Archive for May, 2016

An Echo from Across the Years

Friday, May 6th, 2016

I know it’s in here somewhere, the old camera.  Gently moving aside a couple of bags, several straps, an old light meter, and a potpourri of other little-used-anymore photographic detritus, it only takes a minute.

Carrying it into the living room, I sit down and slowly turn it over in my hands, waiting for the flash of cognition that will remind me how everything works.  After a long minute, concluding that no such epiphany seems imminent, I turn to Google.  I’m not really surprised.  It’s been a long time.

No worries.  In a couple of seconds I have a badly Xeroxed PDF of the old owner’s manual in front of me.

Ah, so that’s where the battery-check button is!  The new lithium battery seems to work just fine.

Gently pressing the shutter release button, the metallic thwack is much louder than the thin, muted snick of my film Leica’s.  But it still brings a smile to my face.  This camera and I go back a long ways.

A Canon AE-1, it was given to me in January 1978 by my then-girlfriend.  And it sparked a passionate interest in photography that has never abated.  My first serious camera – an honest-to-God SLR – for years that Canon and I went everywhere together.  It accompanied me to work, sitting ever ready in the telephone truck that was my home away from home.  It ascended telephone poles.  It went on motorcycle rides, near and far.  It chronicled family and friends, weddings and parties and graduations.  And a few years later it captured the first images of my children.  Ever present, always at hand, that camera became part of my life.

Alas.  In 1987, right about when I was contemplating buying a new camera – some of ‘em now even had this neat feature called ‘Auto Focus’ – Canon abandoned the FD lens mount, instantly orphaning my little three-lens kit.   I was pissed.  And the new camera I eventually ended up with bore the Nikon label.

And so began the long, slow progression of steadily better cameras and gear, across the years.  A parade of Nikons – N8008, N8008s, F4s, F5 – later to be joined by Leica, Hasselblad, Bronica, and Voigtlander.  Storied names.

Film.  Then digital.  Then both, together.

I loved it all.  And my delight in capturing a good image remains as charged today as ever.

Still, on the odd occasion when I’d remember that old AE-1, sitting in the dark in that cabinet, unused now for decades, there’d be a twinge of guilt.  Like abandoning an old friend.

And so it was more than a lark that prompted me to order a new battery from Amazon a few days ago.

As the sound of the shutter recedes, my thumb is reflexively stroking the film advance lever.  There is a flash of surprise – even after all these years I know precisely how that stroke should feel.  Glancing quickly at the film counter window, I confirm what I already know.

There’s film in this camera.

My eye moves from the ‘20’ centered in the counter window to the ASA dial.  It’s set on ‘25.’  What the hell?

Turning to the bottom of the camera, I press the small rewind button and then unfold the rewind crank and slowly, gently begin winding the film back into its cassette.  I can hear, feel, and sense that the film is brittle.

With the film rewound, I pull up on the arm and the back pops open.  I reach in and extract the cassette.

Tech Pan.

Huh?!  My initial wonder at what this old film might hold – if anything – instantly changes to… not much.

Kodak’s Technical Pan was very much a niche film.  Originally developed for the military, its extreme high resolution and lack of grain lent itself to high altitude aerial reconnaissance – think U2 spy planes photographing Soviet military infrastructures.

Its use in normal pictorial photography was limited.  Very slow, with extended red sensitivity and a very thin base, the film was finicky.  Developed in a conventional black-and-white developer such as D-76, HC-110, or Rodinal, the resulting images were very high contrast.

But Kodak did provide a special developer – Technidol – which extracted a full tonal response from the film.  And it was that combination – the film and the developer together – that was of interest to photographers.  If you could live with the slow speed and the slightly odd spectral response, the combination gave the promise of hitting way above its weight: grain-free enlargements from a 35mm negative that were more akin to what one might expect from medium format, or even 4×5 large format.

