Printing at 11

My childhood with Susan (a.k.a. Mom) was, to say the least, unconventional, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.

I have many fond memories of life as a photographer’s son but perhaps one of my favorites was the night I realized that maybe I could follow in my mom’s footsteps.

Susan started shooting horses at two-day events in the Phoenix area when I was about 11 or 12. She would shoot on Saturdays, process all night (frequently not sleeping), and then sell/shoot on Sundays. On one occasion, we attended a show in Tucson, AZ, about a 3-hour drive from our home in Phoenix. Since it was too far to go in one day, Mom packed her camera and darkroom equipment into the car and headed off, 3 kids in tow, to Tucson.

The car broke down about half way to Tucson. The garage it was towed to said it needed a new engine (and they probably weren’t lying). Running late for the show at a used car dealership on the outskirts of Tucson, Susan managed to buy a new (used) car, somehow convincing the right people she qualified for the loan.

We arrived at the show grounds and Susan started shooting immediately while my sisters and I tooled around the show grounds looking at the horses and people. When the show ended for the day, we all went to the nearest hotel and started unpacking the car and setting up the darkroom. Being a father myself, I suspect that sentence should read: “we all went to the nearest hotel and Mom started unpacking the car and setting up the darkroom while my sisters and I fought over who got which bed.”

Some time around 11 PM, she finished processing the negatives and woke me up so I could start printing. Now, before you think, “OMG, that’s child slavery!”, besides the fact that in most states it’s legal to make your kids work for the company, I WANTED to do the printing and knew what it meant (staying up most of the night). I liked the solitude of the darkroom, the challenge of producing a perfectly printed image. As a young boy it did a lot for my self-esteem…

The first hour or two went fine but somewhere around 1 AM I started getting really tired and wondered if there wasn’t a faster way to get all these pictures printed. Knowing that my mom was technically a good photographer and looking at the excellent exposure of the negatives, I tried just guessing what the exposure times should be for each (rather than running a test, which nearly doubled the work). After a few tried, I realized I could, in fact, guess what the exposure time under the enlarger should be for her images and finished the job an hour or two later.

When she woke up in the morning and found all the pictures printed, she asked what time I went to bed. When I told her that I guessed on exposure times and got to bed early, she congratulated me with a big smile (a chip off the old block?) and off we went to reap our rewards.

My interest in photography continues to this day, but there was something about that moment, about that smile of hers, that will stick with me as one of the high points of my own photography path. For what it’s worth, although we continued to have a darkroom in our bathroom for much of my adolescence and I continued to guess exposure times, the pictures never turned out quite as good as at that show. Must have been the photographer…

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