Film Photography, Photography

Family Christmas photographs

I shot my family’s 2020 Christmas celebration on film. I decided to do it when I stumbled across a roll of Kodak T-Max P3200 I forgot I had. I shot it in my Nikon N90s with the 28-80mm f/3.3-5.6G AF Nikkor lens attached. I developed it in LegacyPro L110, Dilution B, but I misread the Massive Dev Chart and developed it for a few minutes less time than specified. The negatives looked plenty dense, but when I scanned them on my flatbed, the grain was pronounced.

I decided to print them. I don’t have a darkroom; I just sent the scans to my nearby CVS pharmacy’s photo department. The paper they use in their machines is thin, nowhere near as sturdy as the stuff they used as recently as 10 years ago. But the prints looked all right. I laid them on the dining table with the Christmas tablecloth still on and photographed a few of them with my Canon PowerShot S95. Even rendered this way, you can see the huge, ugly grain in these photos.

These scans are straight off the scanner. No amount of Photoshopping made them look any better, so I quickly gave up. I did tweak VueScan’s settings to bring out shadow detail, however.

When that roll was done I wanted to keep going, but I was out of P3200. Then it hit me: I develop my own film now and can easily push process it. I had some Ilford Delta 400 in the freezer, so I thawed a roll, loaded it into the N90s, mounted my 50mm f/1.8 AF Nikkor lens, and set the camera to ISO 1600. I knew this stuff would push well because fellow photoblogger Alyssa Chiarello did it recently and got great results.

Ilford still prints developing instructions inside their film boxes. They listed a developing time in Ilfotec HC (their HC-110 equivalent, also equivalent to the L110 I use) for the film at 1600! I followed their instructions and got gorgeous negatives and the best scans my flatbed can deliver (which still aren’t great). They look better than the P3200 photos — the grain is smaller and much more pleasing. Delta 400 is a darn sight less expensive than T-Max P3200, too. I think I need never buy P3200 again — I’ll push an ISO 400 black-and-white film to 1600 instead. I had CVS print these scans, too.

This was fun, but I don’t see this experience leading me to print my work more often. I get it that a photograph is meant to be printed, a physical object. But I’m an online kind of guy and that’s the way I show 99% of my work. My wife prints family photographs all the time, and I figured she’d like to add these to her collection, so I gave them to her.

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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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Stories Told

Memories from before my family came apart

My first wife made the photos I shared earlier today of my sons when they were small. She had been a professional photographer, and she was very good at drawing out her subjects’ personality and then, at the perfect moment, pressing the shutter button. If only I could be half as good at portraits and candid people photos!

I have precious few photos from my sons’ early years. My ex wouldn’t allow me to have copies of our family photos when we divorced, and my attorney and I couldn’t convince the judge to order it. The handful of photos I do have, my ex mailed to my mom when they were new. Mom let me scan them. Garrett was 1 and 2, and Damion was 3 and 4, in these photos.

My first marriage was always challenging, but in these early years with our boys we both tried our best. At least the photos I have show our boys happy, having good times.

Around the time Damion entered Kindergarten, our marriage took a solid turn for the worse and never recovered. My mom has few photos from those years; my ex must have stopped sending them. I have mixed feelings about not having those photos. On the one hand, I have no idea anymore what my sons looked like then, and little memory of family events from those years. Without getting into details I’ll say that the last couple years of our marriage were genuinely traumatic for me, leading to spotty memory. I call those “the lost years.” Seeing photos from those years might put me in contact with bad memories I don’t want to revisit.

Garrett entered Kindergarten in 2004. The photo above is the boys on Garrett’s first day of school. About six weeks later my wife would ask me to move out.

The next few years were the hardest of my life. It took almost two years for the divorce to be final, and it was a fistfight the whole way. I moved three times in three years. I grieved the very serious loss of not seeing my sons every day.

But eventually life settled down. The boys and I began to make new memories, which I photographed like crazy. They were our best years, and there’s no way I can forget them.

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Essay

Hitting the parenting sweet spot

My first wife was not only a good mother to our children when they were very small, but she deeply enjoyed it. I hope I was a good father to our young children. I don’t think I was a poor one. I loved my sons, I was well involved in their care, and we had some lovely moments together. But overall, I did not enjoy their early years.

