Reflecting summer in the camera's eye

The end of summer is not one of our favorite events. Every year we come to like autumn - eventually. But when it first arrives, it puts us into a temporary sulk because of what it replaces - all that golden warmth, brimming with the flavors of fresh fruits and the aftertaste of ocean salt.

Over the years we have discovered one thing that makes summer's exit half-bearable. Labor Day also seems to mark the end of the open season for amateur photographers, compulsively snap-snap-snapping away like paparazzi at the tan and sandy textures winter memories are made of.

What is this obsession of the camera to record the rites of summer? The weenie roasts. The Frisbee contests. The giggly softball games.

For the amateur photographer, there's no command performance quite like these until Christmas, and are we glad!

Mind you, it's not that we can't lick our summer lips and say cheese - though , come to think of it, nobody has asked us to lately. And it's not that we can't shear off the head of a friend or relative as neatly as the next family man when it happens to be our turn to hold the camera at an outing.

It's just that, because we love summer so, we find the frenzy to capture it on film lacking in grace.

With perfect timing, Italo Calvino has appeared in the latest issue of Vanity Fair to state the objections to summer photography more eloquently than we ever could. In his short story, ''The Adventures of a Photographer,'' Calvino argues that the image-collector - his camera hungrily panning the beach, as if to put August in the little black box forever - drives away the present in his very effort to capture it.

Worse - or so it seems to us - the frantic summer photographer makes the mistake of a butterfly-lover imprisoning a butterfly in his hand. Without the flutter, without the free motion, the captor only cheats himself. He holds, not a butterfly but a quivering bit of brightly colored matter, deprived of its full identity.

Summer, the butterfly of seasons, is not just a visual splendor to be laid out, flat and inert, on a piece of paper. It is an intimacy to be felt against the skin. It is a beguiling tempo, established by the crash of slow-cresting waves at noon and by the hum of crickets at twilight. And it is a lot more.

The professional photographer understands all this, and despairs, and then does his best. But the amateur, with a ''Summer '83'' album to fill, hopes against hope that he can take the honeyed flow of July and August and chop it up into frozen slices of life, a fraction of a second thick.

If he is not careful, the amateur photographer may end up thinking, in Calvino's phrase: ''Everything that is not photographed is lost.'' According to this theory, even a baby does not exist until a parent has snapped the first picture. The photograph becomes almost a substitute for actuality, and there are parents who come to prefer their children this way - scrubbed and neat and mounted in small gold frames on a well-polished desk.

''I've got you now,'' Calvino's photographer cries to a model at the instant this human being is turned into a print on film.

I've got you now - is this what the amateur photographer thinks in September about summer? Absurd, when you put it that way. Better he should stand at the water's edge and try to wave high tide away from his sandcastle!

We're as reluctant as ever to see summer come to an end. But this year we're proud that, for once, we didn't make a fool of ourself, trying to apprehend the not-so-endless summer by the almost-endless snapshot.

Of course we'll eat our words around Thanksgiving time. But we have a windowsill lined with shells that ought to help. When you put a conch to your ear, as everybody knows, you can hear the sea - even when you're standing in your driveway in the middle of January, shoveling eight inches of snow. And if the shells don't get us through to next June, there's always the album of Summer '82. Why, some of those scenes would make Calvino himself reach for his tanning lotion.

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