When I was younger, I would go out and shoot with the goal being 5 rolls. See, my developing tank at the time held 5 rolls. If I actually made the 5 rolls I felt as if I achieved my daily goal. I mean shooting 3 rolls meant that I was wasting chemicals because the tank held 5 rolls anyway.
I would process the film and make contact prints and search for that photo that made the experience even more memorable.
So one day Ding, (Ding McNulty (Curator of Prints and Pictures at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) asked me to bring in my months contact prints so he could see how I was thinking. A few days later, I did just that. I think I had about 70 sheets all nice and printed very well and shiny and looking so fine.
I handed Ding the box and he kinda gasped…..in disbelief. I instantly got nervous and realized that the darkroom secrets meant only for me was now naked in front of a real important curator at a museum. After 5 minutes, Ding asked me what I was doing, my method of working.
I explained about the 5 roll rule I set for myself and I was sure every master adhered to this kind of rule.
He took a magic marker, I remember yellow but I’m a B&W guy so yellow could be wrong and he boxed 3 images and told me to print them and come back.
When I returned in about a week, Ding looked at the prints. He once again used that marker and made shapes on the photos and made little notes. He told me to print the way he made the marks. This was the most exciting thing to me but I really didn’t get any of this yet. I returned in about a week once again and hold on…..(look, I was a Nam vet, poor upbringing in many ways, never went to college and this man was mentoring me without me even understanding why)….. so I showed the prints to Ding. He sat back and just studied each print as if he were looking at something so valuable that it would hurt to remove his eyes from them. That was the most important lesson I ever learned or would ever learn.
He sat back, placed the prints on top of my box and we started to talk. After a few minutes of I guess lecturing he asked me a crucial question. He said to me, “Don, do you see these 3 photographs?” Of course I see them, I made them, sheeeesh. “Don, do you see the 70 rolls of film here?” ( at this point I was elated because he saw the work, efforts and passion I had to get this 70 rolls of film.) He again asked me a question that the answer would rock my world for all eternity! What has more value to you, the 70 rolls or the 3 prints? I thought about for a few good minutes, sitting back in the chair like Ding always did. I inhaled thru my nostrils like Ding always did when he was deep in thought.
For some reason, even tho I breathed like Ding and had his posture in the chair, I kinda knew that his mind was in a place that I would work to achieve all my life. (I’m really good at what I do but truth be told, I’m not a pimple on Ding’s butt.)
So I answered when I really felt the answer. I said, I am sure that the 3 prints are the most important things to me. Then he said to me, “How many times can you get 3 good photos on a roll of film?” I answered 11 because I get 35 frames and this gives me 11 xs with 2 shots to spare or waste or whatever.
Don, why do you need 70 rolls of film that you can’t afford so easily to make 3 photos? Don’t answer! Just think about a possible answer.
Well, it’s been around 40 years since I was asked that question. Ding no doubt is curating the greatest most important exhibition of all time in HEAVEN. I’m really praying that at some point, no hurry either, that I may contribute to that exhibition.
I search for that answer every time I have my camera in hand, every time I sit and look at LightRoom, every time I look at my friends work on Flickr etc.