Baribie Power: Standing in the old dark room taught me one thing — waiting is good and ‘instant gratification’ is not always the most fun
Recently I found myself in a shop that had once been a regular weekly hangout for me, only to realise I hadn't darkened its door in more than a decade. What happened?
The answer is: digital cameras and smartphones. I used to be in and out of the photographic store almost every week, printing up baby images to dispatch to friends and family. I am a photography nerd and I was fastidious about filing away all my baby mementos, along with the photo negatives in envelopes in shoe boxes. I think 'new mum-itis' turns you into this worker bee who can pack in unbelievable amounts into your waking hours. I managed to assemble memento albums and even wrote a diary to my first born to chronicle all the moments in those early days. Of course, that all ended when child number two came along, when the art of collecting mementos went out the window.
Sifting through boxes of old photos recently, my daughter commented about my impressive output of first-born photos of her brother but, in reality, she didn't fare badly and was a natural in front of the camera. It's one of those little ironies in life that the schoolboy who groaned every time I produced my camcorder (remember them?) to record school occasions and birthdays chose that very field of endeavour and now spends his days either shooting or editing video footage.
Maybe it was the DIY streak in me but we never arranged to have formal family portraits taken - you know the ones where everyone is wearing jeans and white tees and have impeccably clean feet. I preferred the candid, home-grown family snaps.
There's an emotional uplift from viewing those old photos too and, somewhere in the attic, if the mice haven't got to them, there should be reels of 8mm film that my mother shot which needs some attention before we hold a family reunion of three generations of cousins.
Now the digital age has called a halt to all of that and I've missed out on collating photos from the last 10 years. I stopped making the pilgrimage into town to get photos printed up and now so many of our family memories languish on unnamed memory cards or smartphones, or were lost forever because I forgot to back up the phone.
Determined to remedy the situation, last week I brought down boxes from the attic and found a whole sheaf of black and white photographs I'd taken and printed up myself in the studio at college to impress a beau for his birthday. They were wildly out of focus, but I maintained it was the 'David Hamilton' effect I was looking for in the pictures, which showed him chasing waves on a winter's day. I thought I was Snowdon in those days, armed with my trusty Russian-built Zenit 35mm camera,
Once I joined the Indo staff as a cub reporter, I took particular interest in the photographs that my colleagues took when out on jobs together. Stomping our feet to beat the cold outside the Dáil on Budget Day, I'd be quizzing them about their cameras and their shots. They put up with my questions politely because they were 'old school' newspaper men. Not quite trilby hats with press card stuck in the grosgrain band, but real pros who knew how to get the best shot on the day.
But that wasn't all.
Then there was the dash back to the office to see what they'd captured. After typing my story, I'd often go upstairs to the photographic department on the top floor of our old building on Dublin's Middle Abbey Street to see what was being revealed in the dark room. It was a lively spot with its own distinctive fragrance created by the 'fixer' developing fluids. It was smokey and noisy and, best of all, it had its own resident ghost which put people off going there alone at night.
Some people have a travel bucket list but as far as ticking off experiences goes, I would recommend developing your own picture in a darkroom because there's nothing quite like it. Developer, stopbath, fixer and then hang the film to let it dry. I loved having the opportunity to go behind the black curtain and watch the roll of film come alive in those baths of clear fluid. Some of the snappers used the tongs while the more impatient ones didn't worry about getting brown finger nails and plunged their hands in to grab the image emerging under the red light.
In stark contrast to our digital cameras today, there was no instant gratification of knowing you had bagged the 'money shot'. You had to wait and see. This only added to the excitement. Were the person's eyes open? Had they captured that unexpected moment? They never knew until they pulled that reel of out of the cannister and got it into the studio. It taught me one thing - waiting is good.
One of my favourite photographers to chat with while we were out on jobs together had worked with Senator Robert Kennedy in the States. We always had Life magazine at home and I remember poring over photos of Jackie Kennedy, with her hypnotic, wide-placed eyes and polished style. You can imagine my delight when I was invited to the American ambassador's residence when JFK's sister, Mrs Jean Kennedy Smith, was appointed the American ambassador to Ireland. I strategically plonked myself (and my mum who was also invited) beside the piano where there was a stunning collection of photographs of the Kennedy clan. Afterwards the ambassador was kind enough to talk me through some of them.
Earlier this month, I travelled to London to attend a fashion party and I visited a new photographic exhibition which had caught my eye for one simple reason - it was about the Kennedys. The photographer, Mark Shaw, became a close friend of JFK and Jackie after chronicling their private and public life as he moved from presidential hopeful living in Georgetown to president. Six of his striking photographs from the Proud Gallery exhibition and the stories behind them are published in Weekend magazine this Saturday. Seeing the exhibition released a new passion for collecting photographs - and for backing up my phone so I don't lose any more photos ever again.