Brushes: With Death


Today is the forty-eighth anniversary of my father’s death. He died a little after nine o’clock that evening: April 11, 1967. I was nine years old. I had gone to bed a short time before. I was either still awake or was easily wakened when my mother began calling for my older brother. She was clearly distraught.

I ran down the hall to the dining room. My father was sitting in his usual spot, his head tipped forward onto his chest, his eyes closed. I knelt beside him and began crying out to him. I knew that he was dead.

He was fifty-nine years old. He had already suffered many heart attacks. He had been unable to work since 1963. In August 1966, he suffered a heart attack that was, we thought, his last. I recall riding with my brothers late into that August night. I watched the moon through the window of the car and thought, “Tomorrow morning my father will be dead.” And I didn’t know what it would feel like.

He survived that August night and lived a few more months, dying only on that April evening.

I don’t remember it, but I was apparently so distressed that the next day, April 12, a physician prescribed a medication to help me sleep. I recall napping on my bed that afternoon. I woke and lay for a time looking out the window at the trees in the fencerow across the dirt street we lived on. One of them, I thought, looked like a dinosaur: a Tyrannosaurus rex. I could hear the voices down the hall of our little house. And I remember thinking that, yes, my father had died, and he was still dead.

It is now forty-eight years later. I’m fifty-seven. Some days I am transported again into my childhood, into those days after my father’s death: wondering still what it means that he died.



I took this photograph with my Kodak Tourist. The Tourist is a very vintage camera that used 620 roll film. 620 film was precisely identical with 120 film, but it used a slightly smaller spool. Kodak stopped manufacturing 620 film back in the 1990s, but you can buy rerolled 120 film or simply roll your own–that is, take a roll of 120 film and roll it onto a 620 spool.

My Tourist is almost a point-and-shoot camera. Mine has a Kodet focus-free lens with a fixed shutter speed of 1/50th of a second (along with B [bulb] and T [time]). Its focal ratio is infinitely variable between f/12.5 and f/32.

I’ve found the images pretty soft: the Kodet lens was the cheapest available on the Tourists, and it doesn’t produce particularly sharp images. But the camera produces 6×9 centimeter (2 1/4″ x 3 1/4″) negatives, and I like that 2×3 format. And the softness of the lens gives the images an instant-vintage quality. I can safely put the #nofilter hashtag on these images!

The car is a Ford Crestliner, either a 1950 or 1951 model. I thought that it made a fitting subject for the Tourist camera, which is almost the same vintage as the car.

I shot the image on Kodak Tri-X film, developed in Sprint developer. I printed the negative on Ilford MGIV resin-coated paper, glossy finish. I then scanned the print and adjusted the image slightly in iPhoto.

Winter Sunset Through a Window (Old, Enigmatic Film)

Winter Sunset, Old, Enigmatic Film

This image represents an experiment.

Back in 2013, my father-in-law gave me a Sawyer Mark IV twin-lens reflex camera. The Sawyer shoots on 127 film–an older format, larger than 35mm film but smaller than 120 film.

Almost no one manufactures 127 film these days. (I have acquired some new 127 color film, but am a bit reluctant to shoot it.) I bought three rolls of black-and-white film from eBay. The film was enigmatic: it was wrapped in foil wrapper identifying the film as “panchromatic” film, but it contained no other identification. When I opened the wrapper, nothing identified the manufacturer of the film. Nothing identified the film speed. And, of course, I had no idea how to develop it.

I shot a roll in my Sawyer, and my six-year-old daughter shot a roll in her Kodak Brownie Starmatic. I guessed the film was originally an ASA 100 (now ISO 100) film. I exposed it as if it was 25 ASA film–that is, I overexposed by two stops.

I developed both rolls using a technique that I sometimes use for Kodak Tri-X: I diluted Kodak HC-110 developer 1:100 in water. Then, after filling the developing tank, I agitated it for thirty seconds, set it down, and let it stand for sixty minutes. This is known as “stand developing”–“stand” precisely because you let it stand and don’t agitate the film in the solution.

I had a bit of trouble spooling my roll of film onto the plastic spool that holds it in the developing tank. The film was so brittle that a portion of it broke off. But the broken portion was on the leader section of the film, and I didn’t lose an image.

I was pleased to find that I had obtained images. The film is spotted and grainy, but I have images!

I didn’t try too hard to get artistic images. I just wanted to try out this enigmatic film. I took the shot here through the window of our living room. It was a hazy winter afternoon, and the sun was setting through the haze. That meant that the scene had a very wide dynamic range. The film captured more of that range than I really expected. I printed the image onto Ilford MGIV resin-coated paper, glossy finish.* This paper is pretty contrasty, and I probably lost some shadow detail. Then I scanned the print on my 2008-vintage scanner, which eliminates detail in both shadows and highlights. Woo-hoo! (I’m planning to buy a better scanner.)

Again, I’m not offering this as an artistic image. It’s really just a story about using a beautiful vintage camera and some really funky film–and still getting a result!

* I’m lazy and cheap, so I use only the Ilford resin-coated paper. It’s easier to handle than fiber-based papers.

At the Light End of the Street

The Light End of the Street This past Sunday evening (March 22), I put out our trash and recycling cans. It was snowing, and this was the scene at the end of our street. (We live on a dead-end street.) I took this shot with my iPhone 5s and edited it a bit. I was reminded of James Carr’s great song “At the Dark End of the Street”:

Carver Park, Busch Pressman

Busch Pressman, Carver Park 1

I took this photograph a few weeks ago using my Busch Pressman Model D, a folding 4×5 inch rangefinder. I used a red filter to try to bring out some detail in the sky, which was quite hazy. I was holding the camera by hand, so I couldn’t use a particularly slow shutter speed; I think that I took this at 1/100th of a second. The red filter requires a three f-stop correction, so I probably shot this at f/4.5. It was a bright but hazy day, and those conditions will usually call for f/11 at the reciprocal of the film speed. I was shooting Ilford 100, so that would have called for a shutter speed of 1/100th of a second and a focal ratio of f/11. Given the three f-stop correction required by the red filter, I would have opened the shutter three stops (f/11 > f/8 > f/5.6 > f/4.5). I suspect that’s right, given that the cattails in the foreground are out of focus.

For what it’s worth: When I shoot 4×5 film, I record notes about the focal ratio and shutter speed. I have those notes for this photograph–but they’re lurking downstairs somewhere, and I just don’t feel like looking for them . . .

This is a scan of a contact print–that is, I made the print by laying the negative face-down on the photographic paper. The negative is 4×5 inches, and so is the print.

You can make contact prints without an actual enlarger. You can use any light source to create a contact print. I happened to use an enlarger as my light source–but the image itself was not enlarged.

Long ago, contact prints were very common. I have purchased a bunch of old snapshots, and I’m confident that most are contact prints made from medium-format film: 120 or 620 or 616 or the like.