The Story of My First Camera

I don’t believe in fate or “it was meant to be” or that life has any meaning other than that which we extract from it after the fact. Sometimes though, events leave even the most die hard pragmatist like my self wondering. Such was the case with the story of how I came to own my first camera.

Actually, I had two first cameras: one a point and shoot, the other an actual single lens reflex camera that fatefully set me off on the career that I have made my life’s endeavor.

The story begins alongside my avocation as a mountaineer cum rock climber.  About the time I entered college, I caught the mountaineering bug. The fact that I didn’t have many classes since they were all over-enrolled made it easy to race off campus at noon with a friend. Together we’d drive, B-52’s blaring on the cassette deck, into the local mountains for an excursion up the snow covered peaks. Though they weren’t technical ascents (which would require a rope and protection), we did seek out the steepest routes up so we could put our ice axes and crampons (spikes for our boots) to use.

On one such march up the 10,000 foot Mt Baldy, I discovered a metal, gold colored point and shoot camera resting amidst the rocks and crunchy snow leading to the summit. Seeing as how I had no camera nor funds with which to purchase one, I happily slipped it in my pocket. As my climbing career progressed, I popped it out during climbs to snap blurry photos of my climbing buddies. It wasn’t a much of a camera so I eventually lost track of it without even realizing that it was gone.

Fast forward two years later to a spur of the moment trip to the Pacific Northwest. As a mountaineer and fan of Fred Beckey’s descriptions of the Cascade Range, I’d longed to climb the glacier covered peaks of this mountaineer’s playground. On a lark, I jumped on the Amtrak train in Santa Barbara, sat for 36 hours as it meandered its way to Seattle, rented a car with my last dollars and made my way to the heavily glaciated Mt. Baker where I set off for my first ever romp on a glacier.

A few miles up the trail lay a cabin open to anyone who cared to rest their feet and take cover from the often nasty elements outside. Inside the sole furnishing consisted of a wooden table. What immediately caught my eye was this perfectly positioned Pentax SLR camera sitting on the rustic tabletop. I’d seen no one else on the trail; they’re weren’t even any other cars in the parking lot seeing as it was midweek. This new, more-expensive-than-I-could-afford camera was mine for the taking.

But I left it. I thought that whoever forgot it might come back for it so I hiked on empty handed. The next day as I returned, I stuck my head in the cabin to see if it was still there. Not surprisingly, the table sat empty. Staring at the spot previously occupied by the gleaming Pentax, I reflected on my decision to leave it behind. Kicking myself, I decided that I should have taken the camera and then reported it to the local ranger station. That way its owner could claim it. If no one claimed it, it would be mine. Perhaps the person who took this camera wasn’t the rightful owner and just pocketed it. If I’d rescued it, the owner would at least have had a chance to get his camera back.

Right then I vowed that if I ever came across another camera, it would be mine.

Of course, what are the odds that I might find another expensive SLR camera while out and about on my adventures? Finding even one such treasure is one more than most people find in an entire lifetime. I didn’t think too much of odds though as I was intently focused on climbing and the incident soon faded into a memory.

A few years later, a few months after graduating from college, I took a typical weekend climbing trip down to San Diego’s Mt. Woodson. Though I forget the specifics of the climbing, I do remember something about a side trip to the bars in Tijuana with Mexican prostitutes trying to coral us into a back room and us with no money to buy our way out from the expensive beers that were thrust upon us. Meanwhile my buddy thought that five bucks for oral sex was a pretty good deal. (I talked him out of that bad idea.)

Anyhow, towards the end of our second day of climbing, we headed up the mountain to one of the most popular and difficult climbs on this boulder strewn peak: Stairway to Heaven, an overhanging 5.12 rated climb with perfect handholds spaced farther apart the higher you go. I’m far from the speediest hiker but, on this day, I was in front of my climbing partners. As I rounded the corner to the base of the climb,  I spied a blue camera bag perched by itself atop a small boulder right near the center of the wall . If someone wanted to leave an item as a gift to the next passerby, that’s where they would have left it.

I quickly nabbed the worn padded case and peered inside. Sure enough, a gleaming 35mm Canon AE1 SLR camera sat inside. My pledge from years ago firmly in mind, I claimed this camera as my own. I could see that my friends, jealous at my score, wanted to get their hands on it – so I swiftly tucked into my well-scuffed rucksack. Unfortunately for the Canon’s previous owner, there was no ranger station or other central location where I could report that I’d found it. Home with me it went.

Because of that camera, I decided to take a black and white photography class at my local community college. (I got an A.) That in turn fed my desire to document my climbing life. That desire led to my work becoming published which in turn opened the door to what has been my long career in professional photography. The AE1 didn’t last nearly so long however. Because it had limited manual functions, I exchanged it after a year for the camera that I’d use to get published – the all manual Nikon FM.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this little history, I’m not a believer in fate and such things. But… I do wonder about the forces that seemingly guided me to posses my first cameras. Had I not found the Pentax and subsequently the Canon AE1, many years would have gone by before I would have seen fit to actually purchase a DSLR. By then, my life would have veered towards law school or some such other profession and my window of opportunity to follow the artist’s life would have been likely closed.

Now the fact that I found three cameras during my formative years may or may not have been the universe’s signal that it intended for me to be a photographer. Perhaps it was indeed luck that I found three cameras presented as though they were waiting for me. I will say this though: since coming upon that third camera 25 years ago, I have not found another one since.

John Mireles

About johnmireles

Photographer, writer, thinker, climber, outrigger canoeist, bad guitar player and even worse singer.
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1 Response to The Story of My First Camera

  1. and now that you are a successful photographer making millions and traveling the world, how many cameras have you placed for poor, rock climbing, students to find? Time to pay it forward John 😉

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