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What's in a Negative?
There are Stories in Nearly Everything
Before writing something truly profound, I had thought to offer this “quick” appraisal of a still-life image I had taken many years ago. Unfurling the energy in this matter proved to be more involved than I had anticipated, with connections still alive. Therefore, take the ride with me.
Recently, I became intrigued by a photograph in my collection, derived from negatives I had produced in my first years as a photographer. I took my first decent photo or two when I was about six but had to wait until I was twelve for more in-depth instruction. My father had been trained as a photographer and graphic artist, in Vienna. War and fate compelled him to leave Europe as a refugee, and though he continued to take marvelous photographs, his profession turned to the food and lodging trade, in part compelling us to travel often and to live in a number of places in the world, including the suburban Dayton bedroom in this photograph.
By the time I exposed the image I was regularly using my father’s Rolleiflex medium-format camera. It was capable of magnificent imagery, given proper care and conditions, and I would often find it irresistible to capture something that looked good on the camera’s beautiful ground-glass screen. I was lucky enough, just out of the 6th Grade, to have had a darkroom across the hall from my room, and that is where this image was developed. Nonetheless, the first darkroom I used regularly was at the Dayton Art Institute where a summer photography course had given me the basics of serious photography from camera exposure to producing glossy prints. It was a lovely time.
My father and I set up a darkroom in my bathroom (which was itself two little rooms which helped keep it light-fast). He lent me all of his equipment, which had last been used in the hotel suite where I saw my first years of life, in Aruba. The result of all the darkroom work done over roughly seven years (including yet another bathroom at yet another address, this time in the City of Dayton) was an impressive collection of glassine-wrapped negatives. When I moved to New York, I did not take these to the great city only to have them damaged or lost, so I allowed them to remain in a closet back at home.
My father let me know at some point that he had collected everything and put them in “a box”, which survived a water leak and a next-door fire. Back in New York, I’d become concerned that my negatives might at some point have become lost or damaged; I felt foolish for not having secured them earlier, but ever the fatalist, I accepted the possibility of chaos ruling all and every. Interestingly, I could never seem to find “the box” on visits home. I imagined that they’d turn up, or that I’d simply remember to ask for them sometime, always afraid even to travel with them by air, should something happen.
The aforementioned fire caused my father to have to move to an apartment down the hall. Most of our possessions – most dating from the time my mother was still alive, and many finding their origins in the Aruba suite – survived, although a number were hauled away by a rather unscrupulous national company that claimed to treat all belongings for minor smoke damage. Though they treated the things, a number of them never returned – clothes included. My father, now approaching his late 80’s, had limited energy to fight the company over these injustices, and I was 600 miles away maintaining a full-time job. Once again, entropy and chaos interfered. Amazingly, it was on a shelf in a bedroom in this newer apartment that I found the treasured negatives – neatly stacked up to the top of the box – undamaged. Once again, I didn’t take them. After all, I now knew they were safe in a bone-dry apartment unit. It took my father’s final illness (brought upon by a fall) and death, six weeks later, for the negatives and I to be reunited. I had spent the harrowing weeks with Dad filled with hope and despair, and when he stopped breathing one late morning in Hospice, I gathered valuables for the long drive back to New York. I escorted the box of negatives back to Manhattan.
I purchased the best film scanner I could find and went to work – spending so many uninterrupted hours scanning negatives and slides that I nearly made myself ill. I was diverting myself from reality, but I was also running toward the memories that had made up my life. I started a vast folder of scanned images, learning as I went, about what I had seen and what my parents had seen. They left large quantities of slides and negatives that told stories of a honeymoon, people they had met, trips around the States and the Caribbean, and the raising of their only child.
I recently noticed this still-life picture in the collection and realized that it told a story.
Pictured is a shelf that served as a nightstand for me. My bed was to the right. This was located in an expansive apartment complex of about eleven Tudor castle-like buildings on acreage in a place called Madison Township – a place that no longer exists as it was absorbed into the once village of Trotwood, Ohio. Trotwood has the distinction of being the only so-named town in the United States, and I’d heard that its namesake was Betsy Trotwood from Dickens’ David Copperfield.
I had preferred to live in cities, once spending a few years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, with a view of tin roofs, electrical transformers, and the Eastern Airlines Building. The suburbs seemed isolated, even unprotected. One drove for everything, though I managed to bike to the nearest mall at least once, through thick traffic. When I needed my fix of city I was known to walk three miles to the end of the nearest Dayton trolleybus line which would take me all the way Downtown.
But to the photograph – here’s what I see. A scene from the winter of 1977-78. Two watches: a Girard-Perregaux (years later lost in a taxi in San Fransisco) (and my added Twist-o-Flex band) given to me by my father, and a Timeband LED wristwatch. LED watches were the rage in the late 70s, and the price had just come down on the cheaper ones. They had been very expensive only a few years before, but this one could be had for $49.95 at Rike’s department store where I proudly purchased it. I quickly ran down its first battery, unable to resist frequently checking the time and date and watching the seconds elapse. It was fascinating even to watch the date change at midnight if you were up for that. Below the Timeband is a knob from my Radio Shack Archer shortwave radio kit. I had assembled the radio with a soldering iron and had managed to get it to work for a while before it became static-only. Perhaps I had soldered too much, too hot. Yet it represented one of my many escapes from suburban stasis.