At least that’s what the magazines said.  The enthusiast, amateur rags would periodically run an article on Tech Pan, extolling its benefits.  To a poor young man who couldn’t afford those larger formats, it was an enticing promise.

The sidebar here is that even in the heyday of film, when labs were literally around every corner, you couldn’t get Tech Pan developed.  I suppose there might have been the odd professional lab that did, but when, after deciding to give it a go myself sometime in the early 1990’s, I couldn’t find one.  It was Tech Pan that forced me to begin doing my own film development.

Still, I never shot more than a very few rolls of the stuff.  And I certainly don’t recall ever feeding a roll through that AE-1.  Hence my surprise.

The other side of the story is that Kodak stopped selling Tech Pan a dozen years ago.  There’s no fresh Technidol to be had.

But… walking into the other room, I rummage through my box of darkroom supplies.  Sure enough, after a moment I have my hands on it.  The yellow box still has five of its original six foil packets.

Technidol comes as a liquid.  I have no idea how long it’s good for.  And, unusual for Kodak, I can’t find any kind of expiration date, either on the foil packets themselves or on the yellow box they came in.

Calculating, I muss that this film could be thirty years old.  Base fog will have increased, perhaps by a lot.  And my packets of Technidol are probably fifteen years old.  They likely have lost some – if not all – of their potency.

Wrangling everything together, I decide on twelve minutes at 68 degrees.

Sitting down with the changing bag, I first select two unexposed, sacrificial rolls of Tri-X.  I still shoot a lot of film, but in the last couple of years it’s been almost exclusively medium format.

I pick up the first roll of Tri-X and, in the room light, practice putting it on the Hewes stainless steel reel.  Just reaching back for the old muscle memory.  It feels tiny, after such a long time of using the much larger roll film reels.

After a time or two I take the second roll of Tri-X and place it in the changing bag, along with the reel, tank, scissors, and can opener.  Full dress rehearsal.

Then the main act.   As I expect, as soon as the Tech Pan is released from its metal cassette, it blossoms in my palm, an unruly mess of reverse-curl.  After a moment of fighting it I just go with the flow and begin feeding it on the reel backwards.  I know there are no do-overs with this.  I breathe a sigh of relief when it’s done and safely within the confines of the tank.

Two-minutes of pre-wet.  Develop.  Water stop.  Four minutes of fix.  Water rinse.  A single drop of LFN wetting agent.  Done.

There’s a long, bated moment as I drop the washed reel into my hand and slowly begin unrolling the film.  Inches and then more inches unfold… blank, blank, blank.  But, then, there it is… an image!  And then there they come, rolling slowly into view.

Hanging the film to dry, I’m happily surprised to see images of people mixed in with other stuff.  Not of the kids when they were little – that’s the only disappointment in all of this.  But squinting at the negatives I can already tell what this is from:  Hunt Camp.

It’ll be the next day, when the film is dry and I can run it through my scanner, before I have the rest of the story.  Turns out the pictures are from November 1991 – a fact evident from the car license plates in one of the images.

The images are far from great.  But that’s not the point.

Even a mediocre image from twenty-five years ago has a special resonance.  Some of the people in the pictures are gone.  And even those who remain, still, are very different.  Different places.  Different circumstances.  With much gained, but also much lost, in the interim.

That’s the special magic of photography.  And especially of film.

That it can provide a glimpse into the past.  An echo from long ago.

Jim Stephenson

 

Craig Gleason, Jim Stephenson, John Rolfe Lester

 

Jim Gleason, Craig Gleason, Jim Stephenson, Ron Settle

 

The Old Hunt Camp

 

This is our old camp. We cooked and ate in the trailer; slept and otherwise hung out in the tent. The structure to the right is the old “officer’s quarters.”

A year or so after this we moved upscale… into a permanent cabin one hollow up.

 

Ben Stephenson

 

Stu Rhodes

 

 

Craig Gleason

 

 

Ron Settle