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|| News Item: Posted 2014-10-03

“Gene Smith was our Jim Morrison”

By Kim Komenich

Photo by Kim Komenich

Photo by Kim Komenich
It would have been in the summer of 1970 when I first held a roll in my hand. I was going to be a freshman in high school and I bought some outdated Tri-X and an Argus Autronic 35 camera at the “Buyers Bargain Barn” in Lathrop, Calif. I had built a phone booth of a darkroom in my parents’ garage and I equipped it with Paterson reels and a Vivitar enlarger. No sink, no ventilation and no clue as to what to do next.

Earlier that year I created my first “portfolio”— a bunch of Polaroid Swinger pictures of the family dog— which I used to successfully earn the Boy Scouts photography merit badge. I recall being exasperated that no matter how carefully I posed the damned animal, it wouldn’t hold still.

It took some time for me to appreciate the concept that the last thing a photojournalist wants is for the subject to hold still. We want verbs, not nouns. I came to understand that the best storytelling images have always been based on a collision of light, moment and gesture. And in those days, the photographer had to have an understanding of the limitations of their equipment and their emulsion.

That’s why Tri-X was so important to us. When I was in college I read in the “Darkroom” series of books from Lustrum Press that many of my heroes “pulled”

Tri-X by overexposing it and under-developing it for sharper images, wider latitude and finer grain. I used this process whenever possible.

It was a great concept, but the realities of daily newspaper assignments usually demanded that those of us who disdained the use of flash were forced to work on the edge of darkness. We used this amazing emulsion in combination with strange darkroom processes to achieve film speeds sometimes in excess of ISO 3200. I settled on D76 1:1 for ISO 200 and Acufine for ISO 1000 and up. It was the Wild West.

When I was 15, my high school photo teacher, Bill Forbis recommended that Glenn Kahl, editor of the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin, hire me as the paper’s “darkroom boy.” Kahl, it turned out, had just about written the book on breaking the rules with Tri-X. By the end of my first week he had shown me how to make deadline by developing Tri-X in Dektol, a paper developer, for a minute and a half, then squeegeeing the wet negative and putting it directly into the enlarger. This process yielded a smelly print ready for halftoning in about five minutes.

I became a disciple of W. Eugene Smith when I read the U.S. Camera “Man of the Year” cover story about his Minamata project in 1973. I was fascinated by his lifestyle, his passion and most importantly, his pictures. Gene Smith was our Jim Morrison. It was then that I realized that the camera could be a passport. I longed to be good enough to work for Life Magazine and do important international stories. I read about how Smith worked, most memorably about how he would load two rolls of Super Double-X Pan or Tri-X on a single Nikor reel to save time.

The demise of Life and the picture magazines coincided with the beginning of the “offset revolution” in the ’70s and ’80s. Newspapers began to invest millions in new offset presses and for the first time were able to print ROP (run of the press) color ads on any page. This was good news for my generation of photographers because publishers needed color photos to fill the pages. This led to a boom in newspaper photojournalism.

Photo by Kim Komenich

Photo by Kim Komenich

In the dark of the night, Komenich photographed a kidnapping in the early '80s, by pushing his Tri-X to ISO 6400.
After three years of working for the colorful Contra Costa Times in Walnut Creek, east of San Francisco, I landed my dream job working for Eric Meskauskas and Bob McLeod as a staff photographer for the San Francisco Examiner. The Examiner and its JOA partner, the San Francisco Chronicle, were late to join the ranks of the color metros. The papers were printed on an antiquated letterpress line until the late ‘80s. Letterpress would almost automatically block up the blacks and would give a toothy, almost gravure look to our photos. It was heaven for those of us who wanted to add drama to our work.

At the Examiner I was able to return to black and white and to once again concentrate on darkroom sleight-of-hand using Tri-X in the company of an amazing staff, including Nicole Bengiveno, Lee Romero and the man who taught me more about the power of the black-and-white image than any other photographer, Eli Reed.

But the writing was on the wall. The Examiner went color and Tri-X was replaced by Ektapress and Fujicolor negative film. We tried hard to use Panalure paper to make our prints look as soulful and important as those we made with our Tri-X negatives on Agfa and Ilford paper, but things just weren’t the same.

It’s hard to describe the intimacy a photographer can develop with an emulsion. It’s alchemy. You would know whether your Tri-X was heat damaged or out of date by the yellow cast you saw on the leader or that first bend that the film made as you pulled it from the canister. In the darkroom you could roll the D-76 developer between your pinched fingers and know if the soup was bad. You could feel it.

I guess what I miss most is the solitude. I remember standing alone in the pitch black of a hotel road darkroom after a dangerous day, with my arms thrust deep into a sink of 68-degree wash water for no reason while I waited for the fixer to clear my film. There, in the absence of every sight, of every sound, it was peace.

Tri-X gave us atoms. Photographers captured photons on Tri-X and then used chemical reactions to turn the latent images into negatives. In the end we had a tangible, fragile original that when printed, could, and occasionally did, change the course of history.

Tri-X accompanied us as we bore witness to the world. It was with us as we experienced the most exhilarating and the most horrific situations imaginable. I no longer possess the clothing I wore or the equipment I used, or for that matter, precise memory of many of the encounters I had, but I do possess the film. My negatives remind me of what a gift it was to be a photojournalist in those days. I will always cherish those frames.

(Kim Komenich is a former staff photographer with the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is currently teaching at San Jose State University. For more of Kim’s writing, check out these links: and Information on his documentary film “Cowboys” can be found at: . You can see Kim's website here:

Related Links:
Kim's website

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