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|| News Item: Posted 2014-10-03

“But Tri-X? That was all mine. Mine to create with, mine to develop, mine to cut up and stick into a negative carrier.”

By Matt Mendelsohn

Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

Photo by Matt Mendelsohn
I’ve always hated that Kodachome song.

If you came of age in the 1970’s, as I did, it was hard to escape Simon and Garfunkel going on and on about the virtues of that ubiquitous slide film, what with those nice bright colors and greens of summer. Ten times a day you’d hear that damn song emanating from some transistor radio, and I’d always cringe when they got to the lyrical punchline, “Everything looks worse in back and white.”

Not in my book it didn’t. In my little world, whizzing down streets on my ten-speed Schwinn Varsity, an Olympus OM-1 swinging precariously around my neck, everything was better in black and white. Because for all its colorful wonder, Kodachrome had one huge drawback, especially to this teenager in striped pants and plaid shirts: you couldn’t develop it on your own. No way, no how. It belonged to someone else, to some no-name lab that your own local photo store shipped it off to for processing. It was the original proprietary process! But Tri-X? That was all mine. Mine to create with, mine to develop, mine to cut up and stick into a negative carrier. And that’s why we’re here today signing the praises of truly the greatest film ever created.

In fact, when I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, to pilfer Paul Simon’s opening line, I’m always transported to the same place. Long Island, 1975, inside a large darkroom nestled within the industrial arts classroom. Under a faint red light, I’m squinting at a piece of paper floating in a tray of smelly liquid. My hands are rocking the tray, a tiny tide pool contained in blue plastic, and the five-by-seven inch piece of paper glides gently from one end to the other. With every jiggle, a tiny bit of developer spills over the edge, soaking my fingers.

Suddenly, from below the surface, something happens. An image begins to emerge, always the same and always miraculous, no matter how many times it’s been run through the Super 8 projector of my memory: my schoolmate Andy Landes is standing on an empty soccer field, his right hand outstretched and palm open. He is wearing a winter parka. Thirty or so feet behind him stands another boy, David Bernstein, smiling broadly behind braces. He’s waving in the exaggerated manner of a silent movie actor. The boys are clearly far apart, but with some help from the principles of depth and perspective, concepts I might have paid more attention to in geometry class had I not been so mesmerized by the principles of photography instead, David appears to be magically standing in Andy’s palm.

My very first photograph—clichéd, not entirely in focus, and faded from too-little fixer—but most definitely ground zero of what would become the only life I’ve ever known. News photographer. Celebrity photographer. Sports photographer. Portrait photographer. War photographer, even. And yes, ugh, wedding photographer. But mainly just photographer.

Thirty-six years and a million images later (and hopefully better), I now understand the magic that day lay not in the parlor trick of making someone appear to be holding something huge, a gag scores of amateur photographers have tried with everything from the Washington Monument to the pyramids of Egypt, but in all of those products in yellow packaging from Rochester, New York that were delivered to the industrial arts department of the Mattlin Junior High School. The Kodak Microdol-X and D-76 that developed the film, the Dektol print developer that filled the tray that held the sheet of Kodak Polycontrast paper, and, most importantly of all, the little canister of Tri-X film that captured the picture to begin with.

Sixty years of Tri-X. Wow. I just might be starting to feel old. But to those of us who went on to careers in news photography, who remember years of stop bath burns on our knuckles that come from deep-tanking multiple rolls, or the way Blix, a combination of bleach and fixer, left temporary motel darkrooms looking like a scene out of “The Shining,” or three-hour debates with friends over the differences between grain structures in Tri-X and TMAX 400 (“but it looks more organic!”), the sense of both longevity and looming loss is as hard on the heart as squatting down to take a picture these days is on the knees.

Like the movie director character in “Cinema Paradiso,” standing in the piazza and watching the glorious theater of his childhood implode, the void is not so much in the specific place but in a way of life that will never return. No more grease pencil circles on contact sheets, no more lost dark slides, no more Type 55 and no more safe lights. No more waiting a few days for film to be returned from the lab. Days! I used to call it “Photographic Penance.” From 2001 to 2006 I worked on a Holocaust project with my brother, and we’d travel all over the world photographing survivors from one town in Poland. One trip we went all the way to Australia just to get a single portrait of two brothers, and I remember having to endure that excruciating plane ride home before knowing if I made a good picture. (My mirrorless cameras transmit happy snaps directly over Wi-Fi now; it’s hard to even imagine.)
But mostly I miss the dark.

