I was never a photojournalist, but I got a press pass to cover the John McCain Rally at Gonzaga University in 2000, by virtue, I guess, of being the only regular photographer on staff at the University. Gonzaga had a history of being oblivious to the needs of a full time photographer even though photography had played such an important part in the history and work of the Jesuit missions in the West. G.U. is, in fact, home to the Oregon Province Jesuit archives which holds an incredible collection of images from the 19thand 20thcentury missions. The public relations wing of the University nevertheless had a habit of hiring outside photographers in for special events, but I worked for Media Services in the Foley Library as a photographer and graphic artist. So I got a press pass.
I had 2 Leica M3s, one a gift from a Jesuit friend, Bill Yam, sick with emphysema who had worked as a photographer in the Phillipines in the 60s, and the second, a weak sister that had seen its better days and had a dim rangefinder that I had picked up locally for 500 dollars. But still, 2 Leica M3s! So I waited outside with the crowds for the bus with John McCain to arrive, scouted good locations and had one Leica with a 35mm Summicron and the second with a 90mm Elmarit.
There was a lady military vet in the crowd that caught my eye and so I slipped through the mix of students and older visitors in what I thought of as photojournalist aggression, polite but determined. When she caught my eye she smiled and I got the shot, what I still think of as my supreme “decisive moment” photograph.
There was a man with a big sign in the street out front of the COG, where McCain would speak and I positioned myself, he saw me turned and smiled and I got that.
When the bus pulled up I moved again close near the entryway I was told he would use and got a half dozen shots when he came through shaking hands with his wife Cindy close by.
The best shot of McCain was, I think when he stood above, waving to the crowd and gave them a big thumbs up. McCain was an interesting candidate that year and a lot of young people seemed to be drawn to his ‘wild horse a little out of control’ reputation.
I photographed part of the speech and was leaving the COG, walking down the steps. People were still coming in, including a guy with 2 cameras with straps identifying the newspaper from Cincinnati that he photographed for. He was very professional looking and he stopped on the stairs smiling at me and said “A real photographer eh?” I looked closer and saw he carried 2 Leica black bodies. “Yep.” I said and we went our ways. Though it was not that long ago press photographers were still shooting film and Nikons and Canons were ubiquitous. The Leicas were already becoming rarer on the scene.
I shoot with a lot of older cameras. Today I have a Kodak Pony 828 around my neck with some film I spooled from a bulk roll of 35mm TriX and even an amateur camera like that can produce a good image. Nevertheless, for me, using the M3 always feels special and I know in advance that the negatives will have a certain quality from the Leitz lenses.
McCain himself seems now like a leftover from the days when national politicians sometimes rose to the status of statesman and when mutual respect across party lines made it possible for good things to happen in the Halls of Congress. His empty seat will be hard to fill in our current social scene.
The smoky air has cleared today after a morning rain, first time in a month. So on to
Recently a friend offered us some old cameras because she knew that we appreciated such things. We have had several contacts in the last months from people we didn’t know who heard we might be interested in film equipment they wanted to have a home for. It’s a sign of the times and the cameras almost always come with family stories related to them, so it has been a worthwhile experience meeting people and talking with them.
This last was pretty out of the ordinary as our friends Dad had been a physicist working in the Eastman Research laboratories in Rochester. She said many of their family photos were made on experimental films that staff would shoot in the R&D process and her Dad also brought home new cameras to use. Her cameras came in a big cardboard box, as most do, but in this case the box held treasures for which it was unworthy to carry. First off, and the oldest, was a Premo D, a 4X5 folding camera with a red bellows. Premo was from the Rochester Camera Company that was bought up by George Eastman early in the 20thcentury, a common practice of his. It is a cherry wood box camera that opens front and back, has three shutter speeds plus B, and a meniscus lens enclosed in brass. With the camera came one plate holder, as the camera was designed for dry plates, and one plate holder altered to hold sheet film, the alteration done by sliding in glass plates so that sheets of film would tuck in above them. The camera was from about 1896, before the company was acquired by Eastman. It came in its own case with an instruction manual for “manipulating the Premo D” and an 1896 publication on the basics of photography. The lens was full of fungus but I carefully got access to it and cleaned it. The ground glass image looked sharp so I loaded a couple of my holders, found that the Premo accepted them perfectly and shot an image , a time exposure at the smallest aperture. The camera was intended to be a hand camera, meaning to be used without a tripod. I used a tripod. Using this Premo increased my respect for early photographers even more. I have a 4X5 Graflex D SLR from the 1940’s and its weight and bulk make hand held work doable, especially with its focal plane shutter. The Premo is very light and I doubt I would ever try to handhold it for a shot. The negative, shot on a light table with a cell phone, is surprisingly good. This is a camera worth using.
