Camera Obscura by
(166 Stories)

Prompted By Photo Booths

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I’ve spent an accumulated two or three hours trying to find a strip from a photo booth session — the only one I have. I looked in computer folders, I looked in emails. Then I realized that the photo booth pic strip might be a hard copy. I may even have tucked it recently into a book thinking this is dumb. I won’t remember which book I inserted the strip into, no matter how logical my choice. Regardless, I’ve fluttered through a library of logical-looking books. It’s nowhere to be found.

A picture is worth a thousand words... unless it isn't.

The strip of four shots in question includes my stepdaughter Jocelyn and me, probably taken in the late ’70s when I had moved from Andover Street to Connecticut Street in San Francisco, from one hill — Bernal — to another — Potrero. I had just left the communal household I had purchased with my then partner, Betsy, and was living with a Digger friend and playing jazz in a joint called Ray’s in North Beach. I was also working with a theater company called Red Balloon where I met my life’s love, Susan.

Jocelyn and I tried to meet as often as possible because she was on her way in the fall to NYU. Our relationship was strained. She didn’t want to talk about the break between Betsy and me, but she knew that both of us had had enough. She didn’t feel abandoned, or so she said. When pressed further, she’d just say she didn’t want to talk about it. She did make one wry observation, though.

“You know you moved from Over-and-over Andover Street (like, as in bor-ring) to Connect-I-Cut Connecticut Street.” She laughed sarcastically. “You sure did cut your connections.” Sixteen-year-olds have a corner on sarcasm. It’s their first line of defense against stupid. For a teenager, nearly everything and everybody threatens stupidity and my chapter change apparently qualified as stupid to Joss. But maybe not; she wasn’t talking.

In the photo, Joss’s hair is high school long and I have the usual mop that descends to my eyebrows where a pair of round, tortoise-shelled, not-the-real-thing spectacles announces that I am a boho intellectual. Stepdaughter Joss is wearing a leather jacket and I’m wearing a white Irish cable-knit sweater. I wore an expression of wide-eyed glee and Joss succeeded in looking as if she was having a good time. It was a little hard to know what she felt in those days; most teenagers are masters of disguise and she sure wasn’t going to let me know what was going on.

I don’t recall much more about the photo, but the photo booth was located next to the giant Camera Obscura that sat in a small, sea-weathered structure on one of the many terraces that descends from San Francisco’s Cliff House to the roiling Pacific just outside and south of the Golden Gate.

A camera obscura works like a pinhole camera. You poke a hole in a box or — in prehistoric times — an animal hide. If you place a reflecting surface within range of the pinhole, the light is reflected onto the surface, upside-down and backwards. So, in side the darkened room of the Cliff House Camera Obscura, you can see the surrounding sea, rocks, and sea lions reflected in a mirror shaped like a shallow bowl, where the light from the big camera finds a focal point.

After Jocelyn and I peered at the Camera Obscura images and posed for our booth pics, we hung around in the sunlight on the terraces above the Pacific, talking about her visions of drama school in New York, then I drove her back home to our house on Over-and-over Andover.

Joss left in the fall for New York and I began my next chapter.

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Profile photo of Charles Degelman Charles Degelman
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles. 

Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.

Visit Author's Website

Characterizations: funny, moving, well written


  1. Dave Ventre says:

    Love, loss and hope all in on short tale. Very affecting.

  2. Charles, I love that even though you couldn’t find that photo strip, just thinking about it still brought back such a poignant set of memories. There is (or was?) also a camera obscura down here, in Santa Monica, on the cliff overlooking the pier that had the photo booth where many of my own photo strips were taken. And now I think I need to see if they’re both still there. So much has changed.

    • Thanks, Barbara. I’m still scrounging around, looking for that photo booth strip. I’ve given birth to my own obsession. You’re right, there is a similar camera obscura on/near the Santa Monica pier. Haven’t been there for awhile!

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    Perfect memoire even if no photo strip can be produced. Who cares? the Camera Obscura is fantastic (my older son made one during his high school years and took an all-time favorite photo of our younger child – just the big blue peepers). The sarcastic 16 year old comes through loud and clear, as did the push-pull of the end of a relationship.

    • Thanks, Betsy. I hope it’s clear that Joss is my stepdaughter, so my move from Andover to Connecticut was not the end of a relationship. We’ve stayed in touch through it all, including her mother’s death, and are in good touch. Much water under the overused bridge.

  4. Suzy says:

    Like me, you had a photo booth strip in mind but couldn’t find it. If you read my story, you will see the same thing. You do a great job of describing the photos though, so it’s almost as if we have seen them.

    I have been to that Camera Obscura by the Cliff House in the last few years, and it is wonderful, but I don’t remember seeing a photo booth next to it. I wonder if it was no longer there, or if I just didn’t notice it.

    I love your “over-and-over Andover” and “Connect-I-Cut Connecticut” for the two streets you lived on. Did Jocelyn come up with that, or did you?

  5. A fine story Charles!
    Even without discovering where you tucked away that strip of photo booth photos, your descriptions of them plus the photo of Joss are as good.

    Having survived one teenager I know how “obscura” they can be. This was a sweet look at your interaction with your stepdaughter at that hard to penetrate age.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    It is so frustrating not to be able to find the actual photo strip of you and Joss, but luckily you can still see it in your mind’s eye. My missing photo strip was taken with one of my granddaughters at a museum when she was young. I loved those pictures and put them “somewhere special,” which means they may turn up in a book or drawer someday. But I can still picture them and how silly she was at that time, which is why I included the photo collage of her that reminds me of the photo booth pictures, minus me of course.

  7. A poignant interlude. I love that though you can’t find the photo, we see it in vivid detail, as you delve down memory lane and recreate the emotional push-me-pull-you of the moment. Seems to me you were both trying to stay connected, yet launch into new lives. And so took a picture. Which is somewhere.

    • Thanks, Lucinda. What a lucid description. I tried to sketch an impression of the black-and-white pic strip as an impression. Thanks for ‘seeing’ it. And we did stay in touch, as we went our separate ways. Still family today!

  8. Khati Hendry says:

    I love the camera obscura in San Francisco–just mesmerizing watching the seagulls drift on the wind and the waves crashing in that dark room with quiet music playing–more so than stepping outside and seeing the real thing! I thought it had been torn down, but wikipedia assures me it is still in operation. Your description of you and your stepdaughter was touching in all its adolescent overtones, and the fervor with which you still search for the missing photo strips attests to the meaning in the relationship. Lovely.

    • Thanks, Khati. There is something mesmerizing about those once-removed images of the Ocean Beach shoreline. It’s as if the lens comes from another time and another technology. And yes, my stepdaughter made it through the next chapters and remain family. And I’ll find that pic strip SOMEWHERE, I know!

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