Photography, Stories Told

Memories lost, memories created, memories kept

Photographs restore lost memories and anchor tenuous ones. Through them I catalog my memories and arrange them into timelines. They help me create life narratives in retrospect. But there is a time in my life from which I have few photos. I’m glad, as it is a time I don’t wish to remember.

Which is unfortunate, for my sons were very small then. I have a few memories, snippets and scenes, incomplete: Helping deliver them both. Months of Damion’s colic. His first seizure, a living room full of grave firemen and paramedics caring for him, loading him into an ambulance, me racing in my car to the hospital. A family road trip to San Antonio before his first birthday, miles of gray Interstate highways, getting a speeding ticket in Texarkana, Damion sleeping most of the way. Baby Garrett climbing the couch with all the steely determination of Chuck Norris chasing the bad guys. His deep misery after a tonsillectomy went wrong, me rocking him for hours while he cried, both of us sleepless. Singing to soothe them both. Making scrambled eggs for their dinner. Reading Dr. Seuss to them, one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish. Bleak days in a deeply broken and destructive marriage, one which I lacked the courage to leave.

I know I can reach more memories of my sons, better ones. But to do that I would necessarily revisit traumatic memories. Good therapy let me work through that awful time. No need to relive it.

My first wife and I hadn’t given up hope yet in 2001. Or was it 2000? I’m guessing. The boys were young, 1 and 3, or 2 and 4. I don’t remember whose idea it was that I get away for a while, that we let raw nerves settle. We agreed it was essential. I booked a week in a cabin in the central Tennessee woods.

I’ve told some of this story before: I wanted to reclaim something of the man I had been, a man who had diminished and finally disappeared. I remembered enjoying shooting my old cameras as a teen. So I got out one I’d never used before, a Kodak Automatic 35F. I didn’t know an f stop from a shortstop, and this camera wasn’t as automatic as its name suggested. So I shot a test roll before I left. I am forever grateful to my then-self that I shot my sons around our yard. My older son, Damion, was very interested in the camera, so I set it and handed it to him. He made two photographs of me with his younger brother, Garrett. They’re terrific candid shots that remind me that there were good times for us.

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Garrett was too little to operate the camera so I have none of Damion and me. But I did make this delightful portrait of him with our next-door neighbor’s house in the background.

Damion 2001 a

Most of the photos I took didn’t turn out well, as I truly didn’t know what I was doing. The best of the remaining shots is this one of them in our minivan. I hated that van, but love this memory.

Damion Garrett 2001 a

Mercifully and to everyone’s emotional health, the marriage ended. The next several years were hard in their own right: a protracted, brutal divorce followed by years of being broke paying the extensive legal bills and sky-high child support.

Desperate for stability and normalcy I set out to build new memories for me and my sons, to start fresh and make our way forward. One way I did that was by taking them on spring break trips every other year, the years the parenting-time guidelines gave them to me.

If you’ve read this blog for a long time you know I’ve shared photos from almost all of these trips, but never showed or wrote about my sons. While they were growing up, I kept their lives private. Instead I wrote stories about the places we visited and my experiences in them. Now, at last, let me share the reasons why these trips happened: my sons.

The first spring break was in 2005. I lived in a one-room apartment and paid the mortgage on a house I’d never live in again. That plus groceries, gas, and the electric bill consumed my paychecks. To scrape together enough money for fun, I skipped lunch and ate hot-dog dinners for weeks. We visited the zoo and the Children’s Museum, ate lunch Downtown, toured the Statehouse, and climbed to the top of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument to look out over the city. Here are the boys breaking the rules at the monument.

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In 2007 we made an Indiana History Tour, driving all over the state to see scenic and historic sites. Here we visited the site of the Battle of Corydon, the only Civil War battle fought on Indiana soil.

Indiana History Tour 2007

In 2009 we visited Washington, DC, and drove the National Road home. It was probably our greatest trip, generating the happiest memories. Right up until the moment we wrecked our car.

Washington DC 2009

In 2011, we returned to the same woods where I’d retreated alone ten years earlier, this time with my sons to make new, better memories there. Our chief memory is of the afternoon we made a ten-mile hike carrying pint bottles of water. Wow, was that ever not enough water. I swear we each guzzled a gallon after we finally reached our cabin.

