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Seeing Baltimore through a plastic lens

I am the Daguerre of the Disposable, the Taber of the Throwaway. For the past 25 years, probably longer, I have documented Crabtown and those who dwell here with cheap cameras, the kind once plentiful at drug stores and gas stations before the rise of the smart phone.

Of his life's work, the American photographer Charles Harbutt (1935-to-2015) said: "I tried to be a witness." Harbutt taught the craft throughout his career, and his eye for working class brides, anonymous travelers and the architecture of cheap hotels once inspired a young attorney to swap the annotated code for a camera and "a life of adventure and poverty."

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I am about to attempt the same with a group of young Baltimoreans, pointing the way to adventure in their own backyard minus the specious appeal of poverty, a condition with which some of the students are already well acquainted.

The call to the classroom came earlier this summer from the Baltimore Youth Arts Film Program of Johns Hopkins University.

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"Are you the disposable camera guy?"

I brightened: "I believe I am."

Which led to a course being offered this fall to locals between the ages of 16 and 29: "Seeing Baltimore through the plastic lens of an $11 camera."

The class will meet at the Patterson Theater, the 106-year-old Highlandtown movie house where my parents had their first date, doing business since 2003 as the Creative Alliance.

The other day, at Matthew's Pizza across from the theater, I was challenged by a skeptical high school teacher to explain the difference (and thus the crux of instruction) between taking pictures with a disposable camera and doing the same with a phone.

Reluctant to defend my belief that most everything I do is art "because I say it is," I sputtered something about the warmth of 35mm film versus the chill of digital, and the constrictions of 27 exposures — not the freedom of unlimited choice, but the burden of discernment.

But it wasn't enough. I didn't feel as though I had isolated the core of my obsession with disposable photography. By the time the waitress brought our meals, however, the answer had arrived: Anticipation.

Anticipation made up of the wonder that comes with waiting and mystery. All of it the opposite of instant, the negative of our 21st century stride and strivings.

In my house about a mile east of the Patterson is a porcelain enamel crab pot filled with a few dozen spent cameras, some more than a couple years old and possibly affected by age and heat. That's what happens when you shoot pictures more quickly than you can afford to have them developed.

When a few extra dollars come my way, I fish a camera or two from the pot, blind to the images seared onto the celluloid inside. And then it's off to Walgreens where I buy the cameras for $11.99 each.

They are apparently much cheaper at Walmart, but I don't shop at Walmart and thus the laughter that fell upon the Luddites might also be on me. I'm the fool who shells out $18 — about thirty bucks per roll when combined with the cost of the camera — for two sets of 4x6 inch prints and a CD of the pictures. As recently as last year, Walgreens also returned the negatives but no longer does.

Again and again I return to the photo department, anxious to peek inside the thick cardboard envelope holding my pictures.

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And then: My goodness, what is that?

Where is that?

Most important: Who is that?

Oh yeah, I remember.

I recently lost a dear friend, a woodworker and National Parks Service employee named Wink Hastings. After he passed, a mutual friend told me she cherishes the photo I took of her and Wink one morning when I happened upon them with a disposable camera.

Most likely I delivered the picture as is my custom, by putting a stamp on the back and addressing it with a quick note of affection.

What will I teach my students?

Wait and see.

Rafael Alvarez is the author of "Tales from the Holy Land," a collection of short stories. Alvarez will read from his fiction at noon on Oct. 1 at the Creative Alliance on Eastern Avenue. He can be reached via orlo.leini@gmail.com.

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