Suburban Soliloquy #98.

The Subtle Illusion

Beside the desk in my study is a camera bag. It contains a film camera I can't bring myself to sell, even though I haven't used it in two or three years. It is an Olympus OM-3 with a Zukio 85mm lens. It shares the small camera bag with a Gossen Luna-Pro light meter and a small supply of Kodak Plus-X film.

We own two digital cameras; a small one for the pocket, and a larger one that imitates a single-lens reflex 35mm camera. There is much good to come out of digital photography. It used to be I would carry my father's immense Omega enlarger and the iron stand he manufactured for it into the bathroom whenever I wanted to work. I had to wait until darkness of night, until my parents went to bed and there were no more stray lights. I'd lock myself into that tiny space, towels tucked against the window to block the streetlight, other towels along the bottom of the door. I would work without ventilation, breathing the fumes from toxic chemicals, straining my eyes to focus in the dim red-yellow safety light. I labored until daylight came and forced me to quit, or until I began losing the battle with dust. Then I would pour those nasty chemicals down the drain, unaware of the damage I was doing to the environment. It is easier and more pleasant to now manipulate photographic images in the software provided with our computer.

The photography industry is ever evolving to make it easier to take pictures. George Eastman (Kodak) made negatives flexible, so that they could be taken up on a roll, and he also arranged to do all the darkroom work for the camera user. Polaroid eliminated the need for the darkroom, inventing film that would develop itself. Now there is digital and no film.

I can sometimes miss the darkroom alchemy that was the arcane province of an elite group of devotees, but not much. It was a tiresome task to control temperatures and watch timers. I have since given away the various components of the darkroom, enlarger, trays, Nikkor tanks, et cetera, to deserving friends who continue to work in the dark arts.

I learned photography from my father. My first camera was a Kodak Brownie Folding camera. It didn't count. I was six. My father regarded it a toy for a child. When I was seven, my father taught me how to develop negatives and prints. He put me to work in his darkroom, an extension built on to his study in a previous house. He said my eyes were better for focusing the enlarger and getting the sharpest images. I thought it was fun.

When I was about twelve, I wanted to buy a Kodak Instamatic, the idea of an automatic camera appealing to me. I didn't want the complications of "real" cameras - too many decisions taking too much time. My father would have none of it. Now that I was twelve, I was expected to take photography seriously. He wouldn't even allow me a single-lens reflex 35mm, insisting that 2 " x 2 " was the smallest negative that could still give decent resolution. In fact, he almost considered buying me a Speed Graphic, but settled on a manual Yashica twin-lens reflex, which I was forced to accept. As much as I was resistant to the idea, my father's lessons in the mechanics of the camera, the virtues and vices of various lenses, and the art of composing a shot, proved invaluable.

My father, now deceased, was an electrical-mechanical engineer, well studied in optics. Years ago he did work for Kodak. He had designed equipment that utilized lenses and he was also a dedicated photography hobbyist.

I can hardly remember anything prior to my birth, so to learn more I rely on my mother. I asked her about Lou's interest in photography. As my mother tells it, she was pregnant with her firstborn, my older sister, when she asked Lou to go out and buy a camera. He came home with four.

My mother remembers Lou's favorite camera, the "Rollei", his twin-lens reflex Rolleiflex with 2.8 Schneider lenses. Actually, I don't believe the Rollei she remembers is the same Rollei I remember. The one I knew and sometimes borrowed had to have been a newer model than what was available in 1945. I suspect Lou was continually upgrading his Rollei without my mother ever being made aware. But that fateful day he also came home with a 16mm Bolex movie camera.

What might the other two cameras have been? I can only guess. One might have been my father's 8mm Minox spy-camera, a tiny thing that you could drop into a pocket. It means little, now, with digital camera's built around microchips, but the Minox was a mechanical achievement of precision and quality. It was a camera that got mentioned in one of Ian Fleming's Bond books. And every time the camera made an appearance in a Cold War movie, I could brag to my friends about my father owning one.

The last camera must have been my father's stereo camera. I don't remember the manufacturer. It had two lenses placed as far apart as a pair of eyes. We have hundreds of pictures that had been taken with that camera. They consist of two positive slides mounted at opposite ends of a long card and require a special viewer.

So it is that my inheritance is a vast stock of photo images of my family. It is of questionable value to historians or scientists, a burden on a future that can expect to be overwhelmed by records of the trivial, yet these photographs are extremely precious to my sister, so I cannot readily discard them. In my study there are boxes of my father's 2 " x 2 " negatives tucked under the wingback chair, half of them useless, the emulsion in advanced decay. There are the cans of home movies piled in the closet, the film too delicate to thread through a projector. In the attic are bags of black & white prints and even more negatives. And I have yet to rescue from the garage those stereo slides.

I have not followed in my father's footsteps when it comes to the subjects of my photographs. I do not have many photographs of my family. My colleagues keep on their desks framed snapshots of their loved ones, frozen faces staring into the camera. I will not reduce those I love to the ordinary by having their photographs on my desk, especially not Ms Keogh, my more significant other. I possess a veritable album of Ms Keogh in my mind's eye, what no single image can capture. She is too personal for the office environment. Besides, what purpose can it serve to be looking at the image of Ms Keogh while I am at work? It would only make me heartsick, longing to escape my job and go immediately home to take shelter in her arms. Instead, I keep on my desk at work a portrait of a grimacing gorilla. The gorilla's face reflects exactly how I feel about having to work for a living at an occupation in conflict with my talents and interests.

But why, if I have a digital camera, am I still keeping a film camera by my study's desk? You can't tell the difference between a digital photograph and a photograph printed from celluloid coated with emulsion.

Still, there was this subtle illusion that I imagined I was feeling while standing before the recorded image of Abraham Lincoln without his beard. That was twenty-five years ago at the Chicago Historical Society. I was mesmerized by Lincoln's straggly hairs and dark pores, his many scars and wrinkles, which helped me grasp that the legend was once a flesh and blood mortal. The image I studied had been printed from a negative that had been concurrent with the man himself. That negative had interfaced with the subject, had intercepted the light that reflected from Lincoln being present.

Film has its reality. It interfaces with the subject. The film intercepts the light and the negative is eventually scarred with the experience. The negative becomes an artifact from that moment in time and place. The negative is a surviving witness. Perhaps we can call this incorporeal quality provenance.

This essay is the most recent in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"