Tennessee 2011

In 2013 we drove Route 66 from Joliet, IL to almost the Texas line in Oklahoma. It was a dream trip for me, stopping for all the roadside attractions and staying at vintage motels all along the way. The boys seemed to have a good time, but today their chief memory is that “we spent the whole vacation sitting in the car!” Here the boys are in an old jail in Gardner, IL.

Route 66 2013

In 2015 we drove the old Dixie Highway down to Mammoth Cave. It was the last spring break with Damion, who graduated high school that year.

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And this year Garrett and I did Cincinnati: the American Sign Museum, the zoo, the Taft Museum, the suspension bridge, Findlay Market, Jungle Jim’s.

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There, you’ve watched my sons grow up! And I’ve relived these memories we chose to make together.

I chose not to wallow in the difficult past, but instead to move forward. To make the life I wanted, as much as I could. To be a good father to my sons and to create good memories with them.

Mission accomplished. Garrett graduated high school on Saturday.

I know from experience with my stepchildren that parenting doesn’t really end until around age 25. Our kids all need at least some parental guidance in those early young-adult years.

But it’s a new phase of life for me, of moving forward into life with my new wife. But this time I get to do it with memories intact.

These photos are © 2000-2017 Jim Grey. All rights reserved. I will not grant permission to republish them.

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Photography, Stories Told

Photographic holiday memories

A rerun, from 2008 and 2012, as this Christmas nears. Now with new photos.

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courtesy giambarba.com

My grandparents always owned the latest Polaroid cameras, and they passed on that tradition in 1977 when they bought my brother and me Polaroid Super Shooter cameras for Christmas.

When I unwrapped the gift, I remember thinking how cool the box was. I liked the box so much that I kept my camera in it for the almost 30 years I owned it. Not long ago I learned that the box, like all Polaroid packaging of the day, was designed by Paul Giambarba, a top designer who was a pioneer of clean, strong brand identity.

polaroidtype108I remember how easy it was to spot Polaroid film on the drug store shelf because it had the same rainbow-stripes design elements as the camera’s box. Film and developing for my garage-sale Brownie cost about half what a pack of Polaroid film cost, but the colorful Polaroid boxes on the shelf always tempted me. I often decided that next time I bought film, I would save my allowance for the whole month it took to afford a pack of Polaroid.

My brother also got a guitar that Christmas morning. My new camera came with a pack of film, so I loaded it and shot this photo of him on his first day with his guitar. He played this guitar for 20 years — he looked strange as an adult playing a kid-sized guitar!

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20 Christmas Days later, when my older son was not yet a full year old, my wife gave my brother her old guitar. Our boy, drawn to the music, wouldn’t leave his uncle’s side as he played that evening. Steadying himself on his uncle’s knee, he looked up with wide amazement in his eyes.

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May this holiday bring you the gift of excellent memories to share with your loved ones down the road.

When I first posted this, in 2008, Paul Giambarba himself left a comment! It was a thrill. I followed his blog for years. He discontinued it a few years ago, and thanked me in a final post for saying kind things about his work. None of this would have been possible without the Internet!

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Photography

How do you back up your digital images?

I could live without a lot of things I currently own. I know this to be a fact because I sold, gave away, or otherwise lost most of my possessions during my divorce ten years ago. It shocked me how much I loved the lightness of not owning things.

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This terrible exposure is one of the few photos I took of my grandfather. He’s relaxing in his home. It was the summer of 1982; he was 66 and I was 15. This connects me to so many pleasant memories. I’m so happy I still have this photo.

But I don’t want to live without my photographs. Thankfully, every last photo I took as a kid and young adult survived. I keep them in boxes; I digitized them all a couple years ago. They connect me to memories I might otherwise have lost.

Since the divorce I’ve returned to photography in a big way. Between film and digital photos, and including scans of all of my old photos, I now have well north of 20,000 images on my computer’s hard drive.

Holy backup, Batman! And I do back them up, to a wee external hard drive. But if my house burns down, both computer and external drive are toast.

So I became interested in uploading my images to “the cloud” (i.e., someone else’s server, via the Internet).

I investigated a few solutions, none perfect, but quickly settled on Flickr. As a Flickr Pro customer, I have unlimited storage. And their Flickr Uploadr automatically uploads every new photo. It marked them all private so you can’t see them.

It was occasionally useful, as it let me find an old photo much faster than searching through folders on my hard drive.

But I use Flickr primarily to host images I share here, and those private photos just clogged my camera roll and intruded into every search result. And because I upload for public consumption a processed version of each photo, I see duplicates everywhere.