My sons at Halloween in 2000, aged 3 and 1

These were surprisingly lonely years for me. I worked days and my wife worked nights. Except for dinner we hardly saw each other. We either worked or were alone with our kids. On the weekends we each had house chores to do and it was just easier for both of us to do them alone and leave the other with the kids. I’d feed the kids lunch while she did the shopping. She’d care for them while I mowed the lawn.

I wish we had lived closer to extended family. Our closest relatives were my parents, but they lived 150 miles away. Day to day, we had no help. There was nobody to talk to, or to share the challenges with.

I wonder if my wife was lonely as well. I don’t know; we weren’t talking and connecting well as a couple. We were just pushing through our days as best we could.

Some fathers feel bonded to their babies from the start, but not me. Deep down I knew I’d do anything to protect them, and it was fun to make them smile and laugh. But it wasn’t until their personalities emerged in toddlerhood, when I could see glimpses of myself and their mother in them, that they truly entered my heart and felt like a part of me. Until then, my sons were just work.

Damion was colicky. He’d start crying midafternoon — and my goodness, was he loud. His mom and I used to joke that if the city’s storm sirens ever broke, we could just rent them Damion. When I got home from work and exited my car I could hear him screaming from our driveway, even in the dead of winter when the house was closed up. I’d put him in my arms and walk him from one end of the house to the other for hours. I have a heavy step that jostled him as I moved, which I think was been calming. I’d sing softly to him while we moved, two songs in particular, over and over. As long as I walked and sang those songs, he was calm. If I stopped, he’d scream. His colic usually passed sometime after 8 pm, by which time he’d exhausted himself (and me) and I could put him to bed. This was our routine for the first nine months of his life.

As Garrett grew, he struggled to cope with frustration. He’d try and try to achieve some goal that was just beyond him. I’ll never forget how he fixated on the sofa, which he purposed to climb. Little by little over several weeks’ time he gained the ability to reach the cushions, then the arm, and then the top of the seat back. I stayed close, but let him do it because he seemed so intent. But when he couldn’t reach the next level, he’d grow so frustrated and angry that he’d melt down. He’d cry in dark anger, turning crimson. He frightened the crap out of me a few times when he cried so hard he couldn’t draw in a breath. I had no idea what to do for Garrett.

Those were just the especially challenging aspects of our sons. Overall they were typical boys. I played with them and we watched TV. I gave them their baths and I made them lunch. I read to them a lot; they preferred Dr. Seuss: Wake every person, pig, and pup, until everyone in the world is up!

But for the most part, I was left with a feeling of is this all there is? I wished for greater connection and engagement with my sons, with my wife, and with the outside world.

Making cookies, still ages 1 and 3

It came as my sons grew. The older they became, the more I enjoyed them, the less my wife and I had to divide our time around child care, and the more easily we could all do things outside the house. When the boys developed basic self-sufficiency — they could dress themselves, use the bathroom alone, make a bowl of cereal — I started to experience real joy as their father. The boys and I could finally do things together, rather than me doing everything for them.

In the one-room apartment I rented while I waited for the divorce to be final, ages 6 and 8

I enjoyed fatherhood the most while my sons were in middle and high school. They were turning into their adult selves, and I was excited to watch it. I could share my interests with them, and they could share theirs with me. Damion set up his computer as a Minecraft server and we spent several lovely Saturday afternoons building things together in that virtual world. Garrett and I put together a lot of giant Lego sets. I took them on spring break trips including Washington, DC, and Route 66. Damion shared his interests in anime and in Dungeons and Dragons, and Garrett shared his surprising love of dark comedy.

But more importantly, I was able to speak into their lives and help them figure out how to finish growing up. The challenges they experienced in early childhood all baffled me, but I was primed and ready for their adolescence. I don’t know why, I just was. I still made mistakes, but overall I feel like I was made to be a father of teenagers. I wish I could go back and have just one more year of high school with them!

