Essay, Photography

Cameras and composition are only part of the photographic equation, but they’re my favorite part

Photography has changed a great deal in the last 40 years. If you think back 80 years, photography then had more in common with photography 40 years ago than photography 40 years ago has with photography now. Technology has changed so much about it, and I don’t mean just the advent of digital cameras. Technological advances let us easily make photographs now we couldn’t 40, or 20, or even 10 years ago. We can manipulate our photographs with software in ways that wet-darkroom artists of yore couldn’t fathom. How we view photographs has changed radically as well, given that we look at most of them on screens now!

40 years ago, we had film, film cameras, and the darkroom. I was in high school 40 years ago, and oh how I wanted to be in the Photography Club! But to enter you had to take at least one photography class, and to take that class you had to buy an SLR camera. I was so sure that camera was out of my working-class family’s reach that I didn’t bother asking.

I came upon an Argus A-Four, a 35mm viewfinder camera, at a yard sale for four bucks. I puzzled over the controls, as I didn’t know the first thing about exposure. One of my friends was in the Photography Club, so I asked him. “f/8 and be there,” he said as he gave me a bulk-loaded cartridge of Plus-X from the club stash. He told me to shoot the roll, and then he’d teach me how to develop the film and make a contact print in the school darkroom.

I found developing and printing to be tedious and boring. It was sort of cool to see my images materialize on the contact sheet, but the work to get there held no interest for me. I realized that perhaps it was just as well I couldn’t get into the Photography Club, because everybody had to develop and print their own work. I realized that I really wanted only to learn about the camera and about composition.

The majority of the photos members of the Photography Club took never found an audience outside the Photography Club. There was an annual photo contest at the school, and the winners’ prints were displayed in the hallway. Some Photography Club members also made photos for the school newspaper and the yearbook. Occasionally a club member would find their work selected for display at the Art Center downtown.

I still have the negatives and the contact sheet (sadly cut into strips for easier storage). I’m very happy to have these images! I scanned the negatives a few years ago. Here’s my favorite photo from the roll. Meet my friend Karen, who used to drive me home from school every day in her big Chevy.

Karen and her car
My friend Karen and her car. Argus A-Four, Kodak Plus-X, 1984

Now that I’ve started developing my black-and-white film and scanning it at home (to save lab costs and get images faster), I understand well what many photo bloggers I admire have written for years: a negative holds so many possibilities. That’s why the high-school photography class required students to develop and print their own work, so they could experience and understand that for themselves. Knowing how to use a camera and compose interesting and pleasing photographs is only half the equation. Processing the film to get a good negative and knowing how to print (or scan) that negative well is the other half.

Technology has given us enormously capable digital cameras today, removing the messy and occasionally smelly chemicals from the process. Slip your SD card into your computer, fire up Photoshop, and you can do a great deal of processing even to a JPEG to conform it to your vision. If you shoot RAW, you can do a great deal more with your images.

But little has changed for me: I will probably always be happiest when I nail the image in the camera, and then nail the development and scanning when I shoot film, so that I need do little or no post processing to get the image I want. Given my documentary style of photography, I’m looking to capture the scene as I saw it. When that’s not possible, I’ll settle for an image that looks like the scene could look that way in real life.

Meanwhile, I will keep sharing my work here for you to see. The folks in the Photography Club probably would have died and gone to heaven over having that option.

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Time has come today

Time has come today

Even though Indiana has observed Daylight Saving Time only since 2006, it still feels like just a couple years ago that we started. The spring-forward transition still hits me like a sack of cement each year. I’ll be groggy and grouchy for two weeks while I adjust.

Life was good when we stayed on standard time year round. I recommend it. We never changed our clocks, and we never had any interruptions to our circadian rhythms.

But in these 15 years that Indiana has observed Daylight Saving Time, I’ve come to enjoy how the sun sets well after 9 pm come June. The long sunny days are outstanding.

I’m sure the people of Bangor, Maine, 1,183 miles away from where I sit now and with whom Indiana shares a time zone, might feel differently. While I’m enjoying 9:30 sunsets, they are enjoying 4 am sunrises. I’m sure “enjoying” is too strong a word.

A couple of U.S. Senators have written the “Sunshine Protection Act of 2021,” which proposes to keep Daylight Saving Time permanent across the United States. I’m for it. But I’m sure the people of Bangor wish we’d go on standard time year round, so they can sleep in a little.