There’s a Waterpik wand next to the knob. I used the appliance for years, although it resided in my parents’ bathroom. Perhaps this was my personal item, then. I loved the idea of a tank of water vanishing as its contents shot out under pressure in a fine stream.
The cloth napkin likely represented a meal had in the bedroom. The cough syrup (possibly from J.C. Penny or Gold Circle), the thermometer and the Hall’s cough drops strongly suggest that I had been ill – particularly with a cough. This, then, had to be the same year (1977) as a terrible deep freeze (-21°F) or even around the time of the infamous blizzard of February 1978 where we were apartment bound for days.
The house keys bear my name and a 1976 date, instead of an advertiser’s logo. Keys were vitally important at the time. I’d come home from school often alone. On rare occasions I’d have forgotten my keys and would have to walk to the office in the center of the apartment complex and beg for the house key. I think a manager had to do the honors and come back with me.
The clock radio is a SONY model from the late 60s. It had been my parents’ bedroom radio when we’d lived in Puerto Rico. When new it had appeared very modern and sleek – up on little legs that allowed the speaker to be on the bottom. I used its sleep timer and alarm for years. After the apartment building fire in 2005, I agreed to let it go in a decluttering push. Later, out of regret, I found another one on eBay which was exactly the same, and I still keep it. For a time it was on my desk at work.
Sitting atop the radio is likely a pad of paper (always in evidence) and a copy of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath which I was tackling for a class at school. The hairbrush’s provenance is also late 60’s – these items not just representing time shifted but of latitude and longitude.
The ring is sterling silver (since lost) made for me by my Aunt Jo (Joan, pronounced Jo-Ann) who was enjoying a silversmithing class after work. It said “Dayton” on it, but due to the difficulty of working a wax mold of that size, it appeared to say “Davton”. I was thoroughly immersed in the cities where I lived, but I never really had a home base that was better-defined than Dayton, as my mother’s side of the family had been there since the end of the Nineteenth Century. I was learning its history. It anchored me. To that end, the Craig MacIntosh book is called The Dayton Sketchbook and features many pages of fine pen and ink drawings of Dayton buildings – some no longer in existence. I can’t identify the magazine.
An envelope bears my name and current address of the time.
The car is a Hubley kit model made of metal. It’s a Duzy (a Duesenberg) with superchargers made of fine springs. You had to file down the edges of the parts. I’d even painted it, after my father showed me how to prime a surface, sand it, then paint it again with Testors model paints (or sometimes spray paint). I never got around to painting the trunk. The tires’ white sidewalls were only paper decals, to my slight disappointment.
There’s a marble sill (unexpected for an early 70’s suburban apartment), a bit of the landlord-issued drapery (and single-pane windows, out of frame) which frosted over in the depths of Winter.
Then to the bookshelf. These are old friends which remain to this day. Even the bookshelf remains – standing only a few feet from where I am writing. That was originally part of my parents’ newlywed furniture in 1958, in a suite at the Hotel Albert Pick Miami in Downtown Dayton where my father was catering manager. He had even done the honors with his own wedding. One volume on the shelf in particular was a bar mitzvah gift from a Danish couple my parents knew. Is America All Used Up? Is the title – a kind of rough and cynical message for a 13-year-old, but I suspect they gave it to me because of its great vintage photographs, they knowing that photography and I would be continuing on for a while.
There’s a Gluyas Willams book of satirical cartoons tying into my love of drawing. I had drawn since practically infanthood. These days I have to coax myself back into it, whenever a greeting card is needed, but the need is still there. I can communicate with it.
There’s a large beige volume on the right entitled Modern Coin Magic by J.B. Bobo – a famous book on closeup magic given to me by my Uncle Martin who was a professional magician (as well as a chemical engineer). What’s astounding is that Uncle Martin had Xeroxed (I believe on an actual Xerox at work) the entire volume, having been unable to locate a copy of his own. Every other page, then, is glued to an image of its reverse side (double-sided copying probably not existing then), and the whole thing is properly bound in library-grade buckgram.
Just to the lower left, in shadow, is an LP cover, I think to a Fats Waller Biograph record of piano rolls, purchased not long before at Peach’s Records and Tapes in Dayton. I was still becoming acquainted with classic jazz, still learning that I might just play it sometime.
I’m past 2100 words here, but I will make one more identification. Just ahead of the clock is a small object that I was unable to figure out initially. Sunglasses? No. Part of a tie? – not so. And then it was solved: my retainer. If there were ever a more period indicator, that might be it – that painful contraption that pushed molars back into my head for some reason through slow torture – that bridle on which I could change the elastic decorative band – that symbol of parental appropriateness that, amazingly, most kids had learned to ignore or simply endure as worn by others – was at my bedside in this picture. I had learned to love the pain, for whatever reason I had to have it.
In late May of 2019, an unusual weather pattern starting in Chicago sent an EF 4 tornado through the apartment complex, damaging a corner of our former building and utterly destroying others. Though no one was killed, complex never recovered. As of this month, it is due for total demolition. Much as I had feared tornadoes in Ohio, our apartment was unscathed.
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