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Her World

State-of-the-Art Camera With a Mind of Its Own

August 21, 1988|JUDITH MORGAN

Morgan, of La Jolla, is a magazine and newspaper writer.

I have watched travelers sprawl in the dust of Morocco, waiting for veiled women to walk through shadowy gates and into their pictures. I have watched travelers crouch on the cold stone floor of Paris' St. Chapelle to get a proper frame for those bleeding stained-glass windows. I have studied the posture and pain and rewards of photography, though I have not carried a camera.

Part of my reluctance has been a passionate feeling for privacy, both mine and the subject's. Part is my fear of F-stops. I'm no good at judging distances. And my shoulders have long ached for professional photographers who lug all that gear.

This summer, however, just 100 years after George Eastman invented the Kodak, my family gave me a camera. It is my first since the Brownie model that I had as a Girl Scout, the one that I lost behind teetering rocks in the Garden of the Gods. The Brownie camera was simple: Point and shoot and all your friends came out black and white and fuzzy. They told me to close one eye and hold still for better results. I never did.

My new camera is a Ricoh TF-500. This is how it works: I buy the film and the camera does the rest. It loads it, advances it and, when the time is right, rewinds it. If a flash is needed, it pops up and flashes. One button gives me a zooming choice of a big house with trees around it, or a close-up of the front door. I can shoot faces at three feet or capture all of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and their horses in the Confederate Memorial Carving on Georgia's Stone Mountain.

Where to begin with a first real camera? At the beginning, I decided . . . or at least 200 million years ago. My first picture was of a dinosaur. It was rearing up against an orange sky at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History in Albuquerque. I shot into the sun of a mural (no flash was permitted) and caught the beast in silhouette, his jagged teeth bared.

This museum, a stroll from Albuquerque's shady and pleasant Old Town, has many state-of-the-art attractions. There is a walk-through, erupting volcano where lava runs red under your feet as the heat rises and the rumble grows and the smell of sulfur seeps in. There is a vast new chamber called New Mexico's Seacoast, which you reach by riding a time-lapse machine called an Evolator. It spans 38 million years in six minutes.

From the dinosaurs I moved toward the present and photographed 600-year-old adobe dwellings in the Indian sky-city of Acoma an hour west of Albuquerque. Atop this sandstone mesa, which juts 365 feet above the desert floor, I focused on pottery bowls and vases painted with black-and-white geometric patterns. I took pictures of the only rose bush that grows in Acoma, a splash of crimson against a rough tan wall.

Native youngsters in T-shirts and blue jeans smiled from behind tables where their mothers and sisters sold crafts. Some families allowed photos for the asking; some gave permission only with a purchase. A few said no, either for reasons of shyness or because of the belief that to have your image captured on film is to relinquish part of your spirit.

At the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque I clicked away at dancers who swirled under eagle feathers and buffalo horns and reams of turquoise and silver. Photography is encouraged at the center, unlike at the state's 19 pueblos where cameras may be forbidden, especially during sacred feast days and ceremonies. I took pictures of native foods at the Cultural Center Cafe: overhead shots of fry bread in baskets, and bowls of chilies and the white corn called posole . Then, like a good hunter, I ate what I shot.

Back in California I did a trash can series, starting with my own and continuing to a righteous jumble behind a Catholic church.

In Alaska I tried animal studies. I stopped bald eagles in flight over College Fiord near Whittier. I shot a 10-foot-tall polar bear in the lobby of the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage.

I have taken portraits of James Michener, Michael Dukakis, John Garfield Davies, Jesse Jackson and Ronald Reagan. Not all of them were cardboard cut-outs.

With each new development, my confidence increased. The camera was proving to be fun, a memory-tickling extension of my travel notebook. At a party in Atlanta, during the Democratic National Convention, I snapped close-ups of newspaper pals: the congressman-turned-columnist who was comparing his lives; the editorial writer slumping in peace, the sleek young political reporter in silk and pearls who'd been on the campaign trail for months.

The prints from Atlanta just came back and, frankly, I am amazed at the results.

What I have are not just mug shots, but art. Instead of simple portraits, I have surrealistic scenes. The sleek young woman is laughing in the sky above the dazzling turf of the Sea Island Golf Club. The editorial writer's handsome face is smiling benignly at a gracious Georgia lady I know, but he has never met. She is holding a winning hand of poker. The congressman-turned-columnist has a martini in his hand and a pink columbine in his ear.

It seems that my trusted automatic camera did not slap my wrist when I loaded an exposed roll of film. The overlays are startling, yet in perfect focus.

I will try not to make that mistake again, but I may wait another hundred years before messing with a video camera.

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