I started with photography in high school because I was bored. That is the honest truth. I was drafted by one of my instructors to join the school newspaper. My guess is, since I was in the writer’s workshop, why not join the school newspaper. I think I must have been an easy recruit because I was on everything — tennis team, bowling team, track, All-City Chorus, hell, why not see if she’ll join one more thing and I did.
Since I was on the school newspaper, my art instructor thought I should learn photography and, again, I was drafted into yet another extracurricular activity. It’s not that I didn’t want to participate in these activities and yes, though I was mostly bored in high school, I always felt the one thing that would finally excite me was just around the corner. I knew somewhere, something was going to pique my interest, I just needed to keep showing up.
Photography and writing turned out to be that thing and I credit my art instructor for paying attention to me, knowing I was one of his bored students. One day he told me if I’m going to be a writer, I might want to have photographs to compliment my writing. Up to that point my primary interest was sketching and I did that well. Photography, as I later learned, turned out to be the very thing I needed. It was the pill that made everything better. I forgot about my pain and fatigue (undiagnosed at the time) when walking the streets with a camera.
I photographed everything, people, places, inanimate objects, items of clothing left in unusual places, I loved that loaner camera and didn’t want to give it up. I played with it, held it in my hands, caressed it like a lover, I was in love. I couldn’t wait to get to school and develop my film and enlarge the images. We only shot black & white and that was enough for me.
After seeing the images I shot, my teacher (whose name escapes me) introduced me to W. Eugene Smith, Diane Arbus, Roy DeCarava and Gordon Parks. I devoured those books studying every photograph and wondered what techniques they used when making their prints. It wasn’t long before my art instructor and Ms. Patterson (my writers workshop instructor) conspired to get me into Columbia College. My path was set and off I went devouring everything along the way.
It’s always good to find teachers who pay attention to their students. I’m finding too few do today. I was lucky and blessed.
The photo above is the color processor I hauled from Chicago to Los Angeles in hopes of setting up a darkroom here. It’s now in a box in a back closet and it had been — as they say — used and abused. I have no idea if the thing works today but it served me well. Instead of using a lab to process my color film and Cibachrome prints, I used that processor. I developed my film and prints in my own darkroom and the best feeling in the world is seeing a properly exposed black & white print pop while still in the developer, under dim yellow lights. It’s a rush, a rush that is addictive. I did not have that same rush with a print-in-a drum but, when pulled from the drum, and if I used the right filters, I was breathless — a different kind of rush but a rush nonetheless.
However, in 1990, after lugging that huge monstrosity out here, my world changed and the world of photography changed. Nikon introduced its first digital camera in 1991 with Canon following behind in 1992. I thought it was a passing phase these 2 or 3 megapixel cameras. It was not. I refused to join that bandwagon and continued shooting with my film cameras in spite of not having that darkroom setup. Instead, I sent my film to a lab and finally, in 1995 or ’96, I purchased a scanner and Photoshop 3.0 (I think) for Windows. That was a learning curve because I had to dig through a crap load of menus in order to process a print — I guess they’re calling it workflow.
Frustrating? Absolutely. Black & white images did not pop like they did in the darkroom. I was fed up with the technology. From the scanner, to the computer, to the monitor and then to the color printer — nothing worked. If I made a decent image on the monitor it was not a decent image on the printer. I needed color profiles for the printer in order to see — maybe — what the printer might print. I was going bald from pulling out my hair.
Then came affordable digital cameras and in 2004, I broke down and purchased my first DSLR, a Canon Rebel or 300D. It was horrible. The Rebel was a 6.3 megapixel camera with a small APS-C sensor. More headaches? Yes, as these new cameras required digging into yet another set of menus — as if Photoshop wasn’t enough — and I had to learn to shoot digital. I will say this, it was a pain in the ass and I didnt’ like it. Photography was so simple in the good old days of film. Now, I have menus, presets, RAW, JPG, and more. ASA is now ISO and thank God for f-stop and shutter speed, those haven’t changed.
In 2005, when I was in the middle of trying to learn that camera AND Photoshop, I fell ill and had to put everything on the back burner. I would still shoot but it was primarily what I knew, aperture priority, shutter priority, program or manual. Basically, point and shoot. With all of the drugs I was taking, my brain could not focus on digging through those menus. But now, now that my flares are few and far between, I have returned to those dag blasted menus and have found I can set these cameras to do everything I used to do manually, like bracket exposures. I can set white balance, in camera, without putting gels in front of the lens. I had no idea I could do these things until I sat down to read a book until my eyes went cross.
We’ve come a long way since 1991 and the first DSLR. They’re here and they’re here to stay. I will probably never hold a sheet of Oriental Seagull paper again because I’m really not interested in stockpiling chemicals or sticking my fingers into another tray of developer, fixer, or stop bath. Photography is not as messy as it was then and with the amount of water needed to wash prints — no, can’t do that today. So yeah, it’s better. It’s new and improved and this old dog will have to learn the new tricks.
I’ll admit, a few years ago I had become quite bored with photography. My cameras collected dust and I gave up. Today, I feel a hint of excitement as the cameras have gotten better, there are some full-frame cameras on the market that are reasonably priced, and the image quality from those cameras are so much better than the 6.8 or 10 megapixel cameras sold a few years ago. The RAW images are delicious to work with and I can see depth in the images when converted to black & white. Yes, this is what I’ve been waiting for, this is what I’ve needed all along. Now, I need to learn that dag blasted son-of-a #%@% Lightroom with even more menus. Like I don’t see enough menus every freaking day of my life. I will eventually get it.
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