The second camera of note is a Kodak Recomar 33, a 9 by 12cm. folder from 1935. It was manufactured by Nagel Kamera Werke in Germany. Nagel designed the Recomar in 1928 and Eastman bought the company in the 1930s, and it was Nagel who designed and built the Kodak Retina, the nice little 35mm folder. This model of the Recomar is marked Kodak and has a Kodak Anastigmant 4.5 135mm lens in a Compur shutter.
It came with a single sheet film holder and I already had a plate holder and a pack film holder that fit the sliding mount of the Recomar. The ground glass screen slides up and off the camera and the film holder slides into its place. Not very convenient for a hand camera, but the body has a nice focusing scale and a triple extension bellows. The camera is in excellent shape but where would I get 9X12cm. film? In our camera case I have had a couple packs of Agfa pack film that came with a collection, both films expiring in the 1940s. Pack film holders are dime a dozen and mostly useless these days. When I realized these old Agfa packs were 9X12cm. I thought I’d give it a shot. I had never used pack film. It was before my time but it seemed easy enough. I loaded up the Super Pan and tried it. It was difficult to process, being thin and curly, let alone being 70 years old. Originally rated at 200, I tried ASA 50 and then exposed very generously. The one negative that sort of turned out from the half pack I shot was fogged of course, but also showed some mottling and flaking. But still, I had an image.
About 20 years ago a woman I knew asked me to make copies of some old small prints she had. They were very interesting. Her Dad, who had just died, was captured by the Japanese on Bataan in 1942 and survived the Bataan Death March. The photos were taken inside a POW camp! The story is that one GI smuggled in a small 35mm camera but had no film. Another GI had smuggled in a roll of film, probably 620 or 120, and together they managed to secretly get into a dark place, slice the roll film down to size and get it to work in the 35mm camera and then secretly, and very dangerously take pictures in the camp. The photos were not the best but they were there! Whenever I think of that effort and ingenuity it makes me feel rather humble and lucky that I can take photos so easily. So every time I work with one of these old cameras and get a picture I feel excited and gratified.
A third camera I tried out was a little Kodak Bantam, again from the 1930s, with a Kodak Anastigmat Special lens. The pop up viewfinder was broken and had black tape on it, but I had another Bantam with a bad lens and I switched out the viewfinders. The complication here is that the Bantams were made for 828 film, a paper backed roll film made on 35mm stock without the sprocket holes, which of course no one makes anymore. Because I had a couple 828 spools I was able to spool some 35mm TMAX in the darkroom onto the paper backing from a Kodacolor roll and get my 8 shots. These were surprisingly good considering the guess focusing. This turns out to be a fun camera, slipping into my pocket, easily opened and ready to go. A drawback is the 7 or 8 shots per roll and of course the image area bleeds deeply into the sprocket holes of 35mm. It’s a nice special effect but I wouldn’t want it on every photo and the advantage of the 828 was its larger image area.
We are just back from a one week trip to the Olympic Peninsula where we used 2 1953 Linhof Technikas IIIs and a 1939 Eastman Commercial 8X10 equipped with a 5X7 film back.
Our newest lenses were from the early 1960s. After 3 days in the darkroom we have all the sheet film processed with happy results. So using older equipment is not a hobby with us but our “sitz im leben”, and our normal working procedure.
The equipment for large format film photography can be very expensive. While this is true for 4X5 equipment, it gets even more so for 5X7 and 8X10. Modern lenses and shutters for the bigger formats go for the amounts I am more inclined to pay for a car, and I have worked carefully over the years to avoid investing that kind of money into photo equipment. The quality of my negatives has not suffered for that avoidance however and I am quite satisfied with my camera kits. I’d like to talk about that and offer some suggestions on getting the most out of a limited set of equipment.
