The Junk Whisperer. Part III

My folks had discovered an actual camera store in Dover, New Hampshire at some point and when I told them about the Brownie, they were kind enough to stop in and pick me up a couple of rolls, ready to meet my sander and get resized to fit. Now with everything I needed to go put this old beautiful box into action, only one question remained: Color or Black and White.

Hmmm.

Black and White film holds a special and dear place in my heart. Many years ago, a much younger and substantially more awkward version of me could often be seen stalking interesting shadows and high contrast compositions with my trusty steel body Minolta. It had belonged to my father when he was young and now I had taken to it with enthusiasm. It shoots 35mm and though it only has one lens and is not a snazzy SLR, (i.e., Single Lens Reflex, meaning that the range finder lets you look right through the lens of the camera and not out a separate little range finder in the upper left corner of the camera) it still took the best Black and White photos I’d ever seen. I spent many a happy hour, late at night in the campus dark room developing and making prints of my black and white images.

Color though, offered another, special possibility.

In this crazy-fast, laser like perfected digital age, the phones we have crammed in our collective pockets can take pictures of stunning resolution and clarity and for some odd reason, this ability has kicked off the craze of the “retro-ing” of pictures. The ability to saturate the colors, fade the edges and fake a little light bleed at a corner here and there has become increasingly popular. I have to admit, I find it somewhat perplexing.

I’m looking at you, Hipsamatic and Instagram.

Without a doubt, the images made with these bits of software do indeed look genuinely old school and  the filters and effects used on each uploaded image are often dutifully stamped into the accompanying text of the Facebook post by the shooters.

Lens: Edward Q

Film: Kobe’s 1971

Flash: strobe

…Or some such thing.

I mean no offense to the legion of happy iPhone photographers out there, but when I see these images, my mind quickly drifts to of all the actual filters and lenses that still lurk to this day in dark and dusty, forgotten drawers and backs of closets in homes across the world. They sit unused and unloved and it somehow seems a cheat to let the computer oldify the photo if you have the tools to do it the right way from the very beginning. To me, it feels like buying carrots at the store, sticking them in the ground only to pull them out and call them homegrown. Sometimes, doing something the hard way makes the end product that much better.

To my mind, anyway.

It also makes me slower on the draw, so I guess victory can be claimed on both sides.

Carefully loading the black box with my precious eight frames of ISO 200, color film, I carried the Brownie out side, trying to look at the world with my dusty, rusty photographer’s eye. Something I hadn’t done in far, far too long.

What initially came thundering back to me was the realization that I had eight shots and that was it. For the first time in a long time, I had to really consider my shot rather than just blaze away. It was going back to hunting with a muzzleloader after having used what is essentially, a machine gun. I had become used to snapping off a double fist-full of pictures, looking at what I had, and the culling the duds. In the end, I’d still have three or four pictures that were worth keeping of any given object or situation. Unless your funds are limitless, it doesn’t work that way with film.

I thought about subject

I’m drawn to photographing stuff. I like stuff! It doesn’t move, it’s timeless and you can fiddle with it to get the best effects. The problem is that it can also be impersonal. A photo of a boat on a beach is great and all, but it doesn’t get coveted by your great grandchildren, it doesn’t solve a family mystery and it probably won’t be attributed to you if you’re not there to claim attribution. This time around, I was shooting for something to go in a family album. I was remembering the picture that Great-Grandma took of her child and husband

Scooting around in the flower garden next door, a fancily dressed fairy princess and a serious butterfly hunter caught my eye. My son, Shortstack is six now and his sister Lulu Belle is four and to our great relief and enjoyment, they are each other’s best friend as well as sibling. I also tend to have a slightly biased eye when viewing them. They were the perfect subjects

In this case, their near constant movement would only add to the image. It is how I see them nearly all times unless they are asleep. Blurry.

Holding the camera at chest height and looking through one of the range finders, I lined up my subject.

The shutter swings. SNAP!

What a sound.

I catch her again as she flies along at the edge of the garden.

SNAP!

After a few seconds of cajoling and kindness, I get both of them to stand still long enough to line them both up, capturing a moment of their youth to celluloid.

SNAP! Number three out of eight taken.

The day is beautiful and breezy as the chilly afternoon wind kicks up off the Atlantic and blows the treetops. The three of us head out for some adventure and the Brownie comes with us.

As my two dear children enjoy their time with some kites at a nearby field, I stand off to squeeze them into the tiny field of my camera lens.