Essay, Photography

The lifespan of a family photograph

It always makes me very sad to find old family photographs for sale in an antique store or at a flea market. I want to rescue them all. Space is tight in our home, so I refrain. I’m not sure what I’d do with them anyway. But it is a shame that those family memories lost their connection with the family that made them.

Me and my brother on Grandpa’s lawn tractor, 1971

When I was a kid, mom made all of our family photographs. She had a big 126 camera with a built-in battery-powered flash (quite unusual in the early 1970s). I think she bought it with green stamps! She used it through the late 1980s.

I’ve never seen most of those photographs, except for an album she made and gave me of my preschool years. She took the pictures, had the film developed and printed, put the prints in boxes, stored the boxes in the closet, and that was that. I asked about them a couple years ago and she said she had been working through them to get rid of duplicates and bad photographs. She also said that she was throwing away the negatives as she went. Ack! I asked her to cut that out, as I want to be able to scan those negatives someday.

My sons on my lawn tractor, 2001

But what of those images after my brother I are gone? Will my children care? They won’t even know most of the people in those photographs — cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents they’ve never met. One day I will show them those photographs, tell them my memories of the days they record, tell them about the family members in them. I hope they will appreciate those stories, and through them gain some feeling of connection to the family.

It’s the same for me with the few photographs my mother has of her family. I sometimes recognize my grandparents in them as young adults. A few other people in those photographs lived into my early childhood, and I’m told I met them, but I don’t remember them. The people in Mom’s family photographs are strangers to me. Mom knew them and loved them, and has sometimes told me her stories of them. I’m glad to know those stories, and I can try to remember those memories to share them with my children. But will they feel any connection to these distant ancestors who lived in another place and time? A tenuous connection at best, I feel certain. So, what of those photographs after my mother is gone?

But then there are moments like this. Not long ago my cousin Barbara shared a photograph of my great grandfather, John Eugene Grey, when he was a young man. I never knew him, my father said little about him, and I’ve seen few photographs of him. But when I saw this one, I was struck by how much my son Damion resembles him. That’s John Eugene on the left, and Damion on the right. Damion was 19 in his photograph, and I’d guess John Eugene was within a year or two of that age in his photograph.

Remarkable, isn’t it? Finding something like this is why it’s valuable to keep family photographs. It reminds us of where we came from, and gives us a full sense of our families through the generations.

But how do you keep generation after generation of family images — hundreds, perhaps thousands of them? In enough generations they’d snowball into a genuine storage problem.

I think they key is editing. Mom and I can sort through our family’s photos and keep a small but carefully chosen subset of them — ones that best show family memories and family members. We should write on each photograph what it depicts, where it was taken, and who’s in it and how they are related to us. This should deliver a manageable number of photographs for following generations to keep, and hopefully appreciate.

It will also be a big project, the kind that many families talk about but never get to. It’s why so many family photographs show up in flea markets and antique stores.

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Bee rider

Bee rider
Canon PowerShot S95

What are your thoughts about photographing children on the street?

Before I moved out of Indianapolis, I went to the State Fair every summer. I enjoyed it in its own right, but I also enjoyed practicing street photography there. Lots of people bring cameras to the State Fair, so I never stood out. I prefer not to be noticed when I make photographs in public.

The midway rides offer good opportunities to catch faces full of emotion. Most of those people are children. I didn’t used to think anything of photographing children, but I’ve since changed my mind. I finally realized that if someone had photographed my children on the street when they were small, I wouldn’t have liked it one bit.

It comes from a fatherly feeling of needing to protect my children. But protect them from what? Someone on the street with a camera probably has positive intentions and is harmless — like me, by the way, if you ever see me on the street with a camera! I suppose some creeps might photograph children on the street for their own sick purposes, but I can’t imagine it’s the common case.

As an adult, if some stranger photographs me on the street and I don’t want to be photographed, I can do something about it. I can ask them to stop, or leave. I suppose I could tell them off, or punch them in the mouth, or call the police on them — probably not the best responses, but you get my point: there are things I can do.

Children lack that agency. When I aim my camera at them, they are at my mercy. So I don’t do it anymore. I will photograph scenes where children happen to be in it, along with adults. But I don’t make photographs like this one anymore.

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Essay, Photography

single frame: Bee rider

A girl riding at the State Fair.


Our children’s college educations are their inheritance

Under the Clock
Pentax KM, 55mm f/1.8 SMC Pentax, Kodak T-Max 400, 2018

My younger son, Garrett, started his final semester of college yesterday and is on track to graduate with a Computer Science degree. That means I’ve written the last tuition check for my sons, and an era ends. My older son, Damion, graduated two years ago, is now gainfully employed in pharmaceutical manufacturing, and lives independently. Garrett looks forward to his first post-college job and apartment.