I have a C-1 black beast 8X10 camera that I bought about 15 years ago that came with two reducing backs and an extra 8X10 back for about $250. The 34 inch bellows was full of pinholes, hence the price. Still, after about doubling the price for a custom bellows and installing it myself, I had a camera with three film sizes for not that much money. It takes a six inch lens board and I had one lens, a 12 inch Ilex Paragon 4.5, uncoated and unshuttered. I found a dealer in Spokane who had the big Compound shutter #5 and who made a reducing ring and mounted the Paragon in front of the shutter. Mounting it in a wooden 6 inch board got my camera working. The shutter and mounting cost me 75 dollars. The lens was free as it was in a closet having spent 20 years demonstrating what aperture leaves looked like to photo classes. The reducing backs set me on the path of photo economics as a 12 inch lens on 4X5 is very different in aesthetic and technical qualities than it is on an 8X10 inch piece of film. Combining that with a 34 inch bellows gave me a camera and lens of awesome versatility! My second lens was also someone’s throwaway and I found it dusty and uncovered in a cardboard box, and when cleaning it up recognized the name Protar VIIa, and doing a little research got me very excited. It is a 7+ inch lens with combined elements, 11+ with only the rear element, and 16+ with only the front element, mounted on the rear. This lens combination was meant for 5X7 work, but the rear element covered at least 5X8 and the front much more than 8X10. As the coverage area increases the closer the focus, and as these anastigmat components increased coverage are as they were stopped down, I had a 1920’s lens that gave me wide angle coverage to ultralong coverage depending on which film I was shooting.
I have said before and will repeat that these old lenses prove themselves in both sharpness and contrast, and that I have found no significant loss of negative quality in their use. In the meantime I had picked up a 5X7 Eastman 2D complete with tailpiece from a friend in California, a donation as he was going blind and couldn’t photograph any more. This camera takes 4 inch lens boards while the C-1 takes 6 inch. Over several years I found an 8 ½ inch Commercial Ektar and a 254mm Ilex Calumet Caltar, both in Ilex shutters, for the 5X7. I wanted to be able to switch between cameras and extend the use of my lenses. The solution came through my friend Johnny Coffey who is a locksmith and machinist extraordinaire. I took slider parts from a defunct Speed Graphic 4X5 Pacemaker, showed him what I wanted and he created a 6 inch anodized metal lens board with the sliders mounted at top and bottom of a 4 inch square hole. The 4 inch wooden or metal boards dropped into this ridged slot and the Speed Graphic slider fastened them into place. Now the 8 ½ inch Ektar and the 254mm Caltar fit nicely onto the 8X10 C-1 with its abundance of camera movements.
What it boils down to is that one of the virtues of a view camera is the flexibility of its front and rear standards, and with the combination of reducing backs and the reducing lens board, and throwing in the convertible nature of the Protar VIIa, I have six different lens possibilities on three different film formats. I know that the Commercial Ektar doesn’t quite cover the 8X10, but with that long bellows I can do all kinds of in-close work with that lens on the largest film size and it has made beautiful 8X10 negatives in that mode.
If I had to do this all again I would look for an 8X10 camera, not a monorail, but like the C-1, or like the Eastman Commercial 8X10, folders that are easy to transport without a big long case, and the reducing backs. One added advantage of having the biggest camera body is that the big bellows can significantly reduce the in-camera flair caused by lenses with more than adequate coverage. The wider bellows doesn’t reflect light and bounce it all over the inside of the camera like a narrower 4X5 bellows might. Most photographers who would shoot large format in the first place would tend to have other cameras and multiple formats. Reducing backs simplify that. Reducing lens boards is not a new idea and having acquired one I have found it to be a great one.
The biggest drawback is of course that a big camera is a big camera, and an 8X10 is, generally speaking big. It can also be heavy, although the new custom built cameras of carbon fiber and nice thin wood have reduced the weight but at a price far more than I could justify paying (both to my conscience and my wife and partner Kathy.)
Speaking of weight, I now have an Eastman Commercial 8X10 that is manufactured from magnesium, and it is considerably lighter than the C-1. It doesn’t have the wide range of movements, especially at the front standard but for field work it proves itself fully capable. The C-1 on the other hand is the studio camera of choice.
adventures in processing and printing black and white chromogenic film
Today I was printing some 35mm black and white negatives I processed this morning in the kitchen sink. Printing negatives in the afternoon that were processed in the morning is not that unusual; the kitchen sink part is.
I have a good supply of Kodak c-41 process black and white film, mostly 120 but a half dozen rolls as well of 35mm. A couple years back a good friend gifted me with his refrigerated stash as he had gone digital in his portrait business. I was my usual skeptical self and didn’t shoot any right away, and then when I did, sent it off to The Darkroom in San Clemente, CA. It looked OK, pretty good, not bad. Still, sending it off was a pain, and expensive for someone used to just going into his own darkroom and processing. I found a video online from the Film Photography Project about using their kit to process C-41 at home and ordered a kit. I was intimidated by the temperature requirements but, Heck, I have six or seven thermometers and the kitchen has hot running water so I tried it.
