Photographic Rites of Passage

My theory about learning photography is that one can teach technique, process and maybe even a search for meaning if the moon is in the right phase, but other parts may be kind of intuitive, or continue to be elusive. Part of it is still just slowing down and noticing the small stuff, and part of it is what you bring yourself. For an example, this photograph of the glasses was made partly because late one afternoon I was playing Keith Jarrett’s brand new “The Köln Concert” on the record player. It was very meditative to listen to as I played with a nifty little Leica IIIF camera, learned its controls and how to load it with film, easily becoming comfortable with each other. Oscar Barnack had me totally hypnotized with it's barely audible "click" and how tiny it was.

I wanted to learn formal photography with a camera that had a classy aura, not funky old pawnshop camera, so I got this little gem of a Leica to hopefully add some good mojo to my new work. I was hoping that the Photo Goddesses wouldn’t view me as being shallow. After cleaning the Leica, I put it on the record player and noticed how different it looked in the low light and reflective surface, kind of like a photographer’s altar. It was an unintended humble art consecration, like a loaf of hearty bread or a roll of black and white film.

Seeing this scene got me to playing with other things in the room and putting them on the Plexiglas top too, just to see how they’d look. I took off my glasses and put it on the mirror-like surface and thought it looked interesting, so I moved the turntable over to the window where there was better light. It became an impromptu studio, and it looked kind of mysterious so I set up a big 4x5 studio camera to try and capture this scene. This quiet meditative afternoon turned into a very intensive studio session.

It was exhilarating to have noticed something accidentally and to have transformed it into a photograph. Before I knew it a few hours had gone by and the light was changing so quickly I had to take light readings every ten minutes or so. This was where the Sekonic light meter really kept up with me and stayed right on it all. As it turned out, gear mattered a lot.

The high performance Schneider lens was impeccably sharp, but I wanted a little bit of bokeh, or softness in the background so tried a few shots at f/11. Time to fess up here because this is part of a rite of passage too. I got a red “R” marked on the back of this photo, which meant “Reshoot.” It wasn’t even good enough for a real grade. That took the air out of my sails right quick, and later that day I could be found in the living room again, carefully examining every inch of the print with a magnifying glass. Jarrett was playing his solo piano again and I could see where I went wrong.

This was a reshoot; I draped a dark cloth over part of the wall and window, which transformed that jumble of junk into a rich dark value, and the glasses instantly seemed to be emerging from the darkness instead of being mired in a mess. It was simple, yet kind of poetic; absolutely inspired by the Jarrett piano solo I’d been listening to as I worked.

As it turned out, this was my first notable black and white negative I ever made, and I loved it's simplicity, the feel of it. Much of my future work would have this same low-key feel to it with a similar kind of lighting. It was sharper than any negative I'd ever made and all the previous ones looked like shabby pretenders. The range of tones was phenomenal and the subtleties stopped me right in my tracks. Did the Photography Goddesses like me after all? Who knows? I'll be forever reminded of piano solos whenever I see it because of the shooting session. Maybe the thing that startled me the most was the large size of the 4" x 5" negative compared to the tiny 35mm frames. Man, that's lots of real estate.

It became instantly clear that everything done before this was just for fun and this was the real deal. It reminded me of rites of passage, like the first time you got laid or something. Well heck, maybe it wasn’t as momentous as that first time, but it was kind of a revelation in the sense that sometimes we have no idea that something could be so cool until we experience it ourselves. Or like skiing down the mountain the first time without being completely terrified, thinking to yourself, “Oh yes, I do this all the time, no big deal.”

Some of the backstory was it was late 1975 and I’d just returned from working my first stint as a bona fide Pipeliner in Alaska to help pay for my education at Santa Barbara. It was a true culture shock, because in October I was working on what looked like a frozen moonscape high in the Alaska Range, helping lay 48” steel pipe for on oil thirsty nation wanting to be less dependent on foreign oil during an energy crisis. It was already nearly -40º F there and our crew resembled a jumble of frozen zombies shuffling around in slow motion. Time to go man; nobody had to tell me twice.

This transition was like getting on a Rocketship and going to another planet. Even the stars were different down there, to go along with the palm trees, sandy beaches and laid- back town. There was a class named “Basic Photography II,” which was the most demanding first year class. Brooks kind of used it to sort out the slackers from the photographers, nothing laid back about that. Their version of “basic” was way different than everyone else’s, because we went deeply into finely crafted large format negatives where we used both artistic and scientific processes every step of the way.

Sometimes it felt like being a mad scientist in a stone castle, sometimes like a budding artist trying to find their way in the fog. This was another echo of the odd sensibility of being on another planet, not familiar ground at all. Who ever heard of learning something so visually intoxicating as photography with plotting charts and dusting off the cobwebs from calculus and chemistry classes? And what the heck does “Circle of Confusion” with the physics of lens optics mean? Running in circles with our hair on fire?

Anyway, it’s been nearly 40 years to the day since this first significant negative was made, and I'll be forever grateful that a decent negative emerged so early as a photography student. Here’s to the Photography Goddesses and tough photo instructors; I bow to you and offer this humble offering (holding up an awesome mug of coffee).

Tech Head Stuff:

4x5 Calumet Studio Camera

Schneider 210mm f/5.6 lens

Kodak Super XX 4x5 film (hell yes!)

Sekonic Studio Deluxe incident light meter

Kodak No. 2 fiber paper (only paper allowed for grading)

Leica IIIF 35 mm camera with Summitar 5cm lens

Story and photographs copyright Larry McNeil 2015, All Rights Reserved.

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