Oh, the dark. It was a place that was all mine, something I could do that most other people couldn’t. Kids could always play tag football, or read comic books, but I could operate completely and utterly in the dark, flipping opening film canisters and dunking things like it was second nature. Maybe that’s it—I was Developer Man, my own secret super hero. (It’s funny, I get that same sense today when I watch my 11-year-old daughter play ice hockey, something you just don’t pick up.)

Back in 1976, I’d pedal my bike a few miles to the Town of Oyster Bay Community Park and head straight for the courts, where I’d photograph total strangers playing tennis matches. It didn’t occur to me that these folks might think it odd some scrawny teenager was lying on the surface of their reserved court, not to mention why on earth he was taking their photo. I had inadvertently stumbled on the photographer’s credo: it’s always easier to say I’m sorry than to ask permission.

My OM-1 was loaded with Tri-X and attached to a huge, plastic 400mm lens bought from a company called Spiratone. I was over-lensed, but for the rest of my life I’ve been mainly under-lensed, so it all evens out in the end. That Spiratone advertised in the back pages of comic books tells you something about the quality of their photo products, not to mention to whom they were hawking them. I didn’t care. I was a sports shooter. Well, kind of. Spiratone had dubbed their 400mm mirror lens the “Girl Watcher,” a brilliant marketing stroke if your main audience is the bar mitzvah set, and I’m sure that had something to with me plunking down $79.00 to buy it.

(Another company that advertised in the photography magazines back then was called The Latent Image. They would send you a roll of unprocessed glamour photos of a naked woman and you’d get to develop the roll in the privacy of your own home darkroom. Pure genius, speaking of bar mitzvah gifts.)

Once home, I’d race into the basement, my subterranean temple to Kodak. First came the prep. Back then Microdol-X came in powder form in a hard, bright yellow packet. Not particularly scientific, I relished my role as mad scientist, mixing developer and rapid fixer in my mother’s laundry sink, carefully eying up the levels and then proceeding to mix ounces and milliliters willy-nilly. My earth science teacher kept reminding me how we’d all be metric any day now, so I knew I needed to learn quickly. Good thing! Somehow in all of those years I managed to avoid spilling developer over those piles of folded shirts.

Chemicals mixed and heated to 72°, out went the lights and off to work I went, ripping open each film cassette with a can opener and loading it onto a developing reel. I had practiced so many times with a dummy roll that I could have probably assembled an M-16, too. In fact, by the time we were playing “The Hustle” in school band, I could crank open and load a dozen or so reels in the time in took my eyes to grow accustomed to the dark and realize just how many leaks there were in my father’s self-built darkroom. Developer Man didn’t care about light leaks!

Then the magic started. I plunged my loaded reels of Tri-X into the metal tank, affixed the rubber lid, and flicked the switch of the black Gralab timer above my head. (At my funeral someday, I’d like someone to make that Gralab buzzer go off. The sound is unmistakably finite.) Fifteen minutes later and I’m holding wet negatives in the air over my mother’s laundry pile. Negatives that showed the local Waldbaums supermarket burning to the ground on the coldest day I can ever remember, or a security guard being beaten up by a drunk man in a Jack-in-the-Box hamburger joint, or my high school teachers walking the picket line on strike. All little blips on the graph that would become my life as a photojournalist. And all courtesy of Tri-X.

Everything was most definitely not “worse” in black and white, dear Simon and dear Garfunkel. Everything was beautiful. I had my own skill, my own secret place, and my own lasting memories. David Bernstein, the kid “standing” in Andy Andes’ palm in that a first photograph, died at an early age. But I’ll always have that image, both the hard copy and the memory.

And it’s funny—even though it was never a huge part of my photographic journey, I do have one Kodachrome memory. It’s a photograph of my grandfather, Abraham Jaeger, taken around 1978. He’s wearing one of his familiar hats, the kind with the yellow feather, and his horn-rimmed glasses. It’s actually a pretty good portrait, especially since it was the last photo ever taken of him. The only thing that doesn’t quite work about the photo is the right side of the frame, a smiling Joy Remuzzi, a girl I had been making out with that morning in the backyard. She’s sitting on my grandfather’s shoulder like a parrot, one of the most unfortunate and funniest accidental double exposures I’ve ever made.

Ah, the latent images of an analog youth.

(Matt Mendelsohn is formerly a staff photographer with United Press International and the picture editor for USA WEEKEND magazine. Currently he is a freelance photographer in the Washington D.C. area. You can see his work at his personal website: .)

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