A chromogenic film, the image structure is made up of dye clouds rather than silver clumps, and the first thing I found out from the 120 rolls was that it scans very well. The second thing I found out was that it requires long exposures when printing on variable contrast paper. I have been using this film in 2 very different ways: the first is an ongoing portrait project, very informal, in which I photograph individuals or couples upstairs in our gallery during a once a month food and music party we host. So often enough the subject lugs up a guitar or fiddle. I have 2 cameras that I use for this, my Mamiya C220 and the baby Linhof, 2X3 with its 6X6 back. I use one white lightning flash with a shoot through 42 inch umbrella aimed at the subject and within two and a half feet of the same. This light is very soft and the 400 ISO film gives me plenty of flexibility with f-stop and shutter speed if I need a little more depth of field.
The Linhof is blessed with a 105 Xenotar. It is a happy camera.
The second way I have been using this film is in the 35mm camera as I roam around public events. I haven’t been using it exclusively but have been alternating it with traditional silver films like Delta 100 and TMY. In the last month or so there have been several of these events in town and I finally got around to processing the C-41 films this week. To be more accurate, I finally accumulated enough rolls to mix my batch of chemistry, a Unicolor kit that has developer, blix, which is a combined bleach and rapid fix, and stabilizer. A friend who was in the business of custom color printing until the digital revolution told me that in the past there had been a Kodak process that divided up the bleach and fix and had some other differences that made it a superior process, but now we have what we have. So I use it.
Some technical notes: I follow my thermometer to develop at 102 degrees, with the Blix about the same. I immerse the bottles in a hard rubber 8X10 developing tank in the kitchen sink, get the water bath at about 110 degrees and monitor the chemistry till it is just right. My negatives are punchier than my commercially processed rolls and when wet make me wonder if I have burned out the highlights. But no, they print easily with no filtration under a cold light head on Seagull VC or Ilford Cooltone multigrade paper. The chemistry is reputed to be short lived so I will want to process some more film in the next week and after that call it good. The instructions say 3.5 minutes at 102 degrees. For the second batch I do 4 minutes. The Blix calls for 6.5 minutes and I stick with that but I have doubled the wash time to six minutes at about 90 degrees. The reason I did this is that I had a persistent magenta runoff after the washing and the stabilizer, dripping down into a white tray, and I was getting ugly white splotches from the runoff. The stabilizer is supposed to make the film more permanent I guess but I don’t understand the process it does for that. The video showed these guys wiping down the wet roll with a folded paper towel and my friend the old film processor and printer about had a fit when I did that in front of him. SO I stopped doing it and started getting these ugly splotches. Hence, two changes I made; I doubled the washing time and then I made a photo flo final bath in distilled water. Now they come out nice and clean.
When our garden is in full bloom I sometimes load up a roll of color print film and it is nice to be able to process that as well. For printing however, we have to rely on our scanner and an ink jet printer, and it is hard for me emotionally to wax enthusiastically about the chugging of the machine.
A couple of days ago we had a nephew here with his old Miata, newly painted a light blue. His Aunt visiting from back east was ironically wearing a matching light blue jacket. The black and white C-41 film rendered both the car and the jacket white! I’ll try out the next roll with a K-2 filter and see what happens.
I also picked up some Kodak Portra 400 B&W 120 rolls and I look forward to trying that out.
Last weekend Kathy and I had a booth at the annual art fair in a park a few minutes away from the house. Operating a booth for three days, eight to nine hours a day is a lot more work than it may sound like. We don’t do many of these but we sell some prints and get into a lot of conversations about photography with people of various ages and backgrounds. The conversations are the most interesting part of the event.
There are invariably those who “used to do darkroom and film”, who have either converted to digital cameras (and many of these often say so apologetically or with a tinge of sadness) or had done it in their youths, which was decades previous, and talk about it with nostalgia and sometimes surprise that there is still film available. It surprises us that so many people believe that film is no longer made.
There are young people who have been exposed only to digital photography and who are often really impressed with the look of black and white silver prints, and as I usually carry a camera, intrigued by one of the 1960’s film cameras that we use at such events.
