‘Reflections’ on Photography

The theme of the upcoming annual meeting of Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) is “Being Centered in an Uncentered World.” The first evening session will be “Finding Truth and Beauty” where I will share my photographs “as a focus for how we find truth and beauty in the world.”  I’m happy to have this opportunity, and but am now trying to figure out how to do that.

Most of the time will consist of a slideshow of photographs while the audience sits in silence for about an hour, followed by people sharing their thoughts. (Quakers are used to sitting in silence because that is how we worship on Sunday mornings.)

But this will begin with me introducing the subject, and this blog post will be one way I try to begin to figure that out. This will be disorganized, a rough draft. The introduction during that program should be very short so I’ll have to radically condense the following.

I feel fortunate to have lived before the introduction of digital photography. I began to learn about the process of developing film and printing images in the darkroom at Scattergood Friends School, where there was a simple darkroom.  I got just one lesson, that didn’t last more than 20 minutes, and then was on my own. I ruined some film at first during this trial and error process.

In those days (late 1960’s) all darkroom work was with black and white film and paper. The newly introduced color film was always sent away for processing. Developing the film and prints was a very exacting process. Before you took any photos you had to decide what type of film to use. Some was for low light situations, some was for great detail, etc. After taking the photos, the film had to be unloaded from the camera and rolled onto the developing spool in total darkness. Then you had to determine the correct time to leave the film in the developer fluid that was poured into the film tank. Next, the developer was washout off the film with water. ALL of the fluids involved had to be at exactly the same temperature. If not, the silver emulsion of the film would begin to form crystals that would give the photos a grainy look. So you would be watching the thermometer constantly, and manipulating the hot and cold water to keep the temperature constant. Next the fixer was poured into the developer tank for the correct time, and same temperature as the developer and water bath. Then the film was again washed with water, maintaining the exact temperature. At that point the film was removed from the canister and hung up to dry. A weighted clip was placed on the bottom of the strip to keep the negatives from twisting up as the plastic dried. This had to be done where there was little dust, otherwise the dust would settle on the negatives and would be seen when the prints were developed.

After drying for about 8 hours, the negatives were cut into lengths of about 5 inches, and inserted into envelops for storage. Again the negatives had to be handle carefully so dust didn’t fall on them. And had to be held by the edges so you didn’t get fingerprints on them.

When printing the photographs, the room had to be completely dark except for dim lights with a red cover that wouldn’t damage the paper. The negatives were carefully placed in the enlarger, and set for the correct size, focus, and exposure length. You then decided which photographic paper to use. Some was for high contrast, some for detail, and surfaces could be shiny or matte finishes. Next you exposed a test strip, where each segment of the strip was exposed for a certain amount of time. For example there might be segments exposed for 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30 seconds. That strip was then developed, and you picked which exposure time had given the best result. You set the automatic timer connected to the enlarger for that time, placed the photographic paper under the enlarger, in the correct position, and with the correct side up, which was easy to mistake in the dark. After the paper was exposed, it was then placed in the developer, then rinsed, then placed in the fixer (which stopped further development when the paper was exposed to light), and then thoroughly rinsed to remove the chemicals. Finally, the paper was dried, either by hanging on a line, or being placed on a heated drum.

So black and white photography was an exacting technical process, which made it difficult to get good photographic prints. Cameras usually had 12 frames per roll, so you were very careful about the photos you took. Often one roll would have photos taken over a long period of time.

This is one of the first photographs I developed in that darkroom at Scattergood. It is of the entire school beginning a peace walk into Iowa City, about 12 miles away, during the October 15, 1969, Moratorium Day to Stop the War in Vietnam. I always thought it was a powerful image despite the poor technical quality.


Entire Scattergood Friends School marching 12 miles to Iowa City to protest Vietnam War

This photo was taken for the program for our Senior play, “The Dybbuk”. I had to make about 100 individual prints, one for each program. The Dybbuk was a kind of spirit which is why the figures are intentionally out of focus.


During the one year I spent at Earlham College, I worked on the yearbook, learning more about photography while doing so. I remember Tony telling me he liked my compositions, but that I needed to pay more attention to the light. That was an epiphany for me, to make the conscious connection between the light in photography and the Inner Light. Two of my photos from the yearbook, both of whom were my teachers; Hugh Barbour (religion) and Hal Hanes (calculus).


Also while at Earlham I got to know faculty member Thomas Mullen. He asked me to take the jacket photo for his new book, “Birthdays, Holidays, and Other Disasters.”



Photography has proven to be useful to me in many different ways. One of the first was when I was working with the Quaker Volunteer Service Mission (VSM) in an inner city neighborhood in Indianapolis when I was 20 years old (1971). There were no youth programs in the neighborhood. One of the things I did was teach the kids how to work in a primitive darkroom I setup in the bathroom. We would ride our bicycles around town to take photos, and then develop them. I can still see their faces (in the dim red light) when the images magically appeared on the paper. Through the magic of Facebook, recently two of those kids found me, and both talked about how they enjoyed working in the darkroom!

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