Old Tri-X film that keeps re-surfacing.

I carried around a camera over the weekend but I didn't see anything I felt compelled to shoot. That's okay because I was busy with other aspects of life. Sunday brunch with my parents, the acquisition of a new car and some last minutes searches for important papers that ended up in the very last place I looked. In the process of looking for a car title I came across a sheet of negatives from many decades ago. I was not a (capital "P") photographer back then, just a happy amateur and many of the negatives in the sheet were overexposed or poorly developed. But I pulled the negative for the image above and put it into the Epson V-500 scanner in my studio and fiddled around with it for a few minutes. I'm pretty happy with the resulting images and happier still that the image prodded my memory and reminded me in exquisite detail just how free and easy the hobby of walking around taking photographs was in the middle of the 1970's.

I took a semester off from college to walk around a much different Europe than we have today. I am amazed to look back in a contemporaneous journal and discover that my girlfriend and I spent a good part of the semester backpacking, staying with new friends and occasionally splurging and staying at hotels and pensiones for about $800 each. That covered food, transportation and lodging but not our plane fare from the U.S. and back.

We camped out in the south of France in dozens of towns from Avignon to Perpignan, pitching our small tent in rustic campgrounds and making meals with a little blue gas portable stove. A frying pan hung from one of the straps of my backpack.

My camera of choice for the trip was the only camera I owned at the time, a Canonette QL 17 III. I took that little camera, a few extra button cell, PX-625 batteries and a small plastic bag with about 30 rolls of Kodak Tri-X film which I bulk loaded into blank canisters in order to save nearly a dollar a roll. I used the strap that came with the camera. It was a thin nylon strap with no logos or branding, just a little rubber shoulder gripper that kept the camera from sliding down my arm as I walked around.  I mostly used the camera in a completely manual mode because my friend, (and fellow photographer) Alan Pogue, took the time to teach me how much more accurate my little system could be if I used the pictogram sheet that came packaged with every roll of Kodak film as an aid to calculate my exposures. Sometimes I didn't even bother to double check the increasingly worn and poorly memorized sheet and depended on the vast exposure latitude of the film to save my ass.

I also shot some color transparency film but unlike the black and white negatives there is nothing on the color film that interests me, even for a moment.

The primary mission of the trip was not to have a primary mission. My girlfriend and I were going for adventure and fun. We wanted to see Rome without our parents in tow. We wanted to lay out on a beach on a Greek Island and waste full days doing nothing more than watching clouds and drinking beer with other tourists from all over the place. That made the camera incidental. That meant I used it when I was intrigued by something rather than spending useless energy lurking around trying to goose the muses into giving me a little something for posterity.

And when I looked at the images I stuck in this blog post it got me thinking about how easy things are to do when you don't focus all of your energy directly on them. It's almost like dating where aggressively stalking someone and calling them all the time are counterproductive.  Better to have a bit of insouciance and reticence in your pursuit and not care overly much about tightly controlling the outcome.

Shooting with the small rangefinder camera was such a wonderful way to add small doses of documentation to the experience. The camera had few controls and demanded little attention. The battery with which it arrived in Europe  was still going strong as we headed home. The rangefinder was pretty easy to use, and accurate, and the lens (when one paid attention to technique) was quite sharp and charming. But the real beauty of the photographic part of this experience is that nothing was riding on the outcome. No clients would "die." There were few expectations.

When I returned to Austin I spent happy months learning to print in our little co-operative dark room. It was located in the Ark Cooperative near the UT campus and the whole dormitory (according to rumors) had once been the Tri-Delt Sorority house. The room the darkroom occupied rumored to have been Farah Fawcett's old room. The one she lived in before being drummed out of the sisterhood for some indescretion. Whatever. It was a magic place and I spent many long nights getting a tan under the dim red safelights as I printed very personal images from the trip onto box after box of double weight Ilfobrom graded photographic paper.

The girlfriend exited the scene a few months after our return but the camera is still sitting on top of the equipment cabinet to remind me that a lot of good work can be done with minimalist tools. When I go on a digital camera buying spree I remember to stick the little rangefinder in a drawer before I head to the store. If I don't do that I imagine it sneering at me in superior derision for wasting my time and money buying cameras that are barely as capable as that thirty seven year old tool.