It made Flickr hard for me to use. This week I decided I’d had enough. I uninstalled the Uploadr and deleted all of the private photos.

And so I’m back to looking for a way to store my photo collection in the cloud. Do you do this? If so, what solution are you using and how well is it working for you?

 

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Vintage Television

Vintage TV: Beany and Cecil

Have you ever had a childhood memory so dim and sparse that you wondered if you had dreamed it? I’ve had a few. Sometimes I’ll encounter something that cracks such a memory open.

Here’s one. In college thirty years ago, I built a collection of Paul McCartney vinyl. One day I bought a 45 of the song Another Day, a song I didn’t think I knew. But when I played the record I was suddenly three years old, at breakfast in my mother’s kitchen. I could see everything clearly. The kitchen table was covered in dark simulated woodgrain laminate with a brown plastic edge and brown steel tubes for legs. My high-backed chair was covered in vinyl with a loud green floral pattern. The fridge stood in the corner, its long chrome door handle like a giant upside-down T. A white plastic table radio sat atop the fridge, tuned to an AM station that played this song every morning while it was a hit. Transported, I played the song over and over that college afternoon, enjoying the remembered connection.

While Another Day had slipped entirely from memory, a particular cartoon sea serpent had not, at least not entirely. I clearly remembered the main character’s lisp: Theethil the Thee-Thick Thea Therpent. So I was excited to find this clip of the show’s open on YouTube the other day:

My brother was over the other day and I showed this to him. “Of course I remember it,” he said. “You wouldn’t quit saying ‘Nyah-ah-ahh’ over and over again! You did it for years! I wanted to pummel you!” I felt my brain pop with the recalled memory. It was the villain Dishonest John’s signature laugh! I adopted it as my own until I was 9 or 10! How could I forget? Here’s an entire Beany and Cecil cartoon with plenty of Dishonest John nyah-ah-ahhing:

Beany and Cecil were created by Bob Clampett, who animated the craziest Warner Brothers cartoons. (Side trip: On his blog, John Kricfalusi, creator of the cartoon Ren and Stimpy, deconstructs several of Clampett’s WB cartoons and reveals the man’s genius. See those posts here.) Clampett first created Beany and Cecil as puppets, Cecil just a sock with eyes glued on. In 1949, these puppets became a huge hit on TV in Los Angeles. Albert Einstein is said to have been a fan. In 1959, Clampett animated these characters for theatrical cartoons in foreign markets. In 1962, ABC started running the cartoons in prime time and got Clampett to make more of them. The cartoons ran on ABC until 1967 and in syndication through the early 1970s.

I learned recently from the FuzzyMemories forum that the BJ and the Dirty Dragon Show on WFLD in Chicago showed Beany and Cecil cartoons, and that’s where I must have watched them. The Dirty Dragon finished his run on WFLD in July, 1973, which was about six months after we got cable and could have seen the show. Moreover, it was on at noon, meaning we could watch only during the summer. So after watching Beany and Cecil cartoons for maybe four weeks that summer, I then annoyed my brother for four years repeating Dishonest John’s laugh.

Righteous.


First published in June, 2008. You don’t remember this one, you say? I didn’t either until I stumbled upon it the other day.

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Personal

A little Christmas wish

Plastic Kindergarten bellPlastic Kindergarten bell

My Kindergarten teacher, Edith Coles, gave these little bell ornaments to all of her students every Christmas. She hand-painted the student’s name, along with hers and the year, on each one. She must have made hundreds of them during her teaching career. Can you imagine the hand cramps?

I shared these photos on Facebook, where many of my childhood friends remembered their bells. Several still had theirs. Some of them posted happy memories of Mrs. Coles and of childhood Christmases. One friend even posted a photo of her bell, which has hung on every tree in her home since she received it in 1969.

A few cents’ worth of shiny plastic, a few strokes of paint, a whole bunch of good memories. It takes so little. May your Christmas be filled with such little things that create lingering good memories.

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Photography

Review: Wolverine Super F2D – A good-enough tool for digitizing your film snapshot negatives

Most of us beyond a certain age photographed years of family moments and vacations using simple point-and-shoot film cameras. We stored the prints and negatives in albums or boxes.

But when was the last time you looked at them? We all shoot digital now. We look at our photos on screens and store them on phones, SD cards, and hard drives. Because you can’t share a physical photograph on Facebook, our photo albums get very little love or attention.

