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Jack Smith

One of the big differences between a camera and a gun is the number of times you can shoot someone

August 13, 1985|JACK SMITH

A few months ago I expressed my opinion here about the folly of keeping a gun in the house. It was an idea, judging from the continuing reports of mayhem and slaughter, whose time had not come.

I conceded the mystique of guns: "To a person who loves precision machinery they can indeed be beautiful; the feel of gun metal, smoother than a maiden's skin; the lovely click of fitted parts; the aromatic oil; the lustrous stock; the flawless loading; and, in the final test, the shattering perfection. . . ."

I had considered owning various types of guns as a protection against intruders; but no matter what type I chose--pistol, shotgun, rifle--my imaginary scenarios turned out disastrous.

Consider a shotgun. I have fired a shotgun only once in my life. "In my scenario, I hear someone in the house. I get my shotgun, which I keep under my bed. I walk into the living room. The burglar-murderer-rapist moves toward me. I pull the trigger. There is an enormous explosion; the big toe of my right foot disappears, and the burglar picks up the shotgun and goes out the door. I hop to the phone on my good foot and dial 911. . . ."

An alternative I never thought of comes from Tom Barnard of San Clemente.

"The modern 35mm camera, such as the Leicaflex, Nikon or Cannon F1, incorporates much more sophisticated design and precision workmanship (than a gun)," he writes.

"Perhaps there is an evil fascination about the pistol that grabs some people. However, a camera has vastly more potent power in the hands of a skillful user (or a lucky user) than the most potent weapon.

"A gun may kill or at best provide a deterrent as protection; but a camera can speak eloquently on almost every subject. If one picture is worth 10,000 words, what can be said of a camera that can turn out 10,000 pictures?"

Barnard argues that the camera is one of the great tools of all time; in the form of a powerful microscope it is indispensable in the quest for the causes and cure of diseases; in another form it reveals better than the eye itself (another camera) almost all of what we know of space.

"A gun can kill or threaten to kill," he concludes. "A camera can bring us the face and figure of a loved one and preserve their beauty for us!"

A neatly argued point of view. A modern 35mm camera is indeed a remarkable precision instrument, so thoroughly computerized that all one has to do is aim and push the trigger. In that respect it is much like shooting a gun at someone. You hardly have to know anything to get results.

From the ads, I see that improvements in technology have placed technically perfect photography within everyone's ability. Of its new Autofocus Compact, Minolta says, "They're so completely automatic they do everything but buy the film."

Of course that is not the type of camera that Barnard has in mind. He is thinking about the kind of complex instrument that gives its operator many choices. He may focus hard or soft, as he likes; he may increase the shutter's speed to freeze the action of a sports event, or slow it down to get an action-like blur; he may open the lens to get more light, or to throw the foreground and background out of focus; or he may shut the lens down to gain a deeper depth of focus. Or any combination of all those.

Such a camera is indeed a precision instrument more complicated and challenging than any gun. To exploit its potential requires skill, experience and imagination.

But you can't shoot anybody dead with one.

I have always owned an expensive camera. I now own a Canon AE-1, a versatile 35mm that will do all the things I mentioned above. It may also be set on automatic, so that it will do everything by itself like one of the new Minoltas.

This wonderful instrument has been in my cabinet for years, unused. Now and then I remember it, get it out and check the battery, replacing it if necessary, then put it back. I am content merely to own it.

I have an idea that a great many people feel the same way about guns. They love owning them, even if they never shoot anyone. When they do use their guns to shoot someone, however, they usually put that person out of the picture, so to speak, forever. With a gun, you can only shoot a person once.

People keep guns instead of cameras, I suspect, because guns give them an illusion of power over others' very lives. Power is the "evil fascination" that Barnard speaks of.

My wife has one of those little automatic cameras that is said to do everything but buy the film, and sometimes the results suggest that she would be a holy terror with a gun.

She tends to tilt landscapes; she cuts off people's feet, or the tops of their heads; she has trouble with the self-timer, so that sometimes she doesn't know she's taking a picture. Once she put the camera in her purse while the timer was still ticking, and got a perfect picture of the inside of her purse.

So there will be no guns in my house. If my wife ever decided to shoot me, I'm sure she would either hit me in the kneecap or miss me altogether.

Either way, it's a picture I can't see myself in.

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