I took my first photograph in 1972.
It was made under the benevolent direction of a seven-foot tall fourth-grade photography teacher named Mr. Hill. O.K., maybe he wasn’t that tall, but I remember staring eye-level at his huge hands tipped with blackened fingernails stained from years of soaking in photographic processing chemicals. He smelled funny too. I later learned his odor came from spending so much time in darkrooms; an inherently creepy thought for a young boy that watched way too many scary movies. He was a decent looking fellow, but combined with his lumbering stride, pale skin, deep voice, and squarish head; Mr. Hill was only shy a couple of bolts in his neck.
He was a little quirky and I liked him.
Mr. Hill taught an introductory short-course in photography at Half Moon Bay Elementary a couple of times each year. HMB was then a small Northern California town of about 4,000 people with no tans…the population and melanomas kept in check by a nearly constant damp fog blanket.
The first day of our course was held just before Christmas break. Mr. Hill told us we would need three things: a camera; one roll of black & white film; and five dollars to cover processing and printing. I had none of those things. But with Christmas just a few days away I made a 9-year-old’s last minute pitch to Santa’s representatives.
My parents were wonderful. They encouraged and supported many of my young interests. However after Santa came through with a Kodak Instamatic, they insisted I use my 50-cent per week allowance to continue funding this foray. They must have had a sense where all this might lead and made a wise decision.
I now had a camera and wouldn’t have to wait long to buy my first roll of film. I had just been given two dollars from Great-Grandma Irene for Christmas. The only problem was this annual allotment always came with her depression-era admonition to use it wisely. And, like Mr. Hill, my Great-grandmother had physical qualities that made me take her seriously.
So the Saturday after Christmas, after weighted review of my investment options, I finished my chores early and pedaled my banana-seated Schwinn about a mile to the new Thrifty in town to purchase a 126mm cartridge of black and white film. It was a typical cold misty Half Moon Bay morning so that by the time I arrived my hair was dripping, I was shivering, and my new blue faux-down jacket was a flattened, soggy cloak.
I purchased the film, came outside and paused before getting on my bike. I’d never even seen film before. Pulling the yellow box out of the bag, I noticed there were few directions to help me answer some pretty big questions. Could I open it in daylight? How should I handle it? Would the chemicals from the film eat though my skin like battery acid?
I obviously had concerns. So I carefully pried opened the cardboard Kodak box like someone expecting spring worms to jump out. I found the film wrapped in yet another package like a cocoon . This one was yellow foil paper. Was this the one you were only supposed to open in that darkroom? The contents were precious, full of potential, and just maybe; a little dangerous.
Biting back my curiosity, I left the unopened film in the cardboard box, placed it back into the small paper bag and frisked myself from head to toe for the driest place to shelter it for the ride home. Fortunately, bell-bottoms were in style and so were knee socks. So feeling a little like James Bond with a gun strapped to his calf, my cargo made it home dry, if not a little shaken.
Just to be safe, I cased the entire house looking for the darkest closet to load my film. So with camera and film in hand, I gave my parents and younger sister, strict orders not to open the sliding closet door until I came out. I then marched into my mother’s narrow closet to face the unknown.
Parting a curtain of tightly packed polyester dresses, I toed some high heels aside, closed the sliding door behind me, and sat cross-legged in a tight clearing on the closet floor. I first opened the camera back and balanced it between my legs, readying it for the film. I then slid the foil package out of the cardboard box and, while there wasn’t much to loading an instamatic camera, I remember pausing for a 9-year-old’s minute or two, (which was maybe five or ten seconds) savoring the mystery. I then slowly tore open the paper foil package; but before I could put my fingers inside, it hit me. That semi-sweet acrid odor of fresh film that I wasn’t at all sure I should be breathing. It was a smell I would come to know very well.
I pulled the 126mm cartridge out and quickly felt my way around an odd shape that allowed me to only install it in the camera one way. So I dropped it in, closed the back securely and came out of the closet with what felt like a loaded weapon.
All the effort I had spent just to get to this point weighed on me as I walked outside to search for my first subject. In that first class, Mr. Hill had given us a little guidance on framing and composition but I was immediately overwhelmed with choices.
Some kids a few doors down were playing basketball. A guy on a motorcycle was idling down the street. Our family dog, Gypsy, was lounging on the freshly cut grass of our front lawn. And between the slats in the 6-foot fence between our house and the neighbor’s I spied my little sister playing uncharacteristically quiet with her friend from next door.
My subject was chosen. Now I just had to get in close enough and somehow get the camera above the tall fence and pointed in the right direction without them knowing I was invading their right to privacy.
Straining to hoist the camera over the fence, I made my first exposure…or so I thought.
When the film was developed and the results anxiously reviewed, I had a wonderfully framed shot of…nothing!
My first lesson: take the lens cap off!
The rest of that precious roll was spent discovering all the other stupid things I would spend my formative years as a photographer avoiding.
Now, if you’ve read this far, and haven’t seen examples of my more recent work, please don’t stop now. It really has improved!