Last weekend was especially interesting as I talked to several people who wanted to, or were planning to get into film photography and asking questions about darkroom requirements and where to get materials and equipment. I gave a primer this morning for one of those contacts, on 4X5 film including loading holders, using a spotmeter, focusing and camera controls and processing negatives. This was for a man living in Mexico who has already purchased a Beseler enlarger and is picking up equipment here in the states to take back to Mexico. This evening another new contact came by and we took him to the darkroom and showed him what he needed to get. His Leica M3 arrives on Monday and he is eager to start a new phase in life, taking black and white images and learning to print them. For a rainy and cold Saturday, it was very busy.
While these two guys were, I guess, in their late 40s or early 50’s, another contact from the weekend was a thirty something with background in 35mm film processing and printing but who wants to renew his photo work in large format. Once he gets his equipment he will get in touch and we can give him the basics of shooting and processing large format film. There was another young guy who was, I think, a war vet who expressed interest in a platinum print we displayed and had a friend who was already working in platinum. As Spokane is no major metropolitan area these folks, with others who asked about how difficult it would be to set up a darkroom has me thinking that something is in the wind.
And it smells like stop bath. In the last six months or so we have had 4 students from our photo workshops who have committed to setting up black and white darkrooms. These were all women.
The sweet irony of the so-called collapse of film photography is that this is a great time to set up a darkroom at home because there is so much used equipment available. First of all, there are the darkrooms of those who were printing in the 1960s and 1970s who are either feeling too old to continue, or who have switched to digital, or who are dead! Widows have been a good source of photo equipment, and I don’t mean that to sound macabre. We have heard from widows whose husbands loved photography and their cameras and just wanted to find a good home for it all, and who tearingly talked of their husbands devotion to the media.
Places like the local “craig’s list” have been good sources for often complete darkrooms for very little money. Sometimes the darkrooms have included camera outfits like the one of our students found that included a Mamiya TLR outfit. My response to enquiries this last weekend was just like that: “This is a great time to get a darkroom together.”
Just to add to the point of how much equipment is available locally, I have a Beseler 4X5 enlarger under a blue tarp outside up against the darkroom wall and a Beseler 6X7 enlarger under another tarp sheltered on the front porch! I did not have to purchase either of them. Our home’s storage areas are full already, hence the tarps. We have set up 2 darkrooms for two boys in our family, a freshman and a sophomore in high school. Just a couple weeks ago two ladies who run a junk-recycling shop called us in to help them sort a bunch of darkroom materials that had been donated; two complete darkrooms and more. The plethora of equipment may look to some to be a sign of the demise of film photography. To me it looks like so much potential. And after 3 days of conversations at the art fair I am even more convinced.
Photography is not always about making memories, but sometimes it is just that. That’s the part the KODAK emphasized in its concept and in its advertising. We have a flyer on our kitchen wall, a water color image of a couple on a sailboat, the girl with a postcard sized folding Kodak. The text reads in part “there’s all this and more for those who keep a record of their outings with a Kodak.” This was an important part of the cultural revolution energized by making cameras for the masses. Few people were immune to the allure. Avant garde painters in Paris bought Kodaks and snapped each other on the boulevards. And even before the Kodak working people found the quarters to pay for tintypes from small studios and street photographers. Workers carried the tools of their various trades to the camera and paid to get a record, a memory of themselves and their liveihoods.
The tintypers did a great business in the army camps of the American Civil War and their thousands of quick informal portraits not only gave families at home memories of the many who did not return, but they instituted the public affection for cheap portraits, cabinet cards and so on. They also made an incredibly important contribution to the National Memory.
The tin type photographers of the era remain, for the most part, anonymous and forgotten. Most of the individuals photographed for these one of a kind images are also lost as identifiable individuals. So what remains? The little photographs, dull in color and found in junk shop bins, these remain. There was a day, an afternoon, adequate light, the excitement of the one being photographed, the photographers hand on the plate, dipped in developer and fix, rinsed off, the sitters first look, blowing on it to dry it, showing it to spouse or parent or friend, or slipping it into an addressed envelope and handing it over to a postman. All the participants, all the witnesses interested or not, are gone. Now the image is anonymous. Then why does it compel us, interest us, fascinate us?