What an odd collection of ideas for today....


  1. So you've gone an upgraded your car after all! But will it help your photographic vision?

    1. Who knows? But it improves the probability that I'll arrive on time.

    2. What did you settle on for a replacement buggy?

  2. Beautiful story.
    Tri-X + Living = a beautiful combination.

  3. Kirk,

    Another very thoughful post which again illustrates, for me at least, the enduring appeal of this website. Don't evcer stop.

  4. Thanks Kirk. This set me off on my own nostalgia trip. It was a fun place to be, but the 'now'is even better, although I am just a happy snapper these days.

  5. "..searches for important papers that ended up in the very last place I looked."

    This phrase always gets a smile from me :-)

    1. Me too...

      I always look in one more place and that way it wasn't in the last place I looked.

  6. Love this post. I've been in a very weird mood the last few days, things just don't feel right for me. I can't shake the feeling that everything is all wrong. Your Canonet and my Nikon FE are like little reminders, maybe big reminders, that maybe I've lost my way. The future ain't what it used to be, time to change my galaxy...funny how a little post on the vast and endless internet can jive with the nonsense going on in my head.

  7. I too have been scanning some old Tri-X and finding it very emotional seeing pictures that have never seen the light of day before. Using the V-500 after your posts about it, really pleased. Would love to know how you manage to include in your scans the edges of the film especially those two little notches from the Hasselblad. Thanks for such an informative and helpful blog

  8. Going down memory lane... Sure, my valiant FM2n, with the Agfa Ambi Silette rangefinder, are still there, ready to take some fresh film. But... They are just nice old tools, one's I've grown fond of, though the world that surrounds me is screaming for digital files !
    I've thought of scanning those dozen thousands of negatives and slides. I can't even manage to do it with my grandparents' ones (glass negatives) or my parent's (6x9 negatives)...!

    So I guess prints is the answer, I have the old ones in those old fashioned albums with names and locations penciled behind each, while mine's are in some shoe-box sort of archival system, and I find that printing coffee table books of those digital files, is, maybe, another way to share and keep what is important...!

  9. Sweet merciful crap. I love Tri-X. That is all.

  10. Alas, my Tri-X negs from my youth were lost in some move, the one across country I think. My little favorite from back then was a half frame Olympus Pen VF camera, the first model, all manual, no meter, and a 28mm f3.5 lens. That is equivalent to the angle of view of a 40mm lens on a full frame camera. (We half frame folks dealt with 'crop factor' well before the digital age) My history is much different than yours. I'm still a happy hobbyist with nothing earth shaking riding on my efforts. And now that winter is coming it will be cool enough to set up my small bathroom as a darkroom again.

    John Robison

    PS: Still carry and use the Pen.

  11. Holy Smoke! a Pen-F that works..mine died, no both, so long ago, i'd forgotten them, but not the taste of Olympus. Bab, bad Taste.Yes my Leica system needing services but do-able.
    Tri-X is slowly going out of my life. The doubling of price here in Toronto!
    Rescue coming from B+H,NYC and Ilford,Kentmere. Simple economics, better ethics in retail.
    Looking back is something one should not do, "Pillar of salt" syndrome!
    I am NOT going to say this image and thought is better. Kirk knows..

  12. I shot a roll of Tri-x this morning with my recently overhauled Yashica Mat. There I stood, handheld meter in hand, shot my 12 shots and then came home and developed them. I wish they would dry so I could scan them. Good memories can be created every day.

  13. i should have added that with all the new "better" cameras every few weeks, bigger more powerful PC's, larger RAM, will it be possible to look at your/our files as long down the road as this Tri-X negative and possible print?
    i don't think so..
    i do prints..

  14. My current setup: Oly OM1 with 35 2.8 and TX400 which I ¨scan¨with a Pentax 645D and a 120 f4 macro lens with an extension 26.6mm ring. I print on epson 7600 UC. It is a lot of fun. TX400 is very inspiring to shoot. Now I´m also usin a twin lens Rollei with a Xenotar, which is even more fun and inspiring. It is the ultimate portrait machine.


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