1.10.2019

The unsettling realization that your images were better when you just started out. Is it just because your social circle was younger and beautiful?



I remember taking this photograph as though it was yesterday. I was playing around with graduate school, working in a high-fi store near the UT campus, and doing photography as a hobby. A few months before I shot this I'd stretched and bought my first studio electronic flash. It was a Novatron. It came as a metal box (horrible build quality) with two plugs on top and put out a total of 120 watt seconds per pop. Of course the system also had a (plastic) flash head at the end of a ten foot cord which plugged into the box. I stretched my budget a bit more and bought a 42" shoot thru umbrella and the least expensive light stand I could find. I experimented with it for a while and added a background stand set and a roll of dove gray seamless backdrop paper. I remember that one roll of seamless lasting me over a year...

My camera of choice back then (I had two) was a used Yashica Mat 124G. The "G" stood for gold because the camera had some gold contacts somewhere in the mix, I guess. The other camera, the one I wore on my shoulder during almost every waking hour, was the Canon Canonet QL17 iii. I liked to play with different film types back then and at the time the image above was taken I think I was in the middle of a deep dive into Kodak's Panatomic X; a 32 ISO, black and white film. That is not a typo, the film was rated at 32 ASA/ISO. 

I generally left the gray seamless background paper and the flash gear set up in one corner of my living room. It was a time in Austin when one could rent the top half of a sprawling and beautiful house on Longview, just a few blocks west of the UT campus for under $100 a month. And that included utilities. As my then girlfriend, now spouse  would remind me, I left the background and lights up because I never got around to straightening up anything back then. Even laundry was an iffy thing, left in situ until it became an emergency situation. Then the scramble for quarters for the laundromat would commence....

I figured out the exposure of the flash and umbrella by trial and error; which, in those days meant shooting a test roll of film at various apertures and then heading into the darkroom to mix chemicals, roll the film onto reels, and then processing it by inverting the developing tank at set intervals for a set amount of time and then stopping the process by pouring out the developer and pouring in an acid bath, followed by a sloshing in liquid fixer. Oh, and one could not forget the archival wash and the application of Photo Flo. A couple hours later, or maybe the next morning the film would be dry and ready for me to make contact sheets and then suss out which frame might be the correct one. 

I might then pull out the trays, mix chemicals to develop paper, and make a few prints, just to test my findings more rigorously. At that point I might have found that having the umbrella and light six feet from my subject would give me an exposure of f5.6. I would grab a short piece of rope or ribbon and cut a piece to exactly six feet and tie it to the light stand. All future shots (until something got moved or I used a different film with a different film speed) would start with me positioning the subject and then moving the tip of the ribbon or rope to the subject's nose in order to ensure that the light was at the same distance it was when tested. As you can imagine, the subsequent shots were the nadir of consistency... You might ask why I didn't use a flash meter back then but in the mid to late 1970's the price of good meters was huge and my budget was small. I did long for the day when I would be able to afford a camera with a Polaroid back and the additional budget to get some Polaroid test materials...

At any rate I would pull everyone who came by my house into the living room "studio" and make their portrait with this very barebones set up. In the 1970's very, very few of my friends and acquaintances were overweight or would qualify as "couch potatoes." Most were former or current athletes and the lack of fat padding their faces seemed to let the camera see a more natural facial shape, complete with cheekbones and a neck below; things nearly hidden in the majority of people I photograph today. 

Of course, it didn't hurt that we were all in our early 20's and it was really an age of great innocence and openness. People were willing to be photographed without having to negotiate the process or be overly self-conscious. 

I was always falling in love back then and one of the manifestations of that was my desire to capture the beauty I found in the people to whom I was attracted. After a photo session I couldn't wait to be in the darkroom to develop the film and get started making prints. My favorite paper was double weight Ilfobrom #3. It was a superb paper and, when I started out, was very inexpensive. Now, when I pull them out of archival boxes I realize that we were working at a specific time in photo history when printing papers were like visual gold and the purchase price of a box was peanuts.

So there was the magic set of bullets. Beautiful, fit people. Young and fresh. Innocent and, for the most part, joyously happy. Films that still rival the best image quality we can get from digital but with ancillary, subjective benefits. Papers that were like magic and were, by their very nature, imbued with artifactual gravitas. And time. We had so much time. Time to linger over a session. Time to linger in the darkroom, sometimes going through an entire 50 sheet box of paper to get EXACTLY the look we wanted. Time to wait for processes. Time to share prints face to face, heart to heart. 

So now, decades later, I sit in an office surrounded with layers of the best gear money can buy, sitting in front of computers laden with thousands of dollars of processing software, a dozen feet away from a drawer filled with your choice of flash meters, and nothing I shoot these days comes close to delivering what I shot then. Perhaps the constant compromises of doing photography as a business have all but extinguished the thrill. Perhaps it's just the relentlessness of it all...

Sobering. 


If you have a happy, optimistic counterpoint I'd love to read it...