Many people are fascinated with Vivian Maier, a woman who died in obscurity but now garners public interest because her unprocessed rolls of film were discovered. As it turns out Maier was a good photographer, and not only technically competent but with an excellent eye that sought out images rather obsessively over decades in some very photographically interesting places; the streets of the city. People are fascinated with the story of her obscurity, that she was a complete unknown, in the world of photography. It is her photographs, nearly all have been printed by others after her death, it is these photographs that are of much greater interest, and it is their subject matter clearly presented with her command of exposure and focus and skills of composition that remain what is most important in the Vivian Maier story. Through the 40’s and 50‘s and 60’s she recorded city life in New York and Chicago and that city life has been so transformed, that her work chronicles that which was but is no more, i.e., converted it to memory.
We value images from an earlier time. The Ken Burns documentary on the American Civil War used a lot of literature, letters, newspaper articles, books to fill in layers of detail and nuance, but the popularity of the documentary, and its inherent power would not have been the same if instead of photographs there had only been artists renderings available. The public sense of authenticity of the photograph, and even more so the common perception of the photograph as captured reality and captured moment made the images of the era almost time travel vehicles for the imagination. This, the artist, sketcher, painter can not do.
Other Peoples’ Memories, Other Peoples’ Photographs
I suggested earlier that when I was looking at the little print books of family gatherings that I was looking at other peoples’ memories, as I had not been present, had not existed at the moment of exposure. Now I am not so sure of the characterization. If I read a memoir of some time or event I am reading the author’s recollections, interpretation, of his or her memory of the time. A skillful author can convey even the impression of his emotional state at the time in the retelling. Language has the potential for nuance and subtlety that would be very difficult to express in a photograph. The creator of a photograph might, on the other hand, feel the welling up of such subtleties and nuance in looking again at her photograph, and in this case the image serves as a catalyst for recalling these things in the form of memory revisited.
Is it possible that someone else’s photo could stir up in me such subtleties of emotion? This is the supposition behind the long held idea that the photographer should try to express in a photograph the emotional response the scene evoked in him at the time of its taking. This classic Ansel Adams take on artistic photography goes back to Stieglitz and his “equivalents” and is especially noted when it comes to landscape images. The artistic skill here is beyond the technical achievement of exposure and focus, and represents the supposed ability to control the subtleties of the medium as to gain control of the readers’ emotional responses.
Stating it this way makes it seem like a far-fetched and rather presumptuous notion of a photographer’s ability. This is not to say that a photograph does not itself have the potential to stir emotional responses and memories. It is just that one must be very suspicious that a photograph can serve as a channel between the emotional response of the photographer and the same of a reader. If one’s memory is stirred by another’s photograph, whose memory is stirred? Not the photographer’s.
If not another’s memory, then what am I seeing in the other’s photograph?
We learn the language of our family and our community and that makes it possible to communicate on many levels. The common language is the basis but not the whole of the community grammar, which includes norms for politeness and respect, recognition of common meanings to traffic signs, all kinds of rules for behavior and so on. There is even a more fundamental body of understanding: such things as lighter in color usually suggest higher in elevation, from the basic awareness of sky and ground, or that reflections of the sky on a surface suggest wetness, or water. We know that shadows tend to fall under things rather than over. Much of this kind of innate knowledge is applied by us to the photographs we make. So we have a basis in this common grammar that helps us to convey in our photographs things that the reader will understand and if we were to turn down the expectations of those photo gods a bit then there is some truth in that sense that “artistic photographs should convey something of the photographer’s emotional response to the scene…” I cannot, however, read another’s memory in a photograph.
It’s not what you look at that Matters, It’s what you See!
That’s a loose quote from Henry David Thoreau, who was not a photographer.
In this last section I want to imagine a large retrospective of a photographer who worked with a camera his whole long life. I don’t want to pick out a famous photographer so you can just imagine that it was you that I am imagining. It’s all the same in any case as the principles will apply. To do this I have to exclude the images made, let’s say, by a portrait photographer who toiled for 40 years in his studio on Main Street, already tired and struggling to stay creative after the first decade. I do this because what I have in mind is one who roams about, a lover of photos, if not obsessed with taking pictures at least warmly passionate about it. So you see, it’s not the same as it is with a commercial guy who went to school and into business initially because of his love for cameras and film, and then spent decades always on the verge of burnout. For my photographer he or she should be one who would rather die with a camera in hand.
So in this retrospective we begin with, of course, the early years and as critics we look for signs of what is to come. Are there hints already that our photographer prefers certain themes, times of day, lighting qualities and so on? Is a youthful exuberance and optimism, even naivety present in the prints on the wall? Or is there something darker that will manifest itself more strongly later on?