SNAP!

Sun at my back and turning the Brownie on its side, I look through the landscape range finder and take one more picture, just to be safe.

SNAP! Number five.

The kids are very interested as I take each photo and are more than a little bugged that I can’t show them the image like on my phone. I wonder if they think I’m making it up. To temper them I take a few more with my digital and we talk about which ones came out best.

That evening, I can’t resist the siren song of low angle sunlight and I joyously give in and search out my last three images. These are for me.

SNAP!

SNAP!

SNAP!

In the end, it wasn’t that long a wait to get my film back from the photo place in town. The hardest part was just getting around to driving it over, and then back to pick it up. I had forgotten how exciting it is to open that little glued envelope. Things could go so wrong. You won’t know until you fan them out and see for your self. There is no going back.

The Garden Series:

The Kite Series:

The Boathouse:

There they are. All eight in all their glory.

I still have the roll of black and white, but that will have to wait for another time and a different method of printing. The photo place I had brought this roll to only develops and prints black and white about every six months, so I’m left with a problem. I could leave my used rolls of film with them and wait like a patient little soldier, or…

It’s a thought to terrifying to think.

Should I?

I know how, after all.

There’s really not that much to… developing it all… my self!

 

All I need is an enlarger.

Oh, and a developing can.

Well, I need the chemicals too. And lets not forget the baths and a timer. Not to mention tongs, a water supply, drying racks and a bunch of other minutiae I’m no doubt forgetting.

I wonder what corner of the basement would make the best dark room?

 

Uh oh…

The Junk Whisperer, Part II

The word, “camera” is a squishy little noun. It can mean so many totally different objects these days. To my children, the word, “phone” is synonymous with camera. To them, it’s something that lives in your pocket at all times and is capable of taking movies as well as stills and then send them effortlessly to the other side of the planet as fast as your wireless carrier can charge you. When I was their age, the manifestation of the word “camera” might have meant the Polaroid. It was capable of taking hideous, blurry, square snapshots that faded dully with the passing years, BUT let you actually see what you had snapped a photo of with only a few minutes of mindlessly waving the picture in the air in the strange and vague hopes that this would somehow produce a better image. They were great!

What I had picked up was different.

Hanging in my living room is a picture of my Great-grandfather and my Grandpa. It was taken in about 1917 and in it, my Grandfather, whom I only knew as an old man, is perhaps three or four. My Great-grandfather, whom I never knew, looks to be in his late twenties or early thirties. He would not live to become an old man like his son.

There are several reasons beyond the obvious why I love this photo. One is that my Great-grandfather is an unbelievable match for my own Dad when he was that old. If you had shown me that picture as a child, I would have wanted to know why Daddy was wearing those funny clothes. Another reason is that my Grandfather and my own son don’t look alike. They look identical.

Seriously.

There is no question in my mind what my little boy will grow up to look like. The match is pretty much perfect.

All this is enough to crank up the voltage on the sentimentality-o-meter but the last reason for my attachment is the photographer. It’s my Great-grandmother. Saying that they didn’t have much money is a huge understatement, but one of the very few indulgences they enjoyed was a Brownie camera, and from what I understand, she enjoyed it mightily.

For those of you who’ve never seen a Brownie before, it is quite the interesting little box. Made for much of the twentieth century in one incarnation or another, it brought photography to the masses. They only cost three or four dollars and took, if not wonderful, then reasonable pictures. For the first time, almost anyone could chronicle their lives on film. It was a huge change and really started in earnest photographic record keeping for average families.

Now Great-great uncle Horace wasn’t just a name in a list, but a face you could spot familial connection with. I know that’s what it does for me, any way. The moment I bought my very own Brownie on that internet auction site, it somehow made me feel that much closer to the people in that family portrait as well as my Great-grandmother. I liked that. My problem, I knew, was that there was no way I was going to be contented with simply leaving it on the book shelf to gather dust.

Don’t get me wrong. It’ll do that too! But I was going to need to take this little bit of history out and see what I could get with it as well. It needed it to work.

A handful of days later, it arrived. The auction photos had been less than clear and the item description was seriously… sparse, so it was with some trepidation that I opened the package. It’s probably the main reason I has no competition in buying it. TO my elight, other than some surface rust on the front, some smudgy optics and a sticky shutter, it looked surprisingly sound. Like a giddy eight year old with his father’s pocket watch, I quickly took it down to parts, cleaned everything that looked cleanable and added a little bit of thin lubricant to the moving bits. After reassembly and a few dozen cycles of the shutter release to break it back in after who knows how many decades of neglect, everything was moving happily and snappily! Now all I needed was film.

