Friday, September 26, 2008

The good new days

M and I attended the wedding of one of his colleagues last weekend. Lovely affair. Beautiful bride, handsome groom, blah blah blah. I did my usual inspection of the hired photog (he was shooting Canon with a Quantaray external battery pack, and couldn't bounce flash off the ceiling because it was too high, just FYI. Most girls look at the dresses. I look at the gear, then the dresses.) The family sitting in front of us pulled out an SLR to take pictures, as is common. Two things struck me, though. First, they have never turned off the auto-focus confirmation beep. Which is a ridiculous thing to ever install on a camera, especially an SLR. So, during the aisle walks and the ceremony, this was heard in the relatively small church: beep beep! click. beep beep beep! click. beep! click. Not exactly what one wants as audio background to your wedding vows. The official photographer was loaded with gear and moved all over the place, but stealthy as a black cat on Halloween. He blended and was unobtrusive. As opposed to cousin Bernie with his fancy schmancy SLR that beeped every 20 seconds.

By the way, at my own wedding some odd years ago, I made it a point to inform those friends and family members wielding cameras that we had paid for a professional photographer to capture our special day, and could they please stay out of his (and our) way. Hacked at least one person off, but damn if our photographs didn't turn out awesome. Having worked for a wedding photographer, I understand how hard it is to work when you've got a million family members angling for their shots, or planting themselves in your tripod holes after you've spent 10 minutes arranging a group on the altar, or tripping your slaved flashes with their own flashes.

But I digress.

The second thing I noticed about aforementioned Uncle Bernie's camera was the automatic film wind after the shutter click. Holy shit. Someone still actually shoots film. It made me stop and think about how long it's been since I've heard an SLR actually advance film. It's gotta be years now. Which made me nostalgic for film and all the crap that goes with it.

When I was in high school, we used to buy our film (Kodak T-Max black and white) in bulk, which meant we loaded the film cartridges ourselves. I became very adept at using a bottle opener to pry metal film canisters apart without bending them to hell (which would let light leak in and ruin your roll). Loading unexposed film is an art, I think. Well, at least in high school it was, because there were always students who just couldn't get it. They'd disappear into the closet for what seemed like ages, then reappear with a jumbled mess in the light-tight bag. "Can someone help me? I can't get it."

To load film, you must do it in absolute darkness. Not one drop of light. We had a small room (storage closet, really) separate from our darkroom that was strictly for loading film canisters and for loading exposed film onto reels that were then inserted into the light-tight developing tanks for processing. I'd lock myself in and wait a moment for my eyes to adjust to pitch black, just to be sure I couldn't spot a little ray of light anywhere. I never did. After I felt confident, I used my tools I had carefully arranged on the desk in front of me before switching off the light. Open the bulk canister, and pull out the giant roll of 35 mm film. There was a way we measured approximate frames so we'd know how much we were loading into our canisters, but I can't remember that part. Cut your film, tape the first end to the spindle (being sure to have the film the right side up, because it'd be pretty stupid to load it backwards and get no images at all) and wind around and around and around. Fit the canister back together, feeding your leader through the felt-edged slot, and cram the end on tight. I could sit in there, in the dark, for an hour and load film canisters and be perfectly happy.

Thinking back on all this made me realize I haven't been in a blackest-black light tight room since then. I admit I kinda miss it. Along with processing my own film and getting to see the negatives for the first time. Bending over a light table with a loupe, studying negs to see if there was anything worth printing. Then working in the darkroom for hours, trying to produce the perfect print.

I miss the smell of developer. I miss the timer in the darkroom that my friend Kevin had pasted a picture of his grandfather's head to the center of, so Grandpa Thayer spun round and round and round as we worked. I miss watching the image appear on the paper, which I don't care how many times you see it, is like magic and can not be replicated by watching your image appear, line by line, from your inkjet printer. I miss rushing out to the light to see the print, and then bringing it back into the darkroom for its wash in the ice-cold drum. I do not miss plunging my hand into an ice-cold drum crammed with prints, trying to find mine. I miss that time of being alone (even if there were other people working in there) in the dark, working on something that made me happy. I even miss sitting at a table with a tiny bottle of Spotone, touching up dust spots on a finished print. Now I just use the clone tool in Photoshop.

I admit, new technology is good and has made me a better photographer. I shoot more and therefore learn more, and have more images to play with and work on. But I miss all that old-school stuff sometimes. Hearing that SLR advance film at the wedding last weekend brought all that back to me.

On the back of the wedding program, the bride and groom had written a message, thanking everyone for coming and we love you, etc. But there was one phrase in there that really resonated with me:

"...the capacity to love deeply, enjoy simply, and think freely."

Damn, isn't that what it's all about? Perhaps I equate all my high school darkroom work with a time that was relatively simple in my life. All I really needed to do was get to school, where I had a sure-fire way to skip most of my other classes to spend the day in the darkroom. Out of school, I did everything I could to shoot. I had no obligations, really, except for the enormous number of extracurricular activities on my plate (huh, some things never change, eh?). I didn't have to pay for my film or paper, or my chemicals. I had a good camera my folks had gotten me for Christmas, so I didn't have to check out the beater Pentax K1000s in the class pool. Homework didn't take me 20 hours a week like it does now. The only kid I had to worry about was myself, and bills were something that sat on my parents' shoulders, not mine.

So, while I miss the darkroom, I think I'll stick with my digital set-up, which is much more conducive to my current lifestyle, complicated and sticky and wonderful as it is.


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