May 17, 2012

5 Why I Hold a Camera: Part II

Part I, in case you missed it.

My first contact sheet. 
My high school had a fantastic photography classroom and two darkrooms.
This mecca of chemistry and drying racks was built and collected over many years by the first teacher to not only teach me the rule of thirds, how to hold a camera properly to minimize camera shake, and how to find complete peace under a safety light, but one of the first adults (besides my mom) who not only encouraged me to find myself but celebrated the awkward, unfinished, and often ragged and raw self I was becoming. 
I still remember conversations we had, word-for-word.
Many of my memories from high school take place in that classroom-
my friends writing cheery graffiti on my cubby name tag when I was having a horrible day;
(I still have that name tag, although it lost its sticky years ago)
fighting over the Dan-the-Man enlarger or the Breakfast at Tiffany's one-
the best two, nicknamed by the words previous years of students had scratched into the wooded dividers separating the Beselers;
taking quizzes on (Who's Your Inner Rockstar, What Car Are You, etc) during flex time, 
or tapping out my latest A.P. English short essay if there was one due that day.

Mr. Smiley's classroom meant freedom and promise-
everyone was someone in there,
each of us had something to bring, something to offer.
However, if you didn't do your best, you'd walk into critique knowing you were about to get cut down to size-
he was not about to let any of us let ourselves down.
His assignments not only taught me light, contrast, shadow, and perspective,
 but they taught me to capture the small things, how to photograph a stranger (with respect and asking permission- a tough assignment at any age, but especially at 15!), and to always check for poles growing out of my subject's head.
I don't know this man's name, but, to me, his face will always represent overcoming fear and learning respect.
I shot this at the FDR memorial during a trip to Washington D.C. with school.  I manipulated and used it for an assignment called "Pop-up."
The darkrooms were places to have deep, life-altering teenage conversations, punctuated by the steady tick of the timers.  Weekend plans were made while agitating hypo-eliminator, and life goals and world dilemmas (homecoming: to go or not??) were pondered while rolling film in the changing room.
I haven't rolled my own film in 6.5 years, but my fingers can still feel how to curve the film just so to get it to slide into the metal spiral.  The utter and complete blackness of the changing room meant a moment of silence (assuming I was in there alone; sometimes we'd double up both for time and for private conversation). I'd walk in, make sure I had all of my supplies- reel, tank, lid, can opener, scissors, and film- then turn off the light, simultaneously closing my eyes.  This process didn't change a breath throughout college.  If I set up my own developing supplies now, I guarantee it would all follow the same routine.  Muscle memory is incredible.

Mr. Smiley had an assortment of 35mm SLRs and even some medium format cameras for us to check out and use for class.  Those hardy old manuals, most of which were made long before I was born, were strict, unforgiving instructors.
When I got serious and was signed up for my second year of photography in 11th grade, my sister gave me an amazing combo Christmas-birthday present. 
I got to pick out my very own, brand-new SLR:
a Canon Rebel 2000, who I named Simon.
Simon is still a near-constant fixture in my camera bag, although I have conceded to TSA and stopped forcing them to hand-search my film both ways, so he often stays home over flying trips.
One of the cameras I constantly checked out from Mr. Smiley was a medium format tlr (twin lens reflex) with a waist level viewfinder: a Mamiya C330.
In college I found my own on eBay and named her Sophie.
Holding her cradled in my palm while I check my light meter, adjust my settings and focus, and wind the film with the fold-out handle is one of my favorite actions to this day.
120 film, or 6x6, or 2 1/4- whichever you call it, it's my favorite format.
contact sheet (from high school)
One of my favorite images from high school, despite the number of "rules" it breaks.  Also, note the white spot near the center- for the final image (given away) I had to touch that up by hand, with spot tone, a type of ink diluted to the shade needed.  (Photo's version of walking uphill both ways in the snow!)
Through all of this, I was nurturing my first true passion: animals.
I participated in a teen volunteer program at Zoo Atlanta, Junior Zoo Crew, every summer from 8th-12th grade.  I've got rolls and rolls of film documenting those summers, but to be honest, the flat images, no matter how much they make me smile, are most treasured because of the memories they stir up.
Spot (background) and Z- our zebras. 
Those summers were some of the best times of my life,
but they threw a wrench in my carefully laid plan (since as long as I can remember) of becoming a veterinarian.
I still wanted to work with animals more than ever, but I found myself wanting day-to-day relationships with them, not just sick visits.
The biggest problem, on top of all of that inner turmoil, was that I was falling head over heels for photography.

Next thing I knew, it was time to apply to college.  As I read brochure after course guide after student handbook, I found myself searching "majors" listings for photography AND zoology/wildlife/animal sciences.
UGA offered both, as well as GA's near undeniable gift to in-state students: the HOPE scholarship.

Come back next Thursday for the college installment in this series.  


  1. After a crappy day with absolutely no inspiration at all it really is invigorating to read what inspires others (and, yeah, I do work part-time for Hallmark, writing those 'uplifting' cards ;-))

  2. Very interesting little story...I love the pictures that you posted here, especially that pop-up one. It's super creative. What camera do you use now? Or are you only using the cameras you wrote about?

  3. Laura, thanks! I like the pop-up one, too- luckily when we were visiting the monument my very cold friends were willing to pose for me! I was just excited to have it when the pop-up assignment came along. I shoot mostly with a Canon 50D now, but I still use my film cameras around Great Britain- I just don't travel with them anymore because of the hassle in airport security.
    Thanks for reading!!

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  5. I too discovered a passion in the same rooms as you. The smell of developer is nearly as comforting to me as that of home made chicken and rice.

    Mr.Smiley was both teacher and counselor to me and when I discovered he would not be returning my senior year I was devastated.

    The love for processing my own prints led to the moment that, in retrospect I realize, I began to fall in love with my husband. Showing Sean how to print, and watching him as he saw his first image come to life was a moment I will never forget.

    Smiley's class developed not just photographs, but truly developed a large part of who I am today


Thanks so much for stopping by! I can't wait to read your comment!

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