Now that I am in my late 60s, I find that authenticity is even more important to me than when I was younger; it is also rarer. Why is this? I think it has to do with the time that’s left to us (or me). Since I no longer think in terms of having all the time in the world, I try to do things that are meaningful, longer lasting and worthwhile.
The advent of the computer age made all things easier and quicker, and in many ways, it brought on an “inauthentic” time, if ever there was such a thing. I started working in the photo industry in 1967 and started my own color lab in 1987. I went digital in 1995 and began investing more and more into equipment until I had sunk over $1,500,000 into our digital department. By the time I closed my color lab in 2015 I no longer received films from customers. Everything was sent via downloads and uploads and the turnaround times for jobs became 1/4 of what it used to be when I started my business.
The comment “good enough” began to describe the ink jet prints that replaced photographic C prints; it was an echo of what was said about digital captures that replaced film images, about 12 years earlier.
Even though my main business was making 6’ x 10’ enlargements for malls and store fronts which were mainly point of purchase images to sell rugs, pillows, coffee makers and whatnot, I still took pleasure and pride in making good photographs.
I looked forward to retirement in 2015 because I had inherited Robert Cameron’s original films. Bob passed away in 2009 and had thousands of color transparencies. He was the photographer and publisher of the “Above” series of books, and he flew over New York, San Francisco, Hawaii, Yosemite, Paris, London and many other cities.
My plan was to offer fine photographs and to spend the time left to me making these prints for sale; this was what I told Bob. I would continue to make his photographic images available to be seen after his death. I set about to make an inventory of Bob’s best images prior to closing my color lab. I also began to figure out how best to make black and white negatives from Bob’s color original films. This was because I would no longer have a color lab, so I decided to set up a black and white lab and work in that realm once again. It was back to my beginnings.
I did get inquiries from folks wanting to purchase some of Bob’s images, but they never wanted to pay the price I was asking. It wasn’t nearly as much as Bob used to sell his prints for so they certainly didn’t want to pay the prices that Bob demanded ($100 per square foot).
Then one day it occurred to me that I no longer wanted to sell photographs. I was tired of it, and I was especially tired of bargain hunters. I was too used to that in my previous business and didn’t want to have anything to do with money and photographs any longer. So, I decided fairly early on to not sell photographs any longer.
Then something interesting happened. I no longer cared if an image would “sell.” I didn’t have to be concerned with the opinion of others as to whether any particular image had enough public appeal. I just had to like the image myself, and it had to draw an emotional response from me – day after day. If the photograph only looked “good” to me for a few days, then it wasn’t worth my attention. That became my rule. I would look at a work print day after day and if it did not lose its appeal after many weeks, then I would go to work on it. And in this way, I found a measure of authenticity in doing my darkroom work again.
It would be disingenuous for me to say that all the years spent in making photographs were done without any sense of sincere pride. I had, after all, over 50 employees at one time, and the business supported many families. Quite a few of my fellow workers purchased homes, and it was always a pleasure for me to see their families at the Christmas party. I enjoyed handing out the photos with Santa every year, and the kids always looked forward to the presents under the tree.
But, as my production manager once told me, we printed and processed over a mile and a half of Kodak paper every month as we produced photographic posters for 400 to 500 stores throughout the United States. This was in our heyday and our invoices justified the immense use of time, materials and man/woman power in order to meet the stringent deadlines. But within 4 weeks the posters were in landfill; that was what bothered me. And we did this for years on end. Photographs should have more meaning than simply pushing product out the doors of retail outlets.
It was at this time that I first met Robert Cameron; he needed large color photographs made from his films. He was nearing the end of his life and wanted to show his life’s work in the best possible manner. I began to work on his images personally and we became good friends.
It was working with Bob that forced me to focus on the method that I began to use. Before meeting Bob, I had little time to work on images as the deadlines were always short. The photographs had to get to the stores before the matching products arrived there.
Working with Bob’s films, I began to study each original from the standpoint of what “made them work.” I began to sense that a more successful image could be produced by eliminating or diminishing elements that detracted from the feeling of the photograph. I began to notice that my eyes would traverse through the print and settle on the main theme or subject. There were elements that stood in the way and prevented this flow from being smooth. It could be simply a strong color in the corner or it could be too much color throughout. It is interesting that color can be a distraction in a color photograph. I notice this every time I walk into a store that sells flat screen TVs. The colors are so jacked up that one doesn’t know what to look at. It’s all distraction.
I found that sometimes I spent more than a week’s time planning out how to approach a certain image. Long ago I learned film masking. This was in the late 1970s and I used it to control the contrast of an image, but then, I learned how to correct color through film masking as well, and I used what I learned throughout the years in order to best approach Bob’s images. This took a lot of time and often I would redo images if I thought the final photograph could be improved. This was a skill, as a darkroom technician, that I seldom had enough time for. Prior to meeting Bob, I simply masked customer images to the best of my ability, made the print and shipped it out the door as soon as was possible.
But with Bob’s images, I was able to do things again and again if I wanted to. This is because Bob trusted me (and he was nearly blind by the time I met him at 94 years old). Nevertheless, Bob did notice the improvement in his prints. He even mentioned to me that his audience noticed the difference too. I was able to make final color decisions without having to get a sign off from Bob or his assistant. This was new to me as well.
Spending more time and making proofs for myself to consider required much effort and time on my part. It is not an easy thing to satisfy oneself if one is honest. But it reminded me of something Maria Rilke wrote in a letter to a young would-be poet. “Just because something is difficult to do is enough reason to do it, because you learn so much from it.”
So, now I look for what is difficult to achieve in a photograph. I learned fairly early on that photography could be a quick and easy task, but in the end I have decided to take a lengthier route. I take the difficult path, and indeed, I learn so much doing so. Perhaps difficult is not the right word. I look for the best way to make a photograph even if it takes longer.
If you’re interested in more of Robert Cameron’s images in Black and White, please take a look at the folio I produced here