I’m trying to remember my first encounter with photography in any form other than being the subject of my parents’ all-seeing eyes. My dad enjoyed taking pictures of me as I grew up. He would shoot both slide and print film. Not unlike the experiences of many people, my childhood included a number of moments captured on film for all eternity. Some are sweet: my sister and me standing among the aspen as the leaves turned color in the fall. Some are embarrassing: naked, two years old and pudgy, collapsing a plastic swimming pool. Many are memorable in that classic sense, quiet captures of being in a certain place at a certain time. In all of this I was aware of the camera only as I was the subject.
I think the moment of realization that a mechanism to photography existed came later. The understanding that my dad had learned this method came to me when as a young boy as I looked at a picture he had taken at night in Washington D.C. I cannot recall the exact subject of the photograph– I suspect the primary subject was one of the monuments or famous buildings from the capital. I want to say it was a wide shot along side the mall with the Washington Monument off to one side. But what I remember clearly was that it contained a streetscape. Bright streaks raced along the pavement where the cars should have been. But there were no cars. There were only these streaks of light. I asked dad about the picture. He told me how he took it. I thought he was a magician. He took a picture and made all the cars disappear. Obviously the cars had gotten zapped by these streaks and now were gone!
Dad patiently explained to me how he composed the shot. He had taken a long, multi-second exposure and what I was seeing was the glow of tail lights as the cars moved through the frame. The entire lesson went right over my head at the time. What stuck with me was this idea that a photograph was an object in its own right. Up until that point I had thought that photographs were just ways to record what something else looked like: a secondary thing of no real importance. But the taillights proved otherwise. I knew the cars had been driving by when dad took the picture. But they were not in the picture. They disappeared. I knew taillights were not a hundred yards long, but they were in the picture. They went all the way down the mall to the monument.
I wanted to learn how to do this. I wanted to know how it worked. And with childish intensity I continued to pester my dad until he relented and began to reveal the secrets to me.
Dad’s 35mm Nikkormat FT was one of the first real cameras I ever used. Dad had bought it when he was in college. He took it with him everywhere. Backpacking in Colorado, canoe trips in Indiana, bicycle trips around Lake Michigan. Dad used this camera to capture the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and the top of Long’s Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. He hauled it up to the top of Mt. Elbert and through the backwoods of the Minnesota Boundary Waters Wilderness Area. When I was fourteen, Dad gave me this camera. Although in all honesty I suspect it was a loan that I never paid back.
A few years earlier, dad had renovated the back of our house. The renovation converted an awkward two-room apartment mostly separated from the rest of the house into an open family room. The apartment had been the home to the mother of the original owner. It had a separate entrance and a separate bathroom and only connected to the rest of the house by one door by the garage. Dad knocked down a couple walls and tore out some closets and turned two small rooms into one large room. The bathroom remained but without the neighboring bedroom. There were two other bathrooms in the house near the bedrooms. I shared one with my sister. My parents claimed the other one. The third bathroom was rarely used. Dad converted it into a darkroom. Using wood from the old closet doors he made a table that fit snugly over the bathtub. He sealed up the door for light. He exchanged all the bulbs for redlights and acquired an enlarger second-hand. All the equipment supported black-and-white film photography. Later he would add a second enlarger for color. He bought film in bulk, a bulk loader and recyclable canisters.
Dad moves through hobbies every few years: target shooting, sailing, cycling, mountain climbing, photography, fly-fishing, canoeing, backpacking, motorcycle riding, skiing. Music. Always music, but then he jumps from instrument to instrument. He’s gone through the trumpet, guitar, French horn, banjo, and most recently the mandolin. Usually he has two or three hobbies going at any one time. And rarely does he give up a hobby entirely. There is often a possibility that a hobby long left dormant will entice him and his attention will return to it with renewed vigor. As I write this, he has traded in the sailboat and the canoe for a kayak, tinkers on an extensive model train set in the basement, and plays mandolin in two bluegrass bands.
But for most of the 80s, one of his biggest hobbies was photography. And I got to come along for the ride. Dad, using the homemade darkroom and the Nikkormat FT, taught me almost everything I know about photography. He taught me about exposure and composition. He taught me about the science of light and the chemistry of development. He taught me to spool exposed film onto a development reel inside a light-tight changing bag by touch. F-stops, depth of field, focal planes. He taught me how to push under-exposed film. How to dodge and burn when enlarging a print. I learned about additive color and subtractive color models.
Like my dad and his myriad hobbies, I never entirely abandoned my interest in photography, but something happened when I left college and my attention to it flagged. I stopped taking pictures with the same frequency. I stopped keeping up with the technology. I didn’t ask my friends about their pictures. I think maybe I enjoyed doing all of the work myself and when I no longer had ready access to my own darkroom I lost interest. I credit Whirl‘s involvement in the Midwest Peregrine Falcons project for rekindling that interest. In the past three years she and I have grown increasingly interested in photography.
Whirl often uses photography as a scientific instrument for her work: to record animal behaviors at a place and time, to identify subjects, to study as a biologist. I, more often than not, turn the lens on architecture, candid portraits of individuals and event. These are the sorts of subjects I selected back in high school. I like the idea of recording something, and I like the challenge of recording it in an interesting manner. There is significant cross-pollination of ideas between the two of us and I continue to carry my father’s inspiration– the imaginary taillights and the invisible cars– with me every time I pick up the camera.
In the interval between childhood and today, photography has undergone a dramatic shift. I think most hobbyist photography is digital. And in our house, this is certainly true. Today I do almost all of my photographic work digitally. My cameras are digital, my darkroom is my laptop.
This is what intrigues me about photography and why I find myself drawn to it: in combines science and art. I suspect the same could be said for most every undertaking of creative expression. Music, theater and architecture are most obvious in that regard, but literature, painting drawing and dance all contain elements of both. For me, the contrast and combination of science and art in photography is intensely compelling. Photography can contain elements of emotion, creativity, sentimentality, technology and permanence.
Now I experience moments when I am huddled over my laptop working on a picture when I can remember the particular smell of stop bath or the eerie cast of the redlight. In these moments I think of my dad and thank him for this wonderful gift.
I love you, dad. Happy Father’s day.