My first wife, in comparison, seemed happiest to be a mom during the baby and early childhood years. The story I piece together from things my sons told me is that she was far less engaged, perhaps even disengaged, while they were teens. It’s hard to know for sure because the divorce meant I wasn’t there to witness it. But my conclusion isn’t far fetched as that’s exactly what I witnessed with her child from her first marriage, who graduated high school before we divorced.

That doesn’t mean I was a poor father of my young children or my ex was a poor mother of her teens. Damion once told me that he feels like he is very lucky to have drawn us as parents; he called us both “fantastic.” It’s just that my ex was a natural with our small children, and I was a natural with our teenagers.

Damion, me, Garrett, and my mom at Garrett’s high-school graduation – ages 20 and 18

I think most parents, those who work to be engaged with their kids, experience this. There will be some years they don’t enjoy parenting, and other years where they love it and are just crushing it.

If you’re a parent of young children and you’re not enjoying it, hang on. The good years are ahead.

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Film Photography

Autumn scenes on expired Kodak Gold 400

Gourds

After testing the new light seals in my Nikon F3 recently I wanted to keep going with this satisfying camera. I loaded my last roll of Kodak Gold 400, expired since January of 2008. My previous roll of this film looked very good shot at box speed, so I shot it that way this time too. The results showed greater color shifts and noise than last time, but a little quick Photoshoppery made these images look much better.

Corn

I mounted my 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 Zoom Nikkor lens to the F3 for this outing. Despite its noticeable barrel distortion at the wide end, I really like this lens. It’s small and light, and its zoom range gives me good flexibility.

Family

We met our granddaughter and her mom in downtown Zionsville, where there were gourds and pumpkins for sale. Here are three of Margaret’s kids, our “granddog” Obie, our granddaughter, and her mom.

With Grandma

We see our granddaughter most Sundays now, and it’s been lovely. When the weather’s nice enough we meet in town or in a park.

Book blind date

The used bookstore was open this day, running a clever promotion where they wrapped books in kraft paper, wrote what the book was about on the front, and sold them as book blind dates.

Zizzy

I finished the roll around the house. As the weather has grown chillier I’ve gone out less, but I’ve still wanted to make photographs. That means looking for new subjects, or new angles on old subjects, at home.

Purple crock

The 35-70 focuses from about 13 inches. I enjoy zooming this lens to 70mm and moving in close.

Heating the coals

Our last gas grill gave up the ghost last season after just three years of service. That’s the way of $250 gas grills. I didn’t want to blow another $250 that way so I bought a little Weber charcoal grill instead. It’s more hassle to grill on charcoal but the flavor is better. Anyway, I’m pleased that I was able to capture this fire so well.

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COVID-19

Being out in the world as much as we safely can before cold weather prevents it

Sunday might have been the last warm (upper 70s) day of the year. So Margaret and I went out in the evening for dinner and drinks, to places where we could sit outside. Forgive my regrettable selfie skills, but here we are wrapping up our night with a delicious lowland scotch at a Scottish restaurant on the downtown avenue where all the hip kids go.

I’m sure we’ll have a few nights in October where we can do the same, as long as we dress for chilly weather.

We need to make a point of being out in the world, and of seeing people we care about, as much as we safely can before cold weather prevents it. In Indiana, except for wintertime activities like sledding or snowball fights, we stay inside from sometime in November through sometime in March. That’s four to five months of isolation.

With that in mind, I bought a propane fire pit for our deck. It was advertised as putting out 50,000 BTUs. That sure sounded impressive! I hoped it would make our deck hospitable until it gets truly cold here. We’ve used it a couple of evenings now, inviting extended family to talk and laugh with us.

Unfortunately, the fire pit is warm within only a few feet, and only across your face and torso. After the sun set the other night, temperatures fell into the upper 50s — and we all went in for jackets and blankets. If we keep bundling up and we have a mild autumn, the fire pit could let us use the deck through about the end of October. I guess that’s better than nothing.

Margaret and I have made it clear to the kids who still live with us: no spending time inside with friends, and no going into places where people don’t wear masks (e.g., restaurants). We’ve talked about how we might be able to see our friends and family during the cold months, but so far none of us has come up with any bright ideas.

This is going to be a long winter. We’ll need to show each other extra grace and kindness.

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