Ah… film.

It’s a little startling to realize that the word, “film” is very quickly becoming a forgotten word that will eventually slide into anachronism. Buying film? Whoa! Do people still do that?

A few do, as it turns out.

Film for a camera built in nineteen-thirty-something though, is harder.

Back in the celluloid days, film came in a zillion different sizes and formats and the choices were aplenty. The Brownie’s particular type is called 620 and it was sold everywhere and even cheap, compared to the more modern 35mm which most of my contemporaries are familiar with. 620 is a large format film with each negative bigger than some prints that I own and a fresh roll providing a paltry eight exposures. It has also not been commercially produced since the 1980’s.

I never let stuff like thirty-five years of obsolescence deter me. That just makes it more satisfying when you get it all running.

Many professional photographers still shoot actual film in their cameras and for really posh portraits, they use a format called 120. Luckily it’s almost exactly the same size as 620.

ALMOST.

The film its self is the same, but the spool that the film is wound on is just ever so much bigger. Just bigger enough, in fact, to not allow it to work in a Brownie. Don’t think for a moment that this didn’t happen by design.

Ugh.

Solution number one is to strip off the film and hand wind it onto an old 620 spindle. It sounds simple except that it needs to all be done in perfect darkness, there’s a finicky little tab at the end of the film that you need to get in just the right placement and… you need some old 620 size spindles. Solution number two is to ever so carefully use a belt sander to grind down the oversized spindle without ripping the film still curled around it.

Given a choice, I will always go for the belt sander. Always.

Who wouldn’t?

So, a little time in the basement and a scun knuckle or two and, poof! Film for an eighty year old camera!

How would it work? Would it work at all? Does it leak light? I had no idea. Even if the pictures didn’t come out, snapping them would be part of the fun.

Familiar Faces

And so, we bring to a close the winter holiday season, and I must say, I’m sad to see it pass. What’s been unusual and wonderful this year is that we’ve seen a lot of my parents over the last week and a half. They had come up on Christmas Eve and only departed for home today on the fifth. Making it even better, they didn’t have to stay with us in out dollhouse-esque abode. We can do visitors for a day or two, but anything more than that and things get decidedly cramped. I know families used to all live on top of each other just a few generations ago and I’m sure it provided good warmth in beds, but personally, I’ll happily let that aspect of the past go in favor of being able to live with some privacy.

Mom and Dad have a weekend place they stay at on the island, and though originally intended as a summer cottage when it was first purchased, I believe they have closed it down for the season only once. That was the year before Short Stack was born. Since then, my folks have sort of dragged their feet when it comes to draining the plumbing and removing all the freezables in preparation of letting the house go dark for the winter. Last year they talked about it a lot, but in the end, they put off the decision so long that it made no sense to finally go through with it. Personally, I blame adorable grandchildren, but then, I might be biased.

Even when they are not coming up for extended stays, they are, more often than not, here on the weekends. That means Short Stack and Lulu Belle get to spend a lot of time playing with my parents and that, for obvious reasons, makes me very happy. I have a very strong and good relationship with my folks and to see my son and daughter get to forge their own memorable relationship with them, well… that’s hard to beat. It’s a boon for my parents as well since I’m it as far as offspring go. My kids are their only grandchildren and they dote on them to a ridiculous level.

From Short Stack’s point of view, the best thing about visiting Grandma and Grandpa’s house is the sleepover. As a child, for whatever reason, I had a very hard time sleeping anywhere but my own bed. I just didn’t want to. I’m not sure if I was actually afraid or simply very uncomfortable, but the effect was the same. When it came to spending the night at a cousin’s or grandparent’s, the answer was always, “No, thank you.”

Not so, with Short Stack.

When he stays over, it’s with a huge smile plastered over his tiny, round face and if it is my unfortunate duty to tell him, “Not tonight. Maybe tomorrow.” I can just about bank on carrying a very sad and confused little boy up the stairs to his bedroom in our own house. I’ll also be peppered with questions right up until I tuck him in as to why he couldn’t stay at Gram and Gramp’s tonight and could he PLEASE stay tomorrow as well as promises of being a good boy. Personally, I’d rather get a stab in the arm rather than run this guilt gauntlet, as thrown down by a little red haired, blue eyed three year old.

