Out of the [darkroom] closet

In 1983, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, somewhere between chapters two and three of my dissertation, I stalled. I bought a bike and took rides around Fresh Pond. I bought a steel stringed guitar and got calluses learning finger style. And I got a key to the unused darkroom in the basement of Lehman Hall.

I bought some chemicals and paper and an enlarger. I went with Ilford supplies, which was actually pretty clever of me. In the era before the internet, I had to do a lot of work to teach myself all the things I needed to learn without a human to teach me. There was an extraordinary photography library in the Carpenter Center. More on that later. The armloads of books I took out did not have instructions on how to get my exposed film into the tank, far less into the enlarger. In retrospect I am astonished by my enterprise in learning this set of processes literally all by myself.

Why in the middle of Harvard Square did I not seek out a teacher? I think I was embarrassed. I was a historian, not an artist or a journalist. I certainly did not feel entitled to learn photography. And yet clearly at the same time I believed that the only way I could become a photographer was to learn the practice from beginning to end — from loading the film in the 35mm camera SLR to developing the film and printing the pictures. In fact I wondered if I could ever claim to be a photographer if I didn’t develop and print color film. Thank heaven for the digital era.

My childhood friend Maya in the 1980s

But, in other words, the same rules that made me think I could only be one thing also made me believe that to be another thing, I had to “be it” all the way.

As opposed to the twenty-five thousand photos I’ve uploaded to Flickr in the last few years (no, not kidding) I’ve got one or two hundred I’ve scanned from prints from the 1980s.The images that survive from those years of experimentation are precious to me. So is a relative stranger’s offhand comment about a photo I had just printed: a sapling in a snowy field. I thought it might be banal or hackneyed (qualities that scare me much less as I approach sixty than they did when I was thirty). “I like your eye,” he said. Pick up line? Nah. He came with a date.Thirty years later, you see, I still remember what the guy said.

The books I took home from what seemed like a massive library in the Carpenter Center — they were monographs in a very selective history of photography that I was teaching myself. I rifled the shelves and took the ones that appealed to me. I liked street photography and journalism. I liked black and white. I liked sharp edges and contrasty prints. I liked urban grit. All these qualities are still the ones that grab me at an exhibit or in a magazine. I’ll write another time about a European photographer I “discovered” this summer at the Jeu de Paume in Paris.

I think I liked these guys because they took pictures of the olden days. Of course they didn’t; they took cutting edge pictures of their own times: war, loss, catastrophes, madness,  play, who-knew-what-would-happen-next moments. But the same attraction that drew me to writing history drew me to these photographs. I’m still not sure how to name that attraction. That’s one thing I am after in this blog: to dissect and label the ineffable in words.

In addition to Capa and Doisneau and Brassai and Cartier-Bresson, there was one portfolio that I took out of Carpenter several times. It was by Elsa Dorfman, and I think it was Elsa’s Housebook. 

Elsa's Housebook: A Woman's Photojournal. David R. Godine, 1974

Elsa’s Housebook: A Woman’s Photojournal. David R. Godine, 1974.

What was thrilling about this book was that it captured a woman’s day-to-day brushes with celebrities on the rise, with academics, with her garden, with corners of her house — and it was a book. It was a book by a woman who dared to take pictures of moments of her life, lit by the sun or the clouds, against pedestrian backdrops. They were the pictures I wanted the confidence to take.

And indeed, as one Amazon reader points out, these were the pictures that Dorfman took before she was Dorfman, the supersized Polaroid portrait taker. She made herself into a photographer who rightly lands on lists of noteworthy photographers. And she did it with passion, with persistence, and with enough confidence to keep doing it.

Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan by Elsa Dorfman (1975)

Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan by Elsa Dorfman (1975)

And even still now. I had frozen her in time in the deep recesses of my memory, but she is now in her mid-seventies (and I am just about sixty, so …what was I thinking?). Her web page (elsadorfman.com) is playful and extensive. This article by Alicia Anstead offers a history of Dorfman’s Polaroid portraits.

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