Last summer, I joined the ImageMakers of Monterey. Part of the application procedure was a photographic autobiography. Some of you may be interested in the early part.
In 1951 or 1952, when I was eight or nine, my parents bought me a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye camera. It took 12 2 1/4 square pictures on a roll of 620 film, was made out of Bakelite, and had a not-very-precise waist level finder and a shutter release you pressed with your thumb. I loaded it with Super-XX film, and started making a pest of myself. It soon became obvious that drugstore processing was going to be way too expensive. My father then purchased a rudimentary darkroom kit: a plastic Kodak developing tank with an apron that took a day to dry, a Kodak Tri-Chem pack (developer, stop, and fixer in tiny foil packets), a 15 W light bulb that’d been dipped in red dye, three plastic five by seven trays, and a small contact printing frame. I’d load the film into the developing tank in a closet and develop and print in the bathroom, washing the film and prints in the sink. This didn’t exactly endear me to my mother, but I loved it.
Flash forward ahead five years. It’s the spring of 1957 and I’m a freshman at a boarding school in Connecticut. During spring break, I get the idea of taking pictures for the school newspaper. I talk my father into loaning me a Weston Master light meter and his folding Zeiss Ikon camera: 16 pictures on a roll of 120 film in a format that today we’d call 6×4.5, no rangefinder, and the film traveling from side to side so that the normal orientation of the picture was vertical. Back in school, I present myself to the newspaper staff, and they decide to give me a trial assignment. “Do you know how to develop film?” they ask. “Sure,” I answer, thinking of all the rolls that I’d put through the Kodak tank. I go off to make the picture. It’s a pretty boring shot: all the seniors who were elected to cum laude that year, lined up in two rows. It’s 7:30 by the time I’m done, and paste-up is supposed to start at 10:30. I head for the school darkroom. I find the chemicals, but the developing tank is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It says “Nikor” on it. The tank itself, the lid, and the cap seem to be easy enough to figure out, but what’s this stainless steel spiral? If I’d had any sense, I would’ve used an unexposed roll of film to teach myself how to load the reel, but I just turn out the lights and struggle for 10 minutes. After the film is fixed, I open the tank to see how bad off I am. It’s pretty bad; the film is stuck to itself in lots of places, and those places aren’t fixed. I finally find an intact frame. While the film is drying (I turn the drier thermostat up so high I’m lucky the film didn’t reticulate), I turn to the enlarger. I’d never seen one before. It turns out to be pretty easy to figure out. After the prints are washed, I even figure out the print drier. I get the prints in on time and my career as a photojournalist has begun.