Into the second room of this big exhibit: here the photographer has reached some new level of energy and awareness, out of school and into the world, the real world. Can we note the photographer’s take on the social realities of adult life? We fully expect something of that sort, don’t we? We expect to be able to, ought to be able to gain something of the photographer’s take on the world. Why is that? Why should we have such expectations?
As photographers we know that the process of making images has much to do with choosing, with selecting, with excluding or including, with deciding whether to make an effort or not, with looking through the viewfinder and making subtle adjustments and so on. We understand the process. The walls of this imaginary retrospective would be blank except for the choices the photographer spent a lifetime making. So we can walk through these rooms and gain some sense of this photographer. It’s inevitable.
Here we are in the middle age room. Each image represents now 30 years of taking pictures. What can we see from that 30 years of shooting? Are there things that this person is now photographing that were not being photographed in the first ten years of work, or the second ten? Yes, we say, look at the difference here. See the shift in emphasis.
And then we are in the final room. Critics often note in viewing this room, the later years room, how there is a darkness not before present, that there are notes of mortality present. Critics love to get into that drama.
When we walk out of the hall, what have we seen? Did we just go through the photographer’s lifetime of memory or memories? No, not memories, but what? The first level of the answer to the question, what did we see?, is that we saw the collection of what the photographer chose to look at and the moments he or she captured. The first answer to our understanding this photographer is to learn what caught his eye, captured his imagination, captivated his vision. The short answer to the question is the photographers question back: “What did I look at?” Thus the photographer responds when we ask, “Who are You?” That is, according to Thoreau, not enough, not sufficient. It is definitely the right direction to take though. The photographer after all, is keenly visual in his or her approach to life, if in fact, this person with the camera is really a Photographer. Thoreau’s question that seeks to clarify, “What did you see?” represents a deeper understanding of how the photos reveal the person behind them. Seeking that deeper understanding of another is a valid quest, but it might be even more useful to turn back to face the self, an inward turn to self-revelation. The question then becomes: What do I look at? What do I see?
Photography for me is full of mysteries. I wanted to find in my fascination for looking at old family photos an ability to connect to other peoples memories, but found ultimately that I could not. My memories are my own. The photos still hold power over me and they become part of my memory but only as photos, not as the moments in time. The process of photographing on the other hand is partly in capturing moments from the flow that stops for no man. In some ways, the photograph represents a stubborn resistance to that flow of time. The movie line, resistance is futile, applies here. When my box of my Dad’s photos and paperwork disappeared, all the efforts at preserving those moments proved futile, and thus I felt a death had occurred. When the family of the Civil War soldier got the tintype in the mail, they somehow could feel as if they had their son and brother back, but when his corpse was thrown into a battlefield mass grave, the reality of the flow of time prevailed.
Is photography about the struggle against Death? Perhaps it is more about preserving moments of Life. That doesn’t explain so much of photography and so many genres. It doesn’t directly throw light on why one spends hours photographing inanimate objects or setting up still life images. But then one thing cannot be expected to explain everything, can it?
There was a cardboard box full of memories, mostly black and white photographs, contact prints from roll film cameras, some documents, like an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army, a C.C.C. publication that was more or less a yearbook of a camp, all stuff of my Dad’s life. It disappeared a few years after his sudden death from a heart attack, as my Mother struggled with her demons, along with his work shoes, tools, his car, all obliterated in a spell of alcoholic and drug addled insanity.
The photos included pictures from the California Redwoods, CCC boys in the deep snow of North Idaho national forests, old cars, bare-breasted native women somewhere between the Admiralty Islands and Manila. There was a photo of a Japanese soldier up to his armpits in a muddy hole, hands raised in surrender. There were young toughs with “bogarted” cigarettes hanging from their lips on the streets of Chicago (he was one of them).
The box was gone, including the rising sun flag that Japanese soldiers wore inside their shirts, a black and white skull and crossbones flag that flew from the antenna of my Dad’s amphib (amphibious tractor) during the invasion of Leyte – all gone. He was already dead for a couple of years and with the box gone it was as if he had died again. Though he showed up in a few of the prints, he was mostly the photographer. They were his memories, passed on to me, now memories lost.
