The three strikes mentality is such a cliché these days. It’s now used as a yardstick for punishment. Whether baseball or criminal offenses. However, if I had applied this baseball rule to photography I would have given up on a dream.
When I was a wee lad we lived near an abandoned apple orchard, which happened to be at the end of a wonderful and mystery filled trail through a dark forest. Well, that’s the way my five-year-old mind remembers it.
Through my formative years, I would venture down to this oasis away from all the ever-present city noise to just sit and think. Close by is a major river, so I could skip stones if I liked or maybe cool off in its glacier-fed waters. In later years I would shoot gophers with my trusty Daisy BB gun or a bow and arrow. Within the confines of this idyllic area I found one particular tree that seemed to speak to me. Not that I heard voices mind you, it just seemed to be a good listener. When I leaned up against its sturdy trunk or climbed into its strong boughs many of the answers I was looking for just “came” to me. This tree became my spiritual conduit to whoever was at the other end.
Fast forward 60 years. I was down in the same park, visiting the same tree and to my amazement, there were several people who came by and paused just long enough to put their hands on the huge trunk and close their eyes.
I was not the only one!
It struck me, like all things that live, someday this tree will die. As will I. I felt like I needed to capture this majestic tree in a way that shows off its glorious stature. Those that have their own special tree will get it and I wanted to create an image that will live beyond both the tree and me.
As someone who has been an avid photographer for close to 55 years, I have several photographic options with which to accomplish this mission. Should I shoot digital, 35mm, medium format or large format film? What about colour…or should it be in black and white? The fall colours were out so the obvious choice would be colour. However, would the bright colours take away from the strength I wanted to show? After about a week mulling this over, I decided that black and white was what I wanted. Of course, this didn’t eliminate any of the equipment options but since I wanted something of a more permanent nature this in my mind eliminated digital. Just think of Betamax.
Starting with gear
Down to only film options, I decided that large format was the way to go in order to get all the detail and tonality I wanted. I have both a 4×5 wooden Shen-Hao field camera and a Cambo 4×5 monorail. I anticipated I might have to use some fairly extreme rise to get the tree top in, so this kicked out the field camera as an option. Now for lenses. I decided to pack a Nikon 90mm WA, Rodenstock Sironar 150mm and a Dagor 300mm lenses.
Since I am retired I have lots of time to scout things out. My Crown Graphic equipped with a 127mm Kodak Ektar lens and Kodak Tri-X 320TXP film was pressed into service for a quick recon mission. A chap had given me three film holders already loaded with Tri-X 320TXP so I decided to use them. I shot all 6 sheets from various angles and lighting conditions as we had partial clouds that day.
It was one of those magical photographic days. The sun was making the fall colours explode in all their multi-coloured brilliance. Exciting shadow patterns between the trees teased and made me wish I had loaded up more film.
I got home and headed straight into the darkroom. It had been a while since I had used my darkroom, so it was nice to be back at it. I commenced mixing up my favourite developer PyroCat-HD from a liquid mixture obtained from The Photographers Formulary. If there is one thing I loathe it’s dealing with powdered chemicals. I had some fixer already mixed from a previous printing and film developing session I had done several months ago.
I use hangers rather than a rotary drum not because I think they’re better; it’s just that I am familiar with them and I have a distrust of anything that requires electricity when it comes to developing my film. Quite frankly I have the same qualms about cameras. Batteries are evil little beasts that fail at all the wrong times.
Strike one…attempt two
Less than twenty minutes later (11 minutes in PyroCat-HD, 30 seconds in water stop and then 5 minutes in fix) I turned the lights on. To my horror the images were black! The film had been exposed to light before I had received it. On top of that, I had found one of the sheets of film had been loaded into the holder backwards.
That was strike one…
After I finished beating myself up for being such a fool I set to loading up three new holders with Tri-X 320TXP.
