key picture at the right moment. We understand things we simply might not have before. We sometimes forget now just how new that is.
As we gain some things, we lose some things.
We lose, for example, the guy at the counter who helps you intelligently use this new piece of equipment.
It’s like the case, some years ago, when desktop publishing and website design software came on the scene. It meant that a lot more people could do these things, more or less. It did not mean most people could do them well. We’ve all seen the often unfortunate results.
And it can take a lot of effort to do something well. About the time I bought my first Idaho Camera camera, I went to work as a reporter at the newspaper in Caldwell (are you old enough to remember it?) and there got to work alongside a professional photographer, who knew not only how to shoot pictures, but also how to do it well and professionally. I’ve picked up a few tips from him and other skilled and trained photographers over the years, and my own efforts got a little better as a result, but I never have mistaken myself as a photographer on their level.
There is such a thing as professionalism and expertise.
Many of us forget that. We are given handy pieces of equipment with which, for example, we can communicate with the world. How well, how intelligently, do we?
Our wisdom and our ability doesn’t necessarily improve because the tools do.
The Idaho Camera approach helped with the former as well as the latter. That’s what we really should miss with their passing.