It occurs to me that from an early age I associated photos with memories. It also occurs to me that they were not my memories. There were in the family little yellow booklets of deckle edged black and white prints, one per roll, of 4thof July picnics, birthday parties and so on, from before I was born or at least from before I was able to form and retain memories. (what a concept! We are not born with that capacity, it has to develop like language and face recognition.) Photos thus connected me to time and events in which I had not participated, at least not wholly. In this essay I want to explore that side of photography, as I continue to reflect on its meaning and significance.
Photography and Memory
My initial exposures to photographs were to black and white, mostly in the form of family prints. Black and white images represented a distance in time. They represented the past. The present was a world of color, a reality reinforced when NBC first put up its peacock and The Wonderful World of Color came on air. Color meant modern and it represented progress. Black and white came to represent the past, the old days, the time before I was. My Dad’s parents, Ignatz and Franciska had both died young, he in 1925 and she in 1930 and they were only figures in some mythical time long before the world I lived in. My maternal grandfather Bill died when I was a toddler, and I have only vague memories of him, but on the wall was a formal portrait made when he was older and white haired, black and white and vignetted. My memories of him were dreamlike, and in black and white. My grandmother never told family stories. I had no idea where she came from or who her parents were. There were no stories of my Mom as a child, and Grandma didn’t talk about her husband.
My Dad, on the other had, at least a couple times talked to me about his life, about good neighbors and his Mother’s singing voice, about his time in an orphanage in Chicago, in the CCCs, about the war. But he was orphaned at 13 and had a lost boy’s perspective on those times.
And he had some photographs.
I always wanted to know more about his life, to know him better but it was difficult as a lot of the men of that generation kept much to themselves. I got a set of books called The Pictorial History of The Second World War when I was about ten or so and I spent hours, days, looking through each volume trying to find a photo of my Dad in the Philippines. All the images were black and white. I tried to find him in them, but he was not there.
For me, there was a mystery in the looking at old photos. In the photograph was a hint of Distance: photographs in black and white represented a contradictory revelation of distance even as they breached the distance of time and place. A presence of the past, or was it the transportation of me in the present to some time now past? That was part of the mystery of photography for me.
I was still pretty young when the family got a Polaroid Swinger. In fact my first photo instruction manual was a book about using the Polaroid. It was a nice switch from the whirr of the Super 8 movie camera I used chronicling the foster babies, but I still ended up photographing the little ones, the foster kids and my second cousins who lived down the street. It was all black and white. There was for me, still a kid, a sense of power in making the little prints. It wasn’t from making something pretty; it was about snatching and fixing a piece of Time, capturing a moment that whirred ever past like the frames of the movie camera. Even with the nearly instant production of the Polaroid print, the moment quickly became the past and the print became an artifact of history as much as an albumen print from a glass plate made in the American Civil War.
In some sense, when one photographs a friend or family member, the photograph bears the implicit shadow of regret, as the moment captured already becomes a moment past, and a moment lost. The baby so fresh and so innocent will quickly become a toddler, then a school girl and so on, and the parent sighs with nostalgia for the little one who now cops an attitude and has pimples and no longer wants to be hugged. The camera can snatch a moment, capture it, but only as a moment past.
To be clear, I am not saying that photography does this inevitably nor always. When I shoot a still life, or close in with the long bellows of the view camera on something small, digging deeper into its presence by enlarging it beyond its normal reality, and then open the shutter for 30 seconds, I am not snatching a moment nor creating a memory. There is no reference to time and its passing even though the process is all about time. There is no sense of memory. I am saying, however, that photography has the power to do those things, and more.
Let me give another example: my Dad’s parents, Ignatz and Franciska were married in 1902 and both died at 45 years of age, long, long before I was born. In fact, I knew their names from my Dad as Ignatius and Frances but little else. They had no faces in my memory, no real presence. After he died, my Dad’s oldest sister brought their original wedding photo from California to Illinois and my cousin Al made slide copies and I got one. For years however, I didn’t look at it. Finally, I decided to scan it and there was Franciska, a pretty, female version of my Dad’s face, and there was Ignatz, who looked so much like me in a photo my Dad made of me when I was sixteen. After living as imaginary mythical figures in my mind for so long, suddenly they were family, enfleshed, connected.
As you perhaps can tell, I have found photography a potent and meaningful medium in my life, both as a taker and as a reader of photographs. If I spend so much time talking about my life it is only because it is an easy channel for me to try to understand the social significance of this medium that is less than 200 years old and yet seems now so natural and normal a part of human culture that it is difficult to imagine its absence. The world never was really black and white and grey but photography has made such a world totally believable. That’s quite a powerful thing to ponder.