To bring those memories into the modern age means making digital images of them. You have two options: pay someone to do it for you or do it yourself. If you pay to have it done you’ll get the best possible quality, but the expense might make you wince. For less money you can buy a flatbed scanner that handles negatives and do it yourself. But it’s slow work and there are lots of settings to master. And few scanners take the old 126 and 110 snapshot film formats that were popular in the 1970s and 1980s.

Wolverine Super F2DWhat’s needed is a way to do the job fast with minimal fuss and at reasonable cost. Few options exist. That’s why I’d even consider a flimsy-looking toy-plastic device like the Wolverine Super F2D film-to-digital converter. It promises to deliver on all of those goals, quickly creating JPEGs from color and black-and-white 35mm, 110, and 126 negatives – and 2×2-mount slides in those formats, and Super 8 movie frames. At about $100, the price isn’t bad. I got mine for even less on sale.

But there’s a big tradeoff: you won’t get professional-quality work from the Super F2D. And you will need to touch the images up in photo-editing software – but, to be fair, you would need to do that after using a flatbed scanner, too. But the Super F2D will give you images good enough to view on your screen and to share online. You could even make prints of them, but they will be too noisy for big enlargements.

But I’m not sure I care about those limitations for my old snapshots. I converted about 1,000 images in under six hours. Then I spent about 10 hours touching up every image in Photoshop Elements. And now I have digital images of all of my old negatives. That’s faster than I could have done it with my flatbed scanner, and hundreds of dollars less expensive than paying to have it done. And I’ve already shared some of my images on Facebook, and they look pretty good.

That’s the guts of the review. But more good information follows, including insight into using the Super F2D and examples of my scans. Here is a set of links to each of those sections so you can skip to what you care about.

Using the Super F2D

I used some recent downtime to digitize every old 126, 110, and 35mm negative I have. (If you have negatives or slides from even older films, such as 127, 620, or 828, you’re out of luck.) I did it in my lap while lying on the couch; the Super F2D is small and entirely self-contained. I plugged it into the wall, but you can also plug it into any powered USB port. It has some internal memory, but it also has an SD-card slot. I put an SD card in and went to town.

The Super F2D isn’t a scanner, but rather a digital camera and a light table. It lights up your negatives and slides from below and photographs them from above. It is as inexpensively made as it looks: the plastic is thin and cheap, and the buttons and connectors feel flimsy.

IMG_0025 procUsing the Super F2D is simple once you get the hang of it. You slide the negatives and slides through the sleeve in the middle of the unit. You line up each image on the screen until it looks right, and then capture and save the image. This video tells all.

Pushing negatives through was easy enough except when a negative was cut shorter than the sleeve. I usually used a second negative to push the first one through. There’s a separate sleeve for slides, which are a snug fit in the sleeve. A second slide is always necessary to push the first one through. To get out the last slide you scan, you have to remove the sleeve from the Super F2D and pull it open (it is hinged). The sleeve is hard to open.

The screen is good only for framing images, as it doesn’t accurately render color and the corners are a little washed out. The Super F2D does offer basic color and exposure correction tools, but given the screen’s limitations I decided just to do all of that in Photoshop.

The Super F2D offers no dust and scratch removal, so be sure to clean your negatives well. I used a soft cloth to wipe dust off my negatives. Dust creeps inside the Super F2D, too, and so I frequently cleaned it off the light table with the supplied brush. You’ll see most of these imperfections on the screen.

Image quality

The Super F2D boasts 20-megapixel resolution. It’s overkill, because its puny image sensor returns noisy images. The noise is acceptable when you look at the images at smaller resolutions but shows up bigtime at maximum resolution. You probably don’t want to print big enlargements from these images.

Also, the Super F2D’s field of view leaves out a little bit around edges of your negatives. You can slide each negative left and right inside the Super F2D for best framing, but there’s nothing you can do about what the Super F2D cuts off at the top and bottom. The effect is minimal on 35mm negatives, noticeable on 110 negatives, and pronounced on 126 negatives.

You will need some sort of photo-editing software to touch up these images after you convert them. All of my images had a green caste that ranged from slight to substantial. My oldest negatives, from the mid-1970s, suffered worst. You will also want to fix the scratches and dust that escape your cleaning.

I have Photoshop Elements. Its Auto Color Correction and Auto Levels commands corrected almost all of my images’ color-fidelity ills, and its Spot Healing brush did a great job of quickly removing marks. I applied these corrections to all of the images I’m going to show you from the Super F2D. I’ve uploaded all of the images at full resolution; click them to see them at full size.