A few weeks later I ventured out again. This time with the Cambo monorail and my bag of lenses. I did two different setups on the tree exposing three sheets of film. To get the rise I needed for the tree I attached my Cambo bag bellows. Fortunately, my Nikkor 90mm wide angle was just right for the job as I had a playground just behind me and I could not back up any further to get the shots I wanted from that angle.
Next, I found a beautiful row of Spruce trees with wonderful shadows. I switched to a Rodenstock 150mm Sironar APO for these shots and just left the bag bellows on. Two sheets exposed there. With my remaining sheet of film, I had planned on trying to create an image of the railroad tracks near the park so ambled over there and setup. Naturally, a train came along so I figured I would just incorporate it into my image. I shot it at ¼ of second to give the train some blur thus showing it was in motion.
I was quite happy with what I had shot and rushed back to the darkroom. Again, I mixed up my PyroCat-HD and poured the fixer into its tub.
Strike two… attempt three
Twenty or so minutes later I was done and with some trepidation turned on the lights. Again horror! The images were very dark and muddy looking. Plus, all the ones where the bag bellows was used showed signs of fogging. I double checked my meter and it was spot on.
Was the fixer bad? I cut off a piece of 35mm black and white film and chucked it into the fixer. Waited 5 minutes and turned the lights on. Indeed, the fixer was in its final stages of a slow and merciless death. Strike two!
In all my years of photography, I have never had such a series of misfortunes. I firmly take credit and responsibility for all of it. But really?? This was now becoming a mission!
The very next day I loaded up three more two sheet 4×5 film holders and set out once again to capture this blasted tree. I was beginning to think there was some higher power that was either trying to teach me a lesson or just did not want me to succeed in this quest for THE image. I had struck out twice. If I struck out again, that would be three. Does this mean I just need to be sent back to the bench or heaven forbid the…minors?
I drove the 45 minutes to the park, parked up and with a sense of foreboding, unpacked my camera gear and hiked into the park, pausing briefly to say said hello to the groundskeeper who by this time no doubt thought I’d been dealt a few balloons short of a party.
The light is fantastic. There are no little urchins running around getting into my shot but I still have it in the back of my mind that God is messing with me. I make four exposures of the tree. One setup I actually bracket, something I never do. The fear has set in.
So, three different angles of the tree are done, now out to the railway tracks. I make one image there. Without the train, it wasn’t that special.
I was actually a bit nervous about souping these shots. Three strikes, that would be a killer! I procrastinate – something I do quite well actually – and put off going down to the darkroom until the next day.
Once I get my courage up and venture into the darkroom, the first thing I do is mix up new fixer and developer. I always treat PyroCat as a one-shot developer. It’s so cheap, trying to stretch it does not make any sense. The lights are out and it’s time to load the hangers. Again, I spend 20 minutes in the dark thinking crazy stuff like if this attempt fails I will just sell all my camera gear and take up billiards.
Once the lights get turned on I pull one of the hangers out of the fixer and with some trepidation hold it up to the light. I could almost hear a celestial host singing a song of triumph!
An image, a good image, well exposed and developed and most importantly fixed.
In the end, I was not struck out. That game may have gone into extra innings but in the end, I got the winning run!
The main lessons I learned is to not take anything for granted: don’t use film packs loaded by anyone but yourself and don’t be over-casual about things, even though you have done them a thousand times over the past five-plus decades.
The other lesson was not to put myself under undue pressure – like that three strikes mentality. Each attempt is a learning experience, not a failure. I had to remind myself of what I always told my students: it’s not that you’re wrong, you just don’t have it right yet.
You might not see anything special in the images I made but they’re special to me. I learned long ago that if there isn’t something that gets you excited about your subject you might as well leave your camera in its bag. You will only be making “I was there” photos or worse yet what I refer to as “museum” photos. It was only my passion and love for the photographic medium and my desire to express something through photography that kept me going.
While I shoot both digital and film it, is only film that gives me a really organic high when I am creating imagery. Just remember to load your own film and ensure you are using fresh chemicals!
…oh, and remember to actually put the developer concentrate into the water, but that’s another story…
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