Kid guilt to parents is like water to the Wicked Witch of the West.

“I’m meeeelllll-ting!”

This last week, I think Short Stack has spent more nights away than he has as home. It’s tough as a parent, but heaven for the other parties involved.

Action Girls folks are much loved by our kids as well and though it means a log drive to go and see them, the fun that they have is always worth the slog up north. Whether tromping off to the farm next door or simply running around the yard with my wife’s folks, the kids always look forward to the visit and hop in the car like eager riders on some unseen rollercoaster.

Short Stack and Lulu Belle love their Grandparents, both sets, but more importantly, they know them, and know them well.

It was something that occurred to me last night as I pawed through the genealogy project that my Father has been working on for some time now. It started, for me anyway, when my Father’s Mother passed away. She was the youngest in her family and as such, was the holder of the family photo albums. In her little apartment attached to my aunt and uncle’s house, resided picture albums reaching far back into our own little slice of history. Faded black and white photos of half remembered people whose faces look familiar, but only in parts.

She didn’t have much to leave behind other than the photos and after the funeral service, we all wandered into her apartment with the idea of collecting a keepsake to bring back home to remember her by. As we entered, I brought up the idea of not touching the photo albums, but scanning them instead. Once digital, we could all have copies. It was agreed to by the lot of us and after a fashion, the complete set of family faces dating back to the turn of the last century had successfully entered the computerized world. For what ever reason, I never got a copy, but Dad did. Over the intervening years, my Father has been finding out exactly who is whom and making lots and lots of notes.

While Short Stack and Lulu Belle napped one day, I took a moment to look through the old photos with Dad. Some, I had seen. Others were of aunts and uncles whom I knew and could still talk with. The ones of my deceased grandparents furrowed my brow with sadness even as I smiled broadly at the memory of their voices, still echoing in my ears.

Then I found this.

To anyone outside our immediate circle of family and friends, this picture might look mildly interesting as a snapshot in history. There isn’t much to see here, honestly. At lest to the foreign eye. The cloths are for cold weather and the shadow of the tree shows bare branches, so we know it’s winter. The house behind them is large and windowless so we can guess that it might be an apartment building. The child has many holes in his obviously worn stockings, so you could also surmise that they were poor, and you’d be right. The man and the little boy could be anyone.

But they are not.

They are my Grandfather and his Father. The Father, is a man I never knew. A man, in fact, that my Grandfather barely knew, for he died when the little boy in the picture was only about ten.

What stopped me cold were the faces. My Great-Grandfather’s face looks identical to my father’s as I remember it from my own childhood. My Dad’s face has aged and changed now, but when I was a boy, this is what my Father looked like, exactly. In his arms, the child, no more than three, looks eerily like my own son. The same build. The same round face, even the haircut. It’s a very good match, indeed. To top it all off, there has been a long succession of men in the family with one of two names. It’s alternated, actually and both of these names have seen heavy use in a family that has, for four generations, hung onto its surname by a single thread. I was the end of the line before my own son was born. He is it now.

My parents, for reasons of their own, decided to break from tradition and gave me a first name that had not been used by our family since, (so far as we know) the sixteen hundreds. I’ve always been happy with it, but when it came time to name our own son, looking down at his pink face, I knew without doubt what his name would be. The family tradition was back on track.

When I look at the picture, I see my Father and my Son, and because of my parent’s choice, the names of those two long passed figures, match the names of the living. I must admit, it sort of unnerves me, but I can’t look away.

My Dad printed me a copy of the photo and I’ve already framed it up and hung it in the living room. Whenever I walk past, I stop and glance and it makes my heart beat a little harder. It’s funny to react so to the picture of a man whom I never met and the face of a child whom I know grew up to be the old man with the ubiquitous cigarette, thick glasses and thinning hair. But that is not who I see, after all. It’s far closer to home to my eyes.

As the kids wake up and come downstairs to join my parents and me in their home, I can’t help but feel happy for them. They will remember this now. They are old enough. Lulu Belle I still a munchkin, but she’s catching on fast. Short Stack, with his elephant like memory, will clearly recall these days with his beloved Grandparents, either here or at my in-law’s and for my part, I feel like a member of the work crew, forging the moments that link lives together so that they can be relayed to future grandchildren, yet unimagined.

My Mother’s Father lives not too far from us these days. Maybe only an hour away, though there always seem to be some reason why we can’t go today or the next.

I think it’s high time we pay him a visit and work on those links some more.

We only get one family.

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