As clearly as I recall my first kiss, I remember my first roll of film.
I was 17, and it was 1978 – no, not talking about the kiss (that was years earlier) but about the golden-haired teenaged girl who gradually appeared to me in the developing tray. As her brown eyes relinquished to middle grey (yet no less dreamy) she floated in a solution meant only for a world of black and white gradations … and I was in love. Yes, with her too.
This was the first photograph I had ever made.
My love affair with film, cameras and photography in general, began when my slightly older friend, Danny, handed me his camera. It was his livelihood, and today I understand his reluctance to let me touch it. It was no toy. It was a Nikon F, a hammer-full of solid metal, and the standard piece of equipment among professional photographers at the time. Finally, after pleading for months, he offered to let me make a photo with it. My childhood sweetheart, Jennifer, happened to be with me at the time, and she willingly became my first model.
Thus began my lifelong obsession with capturing all things beautiful.
Within an hour after exposing just a few frames, we were developing the roll of film in a narrow, half-bath sized darkroom he’d constructed. We then mixed chemicals for making prints. I don’t recall much of the process but I suspect Danny was on autopilot doing what was mere routine for him then, as it is for me today. But the magic bits – the clicking of the shutter, the angle of light, the latent image appearing from the shadows of an amber, otherworldly darkroom glow – remain indelible.
Thirty years later, I had the honor of reuniting with Jenny. She was in town for a small reunion with friends from the neighborhood. Naturally, our high school days were a topic at first but when I shared about my life as a photographer, she mentioned that first photo I had made of her; how that she had kept it safely stowed in her high school scrapbook ever since.
She made good on a promise to return the photograph to me after the reunion. Three decades of aging around the edges were obvious, but the still, silent, subtle quality of life ebbed forth from it. Jenny, forever to remain 17 years of age, veiled within the curls of this magic leaf of 8×10 Kodak paper.
I believe photographs have a life of their own. Just as our bodies will fall away to brittle nothingness, allowing our spirits to fly, the images we make – no matter how archival – fade. But should they disappear from our physical presence, they will continue to live in our minds and hearts, just as those who have passed out of our lives do when we recall their spirit.