Growing up in rural Tennessee, in the 1930’s and 40’s, I had experience with our family’s Kodak camera. It was called a box camera because the housing was basically a six to seven inch cube made of black cardboard. Most families owned one as they cost just a few dollars and rolls of film were cheap. Pictures were made, usually of people posed, standing in a row. All photos were taken outside, usually on Sunday when we were in our best clothes, and usually in full sun as there was no flash on a box Kodak. The limited number of exposures on each roll, either twelve or twenty four, were used with careful forethought to make each one count.
The exposed roll of film was then sent away by U.S. mail for developing and printing. We waited about two weeks for the results to be returned to us by rural mail carrier. All our prints were black and white. The favorites were put in photo albums and are cherished to this day. The negatives of the best shots were sent away again for extra prints. Each of us four sisters, and sometimes a friend, wanted prints for her own photo album.
When my twenty-year-old brother, Dale, was home on a ten-day furlough after finishing basic training at Camp Blanding, FL, and before being shipped overseas to be killed in the Battle of the Bulge, we took family shots which show Dale, handsome and healthy in his army uniform. Thanks to the Kodak box camera, we still have those precious images.
Many years later, while flying F-84’s in the Korean War, my husband bought a Nikon camera at a Base Exchange. In Korea, and in Japan, he took mostly colored slides, a common practice of the 1950’s and 1960’s. That required a slide projector and a screen at home to show your collection of slides. Frustration with the slide projector was common, as a slide sometimes got jammed in the machine. The same was true in Spain, resulting in boxes and boxes of colored slides now stored in a closet and never looked at.
After my husband’s retirement from the Air Force when we were living in Sarasota during the 1970’s, I attended many adult education courses, including photography classes. On the advice of Mr. John Adams, camera store owner and photography instructor, I bought a Konica camera and learned all about f-stops, apertures, focus, shutter speed, depth-of-field, lighting, film speed, composition, and use of a tripod. Mr. Adams was a great help and I regularly spent money in his store. I attended his and other classes, which were enjoyed by many retirees. In addition to classes, I attended monthly meetings of the Sarasota photography group where we heard guest speakers, such as Jerry Uelsmann, well-known for his whimsical, blended-negative, darkroom trickery.
Our classes, led by professional photographers, went on field trips. One trip was to Ybor City in Tampa where I photographed the folded hands of an elderly Cuban man dozing on a street bench. Also in Ybor City, I photographed an eerie ray of sunlight beaming mysteriously onto otherwise dark stairs near a cigar factory. One field trip was to Myakka State Park east of Sarasota where I captured a row of chained green bicycles available for rent. At the next meeting our photos might be projected onto a screen and critiqued by the group.
My photos won some awards. My name was in the paper a few times for best in show. One winning close-up photo was a pelican in full wingspread landing on a boulder at the edge of the Intracoastal Waterway. Mac was annoyed because I didn’t pursue my craft, make money, and become famous so he could brag about his wife’s achievements, but I was only interested in the creative process. After our two sons, Eric and Casey, finished high school and vacated our garage apartment, I decided to have my own darkroom in the apartment bathroom. Our Sarasota house was situated on Bayou Louise with our own boat dock and easy access to Big Pass and the Intracoastal Waterway. Our front door faced the opposite way, away from the bayou. There was a long walk to the street where there was a free-standing one-car garage on top of which a previous owner had added a room with bath. That was our “garage apartment”.
I tediously mixed chemicals in my kitchen, then carried the jugs out the front door, past a massive pink-grapefruit tree, past three mature avocado trees, one fig tree, and then around to the narrow back stairs that led up alongside two scaly-barked eucalyptus trees to the garage apartment.
My husband, Mac, had restored an old Jaguar in the ground level of this multi-use structure. After oldest son, Eric, left for the Air Force Academy, second son, Casey, and his friend, Mike O’Donnell, had used the space to make music. Their efforts could be heard all over the neighborhood, with their electric guitars, amplifiers, woofers, and tweeters.
A subsequent owner has added a third level and a second flight of stairs up to a sun deck on top of the apartment. Driving by to see this architectural anomaly might be worth your while. Our street address was 3336 Higel Ave., near the north end of Siesta Key. Macurdy-family-wise, it is a historical “point of interest” where we lived for eighteen years while our three children attended Phillipi Shores Elementary School, Brookside Junior High School, and Riverview High School. I hear the property looks junky and run-down now thirty years later, without me there pruning and weeding.
