Thursday, March 19, 2009

My Autographed Photograph Of Virginia Wade—1

Now in its third edition, Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer have completely rewritten large sections to keep in lock-step with the evolving trends. Like an old friend who has grown wiser over time, this compendium has become better with age. ... The third part introduces digital astrophotography. Yes, digital—it starts out by stating that film is dead.

Sean Walker
in April’s Sky & Telescope
reviewing the new edition of
The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide,”
by Dickinson and Dyer

Yes. Film is dead.

But today and tomorrow I’m going to talk about a time when film was alive. I loved film. I still have four photographs of my own from that lost time. Today and tomorrow I’m going to post all four.

The theme of today’s post and tomorrow’s is that some things constantly change but some things never change. I don’t know if there is any middle ground between these two kinds of things.


Here’s the first photograph. Here’s my autographed photograph of tennis player Virginia Wade:

This is from around 1974 or 1975. I was about fourteen. (There used to be a WTA tennis tournament in Chicago but low attendance forced the tour to cancel it.)

I took the photograph. I developed the film. I printed the picture. (Then I sent it off to England, Virginia Wade signed it and sent it back to me.)

Nowadays an image like this is trivial. Someone would just point their telephone at the player and click off a picture in an instant. But decades ago film cameras gave a person the opportunity to create a whole process—the photography process—around creating images.

Images are still cool, still important. But the whole photography process has changed.

I’m going to quickly run through the kinds of things that went on behind this simple photograph for me.

Taking the picture

I probably took this photograph using an old, used SLR that a friend from a camera shop put aside for me. The camera contained no built-in light meter, so I was either using a hand-held meter or guesstimating exposure. I wasn’t using the zone system, but I was ‘zone aware’ and consciously using the aperture and shutter to manipulate the value range of my imagined final image.

Since it was a sporting event, I would have been most aware of the shutter speed and I would have been consciously changing the shutter speed to create blur if I wanted to accentuate motion or create crisp lines if I wanted to freeze action.

I also would have been conscious of the aperture and how stopping down would create a deeper focus. I generally liked to work with a wide-open aperture to create a blurred background but I often changed things on the fly.

Finally I was conscious of the grain of the film. I probably was shooting film called Tri-X Pan, which had a large grain size. So I would have been trying to sneak down to the expensive seats and get as close to the action as I could so that I wouldn’t have to enlarge the negative very much at the printing stage.

Developing the film

Nowadays the whole process of photography is almost all a subset of the process of computer work. But in the film era there was a lot of chemistry.

Each film type had an associated data sheet that described what chemical developers to choose among, what temperatures to use and how long a particular combination of temperature/developer required. And it was all very exact. Something like three minutes at seventy degrees would yield a different result—different density negative—than, say, two and a half minutes at sixty-five degrees. It was a very good way to learn to follow directions and to get details exactly right.

Printing the picture

Little details mattered. When you focused the enlarger, you did it on a piece of scrap photographic paper that was the same you’d be printing on because if you focused on the easel or paper of a different thickness the difference would be visible as a slightly out-of-focus final print.

Unlike the modern world where changing an image is just more computer dragging and clicking, in the film era adjusting an image meant using multi-contrast paper and putting filters in the enlarger.

You had to put the exposed paper carefully into the developer tray, moving the bead of wetness smoothly across the surface so that the image developed evenly.

Working under orange (or green) darkroom light, you had to adjust your expectations to what the image would look like under white light.


The process of photography during the film era was wildly different than the process of photography during the computer era.

Images are still images. Ultimately images are still all about values and color and composition and content.

That is exactly the same as it’s always been.

But the process of creating the values and color and composition and content is wildly different.

One interesting point about the difference is that now the process is much more narrow than it was in the past. Nowadays the whole process is just computer tweaking. In the film era it was chemistry and manual dexterity and dozens of little physical steps.

It’s hard to say if one era is better than the other. I just don’t know.

Both the film era and now the computer era give a person the capabilities to create cool images. I suspect the film era was more demanding, and those extra demands encouraged a person to develop discipline and fine-tune their thinking. On the other hand, the computer era makes it easier to experiment, to change every little thing and immediately see the result.

But images are still images. Cool images are still cool images. That doesn’t change.

Tomorrow I’m going to talk more about things that change and things that don’t, and I’m going to put up the rest of the photographs I have from the film era. And I’m going to be talking about these two cool kids:

That’s Jeanette in the background and Toni in the foreground. When I was fourteen or fifteen they were eleven or twelve. When I would take pictures in McKinley Park they would follow me around and sometimes they would come watch me play tennis. Jeanette was always laughing and giggling. Toni was always laughing, too, but she had some weird camera awareness knack—three decades before Paris Hilton—and Toni always managed to get into some kind of pose, some kind of super-model like serious expression for the picture.

The process of photography has changed wildly from the film era to the computer era. But images are still images. And cool subjects are still cool subjects.

Tomorrow I’ve got another picture of Toni, a picture of a beautiful woman and a little dog and I have a couple of things left to say about things that change and things that do not change.

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