In York County, Maine, in the town of Ogunquit, there’s a harbor bay and fishing village called Perkins Cove, which is so small that the only road in quickly circumferences the tiny peninsula before looping back on itself to become the only road out. The whole village can be explored on foot in about ten minutes, if only one is able to ignore the dozen-or-so boutiques selling Maine-themed sweatshirts and jewelry and candles, the art galleries hearkening to the area’s history as a maritime artist colony, the buttery caramel scent of the candy shops and lobster shacks, the picturesque views of the harbor basin with its bobbing sailboats and squat aged fishing rigs.
But to ignore these things is impossible, for they are simply too perfect to ignore.
I visited Perkins Cove last month with my family; my wife and our two little girls, aged six and eight. I brought a Polaroid Spirit 600 (which is an instant film camera from 1982), and two packs of brand new Polaroid film.
The images we get are unpredictable, too often of poor quality, and always expensive. Each photo made with Polaroid film costs about $2.50. Classic Polaroid cameras are mostly primitive and very basic, offering virtually no user control, no focusing aids, and no chance to tweak or adjust our image before or after the picture has been made. If we’re lucky, we have a rudimentary exposure control, but that’s it.
Newer Polaroid cameras are better in some ways and worse in others. The Polaroid Now, the brand’s current consumer-level camera, is a great product. It’s reliable and nicely made, but it costs more and has less charm than the retro cameras. Polaroid’s newest camera, the Polaroid I-2, is the first camera made by Polaroid in decades which features truly respectable user controls in the form of multiple shooting modes, aperture and shutter control, auto-focus, et cetera. It promises high quality instant photography for real photographers, but it costs $600.
The truth is that with Polaroid instant photography, it’s tough to have it all. But despite the cost, the inconvenience, and the frustration, I always come back to Polaroid film. I simply love it.
There’s no replicating the grinding gears of a vintage Polaroid camera ejecting its fresh exposed photograph, no duplicating the feel of a chunky camera from the 1980s, the creaky plastic and the hopeful experience of peering through a tiny acrylic viewfinder at the most important thing in the world, and praying that the stupid old camera in our hands happens to capture that importance on film.
Most of the time, it doesn’t. Sometimes, it does.
My daughter, Siena, is my little shadow. She follows me everywhere, a barnacle on my hip. She wants nothing more than to spend time with me, to share her thoughts and ask me mine, to share her favorite things with me and adopt my favorites as her own.
My daughter, Sophie, is an utter joy. For the first four years of her life, she was shy and quiet, but at some point which neither my wife nor I can exactly recall, this changed. She works now to hone her comedic timing, often bringing herself to the point of hysterical cackling at whatever joke or character she’s created in her mind, while the rest of us watch and smile and wonder, What’s going on in that head of hers?
My wife is my best friend. We’ve been together through the worst times of our lives, and more importantly (and thankfully far more frequently), the best times. And though life is stressful and busy and brutal (occasionally), when we’re together it feels as if everything is just as it should be.
In his fiction and essays, Kurt Vonnegut often reminded his readers to notice when we’re happy, to stop for a moment to think or to say, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.” I paused at the crest of the Perkins Cove footbridge which connects the peninsula to the mainland, raised the Polaroid to my eye and snapped a photo of my wife and kids. Sophie smiled into the lens. The sun beamed down and glimmered off the water. The Polaroid squeezed its image through the rollers with a happy squeal and I stopped to think. “If this isn’t nice…”
It was mid-October and the temperature had dropped so that the trees that rim the cove had begun to close off the veins which carry fluid and minerals into and out of their leaves. The supply of chlorophyll in each leaf had been used up, some slowly and some quickly, and the green had gone with it so that the leaves had lit aflame in orange and yellow-green, some others shouting out a burst of bright red. Those which had fallen had done so by the thousands, creating a roiling carpet of earthy fire upon which our four pairs of boots softly crunched.
The boats were tied to their moorings in the harbor and the dinghies to their docks. The icy waters lapped against their sides in the rhythmic whisper so familiar to any place which sits aside the sea. We watched the boats float and sway and imagined the cold of the ocean if we were to board one and pull the anchor and sail forward through the granite mouth of the cove and out into the grey black waves of the Gulf of Maine just a hundred or two-hundred yards ahead. No thanks, we said to the gulls who cried for us to join them, instead pointing our toes to the local lobster and burger shack, Barnacle Billy’s.
There’s a cliff walk there called Marginal Way, which begins (or ends) in Perkins Cove and ends (or begins) in the town center of Ogunquit. The name “Oqunquit” aptly means “beautiful place by the sea” in the language of the indigenous Abenaki tribes, who were displaced in the 1620s and on as English settlers moved into Perkins Cove and the surrounding area to establish sawmills and fishing ports and shipbuilding industries. The 1.25 mile hiking path skates the treacherous high cliffs of the coast of Maine. In places, the grade is steep and the wind buffeting, but it’s a mostly-paved path with iron fencing to keep the clumsiest of our party from tumbling away into eternity.
My feet were numb by the halfway mark and I was ready for a fresh pile of french fries at Barnacle Billy’s, but we carried on, pausing briefly to clamber down the slopes to one of the plentiful beaches to select from its multitude of wave-rounded rocks one or two each as a free memento. Later we came across a lighthouse so small that I didn’t even think to take a photo. My daughters hugged it, as they tend to do to any lighthouse within arms’ reach, and then we moved along to give the lighthouse and time to enjoy it to the next group of trekkers. We reached the edge of Ogunquit proper just as the shadows grew longer than the light, turned around, and began the walk back to Perkins Cove.
The sun was gone. The air was chilled. The shops were closed or closing. And we clung to the happiness of family. We warmed ourselves as best we could in the few places still open, a gallery of blown glass trinkets, the aromatic chocolate heat of the candy shop, a few moments of play with borrowed toys from the shelves of the smallest toy store in the world. And then we surrendered to reality and the road home. We bent our creaking skeletons to lower ourselves into the seats of the car. I fired the engine, and glanced as often as the winding ring road would allow in one final loop of the cove.
I had spent the day taking pictures of the people I love with a silly camera on expensive film. As I shot and the camera ejected each frame with its customarily chunky raucousness, I had tucked each chemical square into the pocket of my jacket just over my heart. I didn’t really look at the photos. I didn’t care about their quality. I didn’t examine the shots as they developed, nor remember them during the long drive home down I-95. Not until many days later did I see what I’d made.
And there they were. The pictures. Not perfect, some not even any good. But perfect pictures, nonetheless, of my kids, my wife, and Perkins Cove, a place where we lived together for just a day in a cold Autumn in 2023.
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