Creating a darkroom in the garage apartment was not difficult. The one small window in the apartment bathroom was darkened, an enlarger was purchased and positioned on a table that fit over the sink. A waist high platform was created and stood inside the bathtub to hold trays of chemical developing solutions. I remember the excitement of watching a black and white image slowly emerge on the exposed paper in the developing tray. Darkroom work is a good fit for a loner such as myself. I spent hours alone in the darkroom, doing tedious creative tasks, enlarging, developing, printing, dodging, and cropping. The apartment bed was always spread with negatives, contact sheets, and black and white prints. There was endless stirring of chemicals and use of the paper cutter.
My daughter, Clea, was a tween-ager during my darkroom period, so she and her twelve year old friends were handy targets. Also Julie O’Donnell willingly posed along with Clea in locations of my choice around town. Sarasota’s botanical gardens, gazebos, and banyan trees were used as background. One favorite is a close-up of my husband, Mac, sitting in our back yard with his cigarette and “cool-cat” attitude, his face encircled by a smoke ring he had just blown.
Mac had his own camera and took good well-focused pictures, though his goal was not artistic and his subject matter was questionable. With his expensive camera, he documented every step of laying the plumbing, pouring the concrete slab and constructing a hangar at Little River Airport near McAlpin, FL. There was no city water so a septic tank was needed and he photographed every layer of what went into creating that hole in the ground behind the hangar according to environmental specifications.
Mac ordered a light aircraft kit from Kansas to build his own one seater aircraft, a Rans S-9 Chaos, and of course, photographed every step of that months-long process of putting the plane together and painting it inside his self-made plastic paint room. The wooden box in which the RS-9 kit was delivered eventually became a clothes closet inside his living quarters within the hangar, and he left us pictures of that. Mac proudly documented his many projects.
While in his eighties and already becoming feeble with NPH, (Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus) and liver cancer, Mac purchased a brand new Jaguar sedan in Jacksonville. After driving it back to his hangar, he raised the hood, photographed the engine, and proudly showed that 5”x7” color print of the engine around to friends and neighbors.
Since I am a minimalist by nature, black and white photography has long been my favorite art form. Take away color, and the composition becomes much more important. Deeper blacks and whiter whites are something to strive for, as well as lines guiding the eye toward the main point of interest. As with a pen and ink drawing, one line can speak volumes. I was never equipped to print in color, but occasionally paid for 11” x 14” prints in color, gave them as gifts, and then saw them hanging in other people’s homes.
Ansel Adams is, of course, a well-known black and white nature photographer, but his work lacked human interest. Robert Mapplethorpe had human interest in spades, but his male homosexual subject matter was considered pornographic in the late 1960’s. Alfred Stieglitz, once married to Georgia O’Keefe, made history with his photographic skill and expertise. He is credited with establishing photography as its own art form. He was the first to exhibit framed photographs hanging alongside paintings.
A current craze, in 2018, is to use your smart phone to photograph your plate of food in a restaurant and post it on Facebook. I leave that to the younger crowd, although I do occasionally use my iPad camera to record something, like how I’ve displayed a recent gift of artwork from my granddaughter, Anna, then e-mail that newsworthy photo from the same device to family and friends. Multiple shots may be made of one thing, then delete all but the best one, unlike our carefully posed photographing during my Kodak years in the 1940’s when we tried to never waste an exposure.
The future of photography boggles my mind, but I also like to remember the pioneers, like Matthew Brady who photographed the Civil War, George Eastman who invented the Kodak camera, and Richard Avedon whose sophisticated black and white fashion photographs transformed that industry.
Photographs from space are amazing. Daily I look on-line at APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day). It reminds me of the enormity of our universe. The landscape of Mars, the close-up of a comet, the newly discovered underground ice ocean on Pluto, tendrils of gas and dust swirling around a black hole, our planet Earth as the blue marble, all are fascinating. For those space shots I forego my preference for black and white and am grateful for the color.
The rise of digital Photoshop has replaced the darkroom, eliminating the need for tedious mixing of chemicals. Photography has come a long way since the Kodak box camera of my childhood, and the end is nowhere in sight.