Both of my boys are bright and capable, but not enough to get into elite schools. Even if they had gotten in, their mom and I make too much money for them to get financial aid, but not nearly enough to pay their whole bill ourselves. They would have graduated with crushing debt.

Instead, Damion went to Purdue, which is one of the great bargains in education. They have held costs flat for nine years! They had a program Damion wanted, and through it he got his degree in environmental science. Garrett was afraid giant Purdue would be overwhelming, despite its well-regarded CS program. He believed that he’d navigate a small school successfully, so he found the University of Indianapolis, a private school with a foundling CS program. (He now realizes he could have handled Purdue, and believes his education there would have been more rigorous, but hindsight is always 20/20.) UIndy gave generous scholarships to attract students to the CS program, bringing the cost in line with Purdue. Their mom and I were able to cover our older son’s entire first year but after that we needed both of them to take the federal loan offered each year. We paid the rest.

Garrett will be $20,000 in debt upon graduation, and Damion is paying off $15,000 in debt. Adjusted for inflation, that’s less than the $12,500 I had to pay off after graduating in 1989. I managed that debt just fine, even on my meager starting salary. Damion is managing on his salary, and I expect Garrett to do the same.

I’m pleased that they came out of school with minimal debt. Many of the twentysomethings I work with who went to expensive schools are paying off debt in the six figures. I remember one young man in particular who graduated from my alma mater $200,000 in the hole! He would have liked to work at a startup, but he needed the higher pay of an established company to afford his loan payment. My sons’ manageable debt gives them freedom that my young colleague lacks.

These were prime years for Margaret and I to save for retirement. Unfortunately, that money went to colleges instead, and we need to catch up on retirement. We probably won’t retire as comfortably because we chose to carry so much of our kids’ college costs. I told my sons not to expect there to be any money left when I die — I gave them their inheritance by paying the majority of their educations.

We have one more in college, my wife’s youngest. He’s mighty bright — he graduated high school in three years. But then he realized he had no idea what he wanted to study and took a gap year. We live in a surprisingly wealthy suburb and most of his friends’ parents could afford the elite schools they all went to. We are not surprisingly wealthy and as our son looked at elite schools he was shocked by the debt he would need to incur. He pivoted entirely and enrolled at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. This is a joint effort of those two state schools, located Downtown in Indianapolis. It’s a jaw-dropping bargain with tuition at about $5,000 a semester. He saves a ton more money by living with us, rather than on campus. He is studying neuroscience, a course of study that leads to grad school. His research tells him that his undergrad choice matters far less than his postgrad choices. Through his program at IUPUI he will receive his degree from Indiana University. While IU isn’t an elite school, it’s also not a third-tier school or a community college. Degree in hand, he’ll compete for as good a grad school as he can manage.

I applaud all our kids’ choices. They all have or will have educations that set them up for reasonable success. Not elite success, but then, they never had to face the pressure of elite competition. They’ve had balanced lives and I expect that will continue.

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Make America great again

US Capitol

When I was a kid in the 1970s, my family watched NBC Nightly News every night. I remember coverage of the end of Vietnam, and of Watergate. I remember watching Richard Nixon announce his resignation, and wave his famous two-finger victory signal just before the helicopter door closed and he flew off to become a private citizen.

I remember even better as a young adult the news coverage of Bill Clinton’s public moral failings, his evasive lies (“it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”), and his impeachment trial.

Point is, I’ve seen some shameful things happen in these United States. But none of what I’ve seen before compares with what happened yesterday at the U.S. Capitol.

I remember NBC Nightly News showing things like this happening in other countries — ones with long histories of instability and corruption, led by crackpot despot leaders. Backwater countries. Banana republics.

As a kid, even as a young adult, I believed in American exceptionalism. Over the last twenty years or so, that belief has slowly eroded. Yesterday, the last of it was destroyed. Perhaps you are in the same boat.

I’m trying to see this as a positive. I know that the first step to being a better person is to see yourself clearly for who and what you are. I feel sure that the same is true of nations. The difficult events of the last few years, capped with yesterday’s invasion of the U.S. Capitol by U.S. citizens, are a mirror that shows us who we have become as a nation. May we choose to look deeply into it. May we be shocked enough that we band together to demand meaningful change, so that America can truly become great again.