Images from 126 film

The Super F2D makes 4000-pixel-square images from 126 negatives. That resolution is beyond the sharpness that most 126 cameras could deliver, especially the junky one I had. But the Super F2D and a little subsequent Photoshoppery yielded usable images. Here’s me in front of the family Christmas tree in 1977.

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The circa 1978 print of this image shows my whole head, but the Super F2D masks too much of the negative and cuts my head off.

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Images from 110 film

Pity the poor 110 format for the so-so image quality inherent in such an itty-bitty negative. It did not help that most 110 cameras were inexpensively made with low-quality optics. Surprisingly, the Super F2D scans these negatives at a whopping 5120×3840 pixels. When viewed at maximum resolution, these images look like a mosaic. They’re still visibly noisy at smaller sizes.

I used a cheap 110 camera to record one of the best times of my life: a trip to Germany in 1984. I was happy enough with the images the Super F2D made from those negatives. The colors were good, even though the sharpness wasn’t. Here’s a streetcar in Krefeld.

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And here’s a tiny Trabant automobile in East Berlin. Shadow detail is very poor and noise is high, but it is the same on my original prints.

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Images from 35mm film

The Super F2D returned much better results from my 35mm negatives. I didn’t shoot much 35mm until the late 1980s, by which time advances in film technology produced negative films that simply scan better, at least in my experience. But I also had a better camera than ever before. It was a modest point-and-shoot 35mm camera, but it offered a better lens than any average 126 or 110 camera. The 5472×3648 images the Super F2D creates from these negatives are still too noisy for big enlargements.

Here’s my car parked outside the house I lived in after I graduated college in 1989. Detail and color are much improved and noise is somewhat reduced compared to my 126 and 110 images.

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I lived around the corner from Terre Haute’s Coca-Cola bottler. A quick hit of Auto Color Correction in Photoshop Elements really brought out the red in the sign.

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The Super F2D’s black-and-white mode seems to do better work than its color mode, at least for the few black-and-white negatives I have. They needed very little touchup to look good. Here’s a 1984 photo of the elementary school I attended.

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Images from mounted slides

I never shot slide film in my youth. But I wanted to see how the Super F2D handled slides, so I bought some old Kodachromes on eBay. I didn’t buy any old Super 8 movies, though, so you’re on your own there. The Super F2D scans slides at the same resolutions as the corresponding 35mm, 110, and 126 negatives.

Here’s one of those slides. (You can see the rest in this post.) I think the Super F2D did its best work on these slides. They needed very little touchup in Photoshop and they are less noisy than any of my negative scans.

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Comparing the Super F2D to flatbed and professional scanners

The Super F2D isn’t as capable as a flatbed negative scanner, and is absolutely, utterly blown away by the bigtime pro scanners that most film processors use.

I used my Epson V300 flatbed scanner to digitize this image of me taken with my Argus A-Four camera in about 1982.

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The Super F2D also does a decent job, although it scans less of the negative than my Epson V300 and returns more saturated colors. It’s a matter of personal preference whether you like the V300 scan or the Super F2D conversion. Where the Super F2D falls down, though, is noise. It shows up at larger resolutions; click the images to compare them full sized.

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I took the image below a couple years ago on Fujicolor 200 using my Pentax KM and its 55mm f/1.8 SMC Pentax lens. I really enjoy this shot for its color and its sensitive exposure. I’m pretty sure I had The Darkroom process and scan the film.

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The Super F2D fell flat on its face rendering this negative. No amount of Photoshop trickery could save it. I deliberately chose it as a worst case, but none of the images the Super F2D converted from this roll of film could compare to the scans The Darkroom did with its big scanner.

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The verdict

If you want to digitize any images you might use more than casually, or that you took with high-quality equipment, you won’t be happy with the Wolverine Super F2D. The resulting digital images are simply too noisy, and sometimes Photoshop won’t be able to restore accurate color and exposure. I’d never use it to digitize the more artistic images I shoot with my good film cameras today, as I can get cleaner scans from my flatbed scanner and outstanding scans from the companies that process my film.

Old snapshot negatives are the Super F2D’s sweet spot. It will always give you a usable image, and it will frequently give you a plenty good image. Given the Super F2D’s cost, speed, and flexibility, that’s more than a fair tradeoff. I’m glad I bought mine. And now I have plenty of memories that I can e-mail to my mom and post on Facebook.

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