Ten years ago this week, my father John Henry Knaak, Jr., suffered a fatal heart attack. It was 11 months after my mother, Yung Hi Knaak, suffered a catastrophic stroke and died days later. I still say dad died of a broken heart. I inherited my parents’ belongings. Every knickknack, every piece of furniture, every book, every bill (including electric bills dating back to 1984), every stitch of clothing, everything became mine, everything including a Petri 35mm SLR camera kit.
I grew up in Rochester, New York, which is considered the birthplace of photography, as we know it. My high school graduation ceremony was held at the George Eastman Theater, so named for the founder of the Eastman Kodak Company.
When I was growing up, you had to be judicious about the photos you took. Cameras, film (if you don’t know what film cameras were, go ask a grown up), processing and printing cost money. Cameras certainly weren’t cheap and film could be expensive depending on quality and type. You had to be selective with your picture taking – you only had 24 or 36 shots per roll of film. Oftentimes we took our film to a place called Fotomat – drive-through islands located in the parking lots of numerous strip malls across the country. Many of these are now drive-thru espresso stands.
Petri 35mm cameras came along in the 1950s and my father purchased his at a PX in the 1960s while he was in the United States Army. This would be the camera that documented my father’s tour in Korea, his courtship of my mother, and much of my childhood.
The camera itself was sleek and elegant, especially for the time. It was heavy, substantial in your hand. You knew you had a well-made piece of equipment in your hand when you picked it up and felt the heft.
My father used the camera to shoot slides. Yes, we regaled whoever would sit still long enough with the dreaded slide show. We had a projector and a somewhat portable screen. I still have the slides and their carousels. He also took snapshots with print film. My mother didn’t take many photos. You could always tell when she did. You were lucky if you actually were in the photo. As I’ve mentioned before, this is probably why I don’t have many photos of my dad, he was the one behind the camera.
Dad was a bit of a shutterbug. He enjoyed taking family snapshots, landscapes and exterior architecture on family vacations, family pets, zoo animals, antique cars and fire engines at various shows and exhibits. However, he was a bit lackadaisical when it came to getting the film developed. Hell, there might still be an undeveloped roll or two lying around here somewhere. I’m not sure if it was a money issue or a procrastination issue. As I kid I enjoyed taking pictures. I used a Kodak “disc” camera for a while. It was state-of-the-art at the time. The film was contained in a wheel, not unlike a View Master slide picture wheel. You still had to have it developed like regular film. We had a Polaroid camera too, which was the closest thing we had to instant photography.
This Petri camera my father bought halfway around the world was a constant companion on numerous excursions. We drove everywhere for family vacations. I didn’t get on an airplane until I was 18. From the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, to Boston Harbor, and Niagara Falls and Toronto in between, dad chronicled it all with his Petri 7. He treated that camera with care and reverence. There was more than just a hint of melancholy when the image quality started to deteriorate.
Eventually, the Petri 7 gave way to higher-end point and shoot cameras. I had a couple of Canon 35mm SLRs, and I shot with a Canon F-1 when I was in the Navy, but none of them garnered the respect that Petri was given.
Over the past decade I have had trouble getting rid of some of my parents’ stuff. Household goods and clothes were easier than some other items. Dad’s music collection, my parents’ DVD collection, select pieces of dad’s die-cast metal 1/43rd scale model car collection, his model trains, will all probably stay. Knickknacks are gone for the most part, with a few exceptions. I still have a few pieces of furniture that I refuse to part with.
During a clean out of my home office last year, I came across the Petri 7 35mm camera. I was fairly certain it couldn’t be fixed. Besides, we live in a digital world now. We carry a camera built into our phones everywhere we go. Photography is no longer a luxury, it has become an important way we express ourselves in our everyday lives. The only excuse for not taking a picture now is running out of memory. It’s fitting that an Instagram post triggered the words you’re reading right now.
When I came across the brown leather case containing the Petri and its accessories, I felt so many emotions – nostalgia, loss, longing, and gratitude all passed through me. And like a very few other things I inherited, I couldn’t bring myself to just toss the camera away. I couldn’t fathom trying to sell it on eBay either.
A bolt of inspiration struck me.
My cousin Melissa, a descendant of my grandfather’s brother Carl, was getting ready for her wedding. I have often remarked that Melissa was born in the wrong decade. Her appreciation of vintage clothing, hairstyles, cars, décor and such is nothing short of remarkable. I thought if anyone could appreciate this camera, it would be Melissa. As an early wedding gift, I shipped the camera to her. It now sits prominently and proudly displayed in the home she shares with her husband Tom.
Melissa posted a photo from inside her home on Instagram today and the Petri 35mm is clearly visible. As I’ve thought about my father this week and how 10 years have already passed since his death, it was a bit of serendipity to see this photo on social media today.
I’m glad this piece of my history, this window on my life, will now bear witness to a new life my cousin and her husband are building together. I think my father would be happy that I found a loving home for one of his most cherished possessions.