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Primal Experience

Have you every contemplated the first experience that provoked your interest in photography, that determined a definite path in your life? It is essentially like a first kiss, ambiguous, intriguing and begging for more. These kinds of experiences are like an infection of the spirit.

My primal experience occurred when I was about 12 years old. I was visiting a school friend at his home. While I was there, I met his older brother, Desmond, who was preparing an intriguing activity. He had built a kite that as I recollect, resembled the box kites of Alexander Graham Bell. He carefully attached to the kite a Brownie box camera. A short string linked the shutter lever to, of all things, a mousetrap.

We followed him out into a nearby field where had me carefully hold the kite so that I didn’t trip the armed mousetrap. When a gust of wind picked up, he called to me to launch the kite as he pulled the kite chord and ran. Up, up and into the sky it flew. When the kite was well airborne, he manoeuvred it into a desired position. Then he took from his pocket a small piece of cardboard about the size of the side of a pack of cigarettes. It had a hole in the middle and a slot that permitted him to slip it onto the kite cord. The brisk wind pushed the small piece of cardboard upward, along the kite chord. Eventually it reached the kite and struck a mousetrap. The mousetrap tripped pulling the string attached to the camera shutter lever. Wow! An aerial photograph had just been made! But what had been captured in that image?

We repeated the exercise several times and when the roll of film had been completely exposed we returned to the house to discover what the camera had seen. Desmond invited me to follow him to the small darkroom that he had built in the basement.

This place was undeniably amazing. Practically everything in it was a creation of Desmond’s mind and hands. Apart from an Ansco film developing tank, everything had been built from scavenged objects, wood, wire, cardboard, screws and glue. As I remember (perhaps with a bit of romantic liberty) the safe-light was concocted from a large juice can, a lamp socket, light bulb, an appropriately coloured gel, glass and wire. The developing trays were old enamel basins and kitchen Pyrex baking trays. His enlarger was the ultimate, sophisticated elaboration. It had a plywood base, a wooden column, a wooden and cardboard negative stage, a lamp housing made of a can much like the safe-light and the bellows and lens of an old folding camera for an optical system.

After my tour of introduction to the darkroom, the magic was to begin; the door was closed and the lights were turned off. After a few minutes in the barren obscurity, as Desmond loaded the film into the Ansco tank, the light reappeared and the alchemy began. He brought out some large bottles filled with liquid and mixed another potion in the nearby laundry sink. After bringing all the liquids to the bewitching temperature, the exorcism started. Transfusions, agitations, waiting, repeated in cycles until, finally, the object of sorcery could be brought out into the daylight for inspection. He had truly transformed light into silver images!

The strip of film was hung up to dry with clothes pegs. I looked it and although I could recognize certain objects in the small rectangular frames I had no clear perception of the captured images. I had no experience looking at negative images.

Later, Desmond continued playing Houdini. He set up a row of Pyrex trays filled with liquids that produced new olfactory sensations which would forever awaken me each time I would enter a darkroom. Then in the dim illumination of the safe-light he unwrapped some enchanted paper, carefully placed the cut film strip on top of the paper and covered everything with a thick glass sheet. After a brief hocus pocus with white tungsten light, he removed the paper and placed it in the liquid of the first tray. We both peered at the submerged paper and in an instant the positive image began to appear in the tenebrous room. After bathing the paper in the subsequent solutions, to render the spell permanent, we turned on the ceiling light and took a good look. There they were, fascinating images of earthbound boys in a farmer’s field viewed from heaven! I was totally captivated!

Epilogue: I went home and found the old folding camera that my father had bought before World War II and spent my allowance on a roll of film! The last I heard of Desmond, he had won the Governor General's Medal for engineering studies at university. I have no doubts why.

Have you ever reflected on your own primal experience related to photography? If you would like to share it, please send us an email. Hopefully, we will be able to assemble a collection of these stories to share in some form or other.

Cedric Pearson
March 2009
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