Chester Martin Remembers Film Photography

Wednesday, April 5, 2017 - by Chester Martin

Neither of my two grandsons would recognize a roll of film! They are both in their  mid twenties and have never had to count their change, nor scrimp and save, to buy a roll of film.

That fact alone is one of those wonderful things about this modern age, because I remember when saving my pennies to buy film was not one of the things automatically built into my budget. It was mainly when Great Aunt Tilly had promised to pay a visit next Sunday that you needed to scurry around and make sure there was an extra roll of film on hand.

My mom was a very fashionable young lady in the teens and twenties of the last century. Through good jobs (with only a high-school education from Central  H.S.) she had enough money to buy stylish clothes, a new car - and a Kodak "Brownie" camera. This latter item she always referred to as her "Kodak", and never as her "camera". It used 116-V (for Verichrome) film, and she took thousands of great pictures with it - most of which were in good, clear focus. That Brownie camera is the only thing remaining of her "Roaring Twenties" souvenirs!

With such a camera there was very little fuss to be made over, "Should I have done This first, or That"? You simply aimed and clicked the button. Only problem was the film. Would there be enough? What if Aunt Tillie DID come, or that weekend trip DID come about instead? - would there be enough film to carry you through?

Nearly any drugstore would have "your" type of film available, as camera types were fairly standardized, and most were made by the same company, Eastman Kodak. And it was for many years all black-and-white. But if you had any kind of off-brand or professional equipment, the drug stores did not have it. You needed a really good camera shop - and Chattanooga had ONE such good and reliable place: Violet Studios, located on East 7th Street, near Market. (There was at least one other such camera place that carried purely "professional" equipment). But most people - principally those who did not work downtown - bought all their film and had it processed through drugstores in their neighborhoods.

Color film for mom's Kodak became readily available after WW2, and it was a good deal more expensive than black-and-white - too expensive for us to buy more than one roll at a time, and at very infrequent intervals. Results with this color film were often disappointing, with weak and washed-out areas in the pictures which rapidly faded. We actually preferred the crisper black and white images.

Film had been extremely scarce during WW2, so color slides - already known before the war -  came into vogue soon after, and everyone oohed and ahhed over the bright, realistic color of the "Kodachromes". Slides became all the rage for a long time. But slide projectors, screens, etc., could not be compacted into smaller sizes. Methods for showing your beautiful slides remained very old-fashioned, and forced you to deal with each slide individually. Just keeping them in order after you had shown them was a constant problem. Such problems led to an "improvement" known as the "carousel" projector - a very clunky piece of equipment to move around, with the round trays of slides - all very hard to store, and taking up a lot of room in closets. This equipment was also pretty pricey, so it left ME using my 19th Century type of projector (although quite new).

Lamar Tribble, a neighborhood friend (and later Baptist Missionary to South America), had access to his father's dark-room. Mr. Tribble was a professional photographer and had a large quantity of (photo) printing paper that was now out-of-date. He gave it to Lamar, and I learned the "secrets" of printing my own pictures from him! (Lamar was one year ahead of me at Anna B. Lacey Grammar School).  For a boy of 10 or 11 that was great fun, and I felt very "grown up" about the experience of printing my own pictures. A few years later I was able to print pictures for sale at the Jones Observatory, as there was a really excellent dark room on the premises there. The nickels and dimes which that project generated each week were put toward the fund to finance a new planetarium...

So, to do photography "back in the day" you needed film, plus the additional cost of getting it developed and printed. OR, if you had your own dark-room you needed a "tri-chem pack" of chemicals, plus some special equipment like a simple printing-box (mine was home-made) where you laid out your negative with the light-sensitive paper on top, made your exposure (through a wasteful trial-and-error process) before developing it in the messy chemical solutions. If you had made slides, you had to send your exposed film out of town, and then wait about two weeks before they were returned by mail. But the pics you find in your grandparents' ancient albums were usually very small, indicating the expensive nature of old photography. Enlargements would have cost a great deal more.

If you were rich enough to own an 8 mm movie camera, that would be an additional expense beyond the price of the camera. You would need a special movie projector, although you could use the same screen as for your slide projector. ALL these old systems (slides and movie projection systems) were downright hard to deal with!

Years later, in the 1970's, I fell in love with Polaroid equipment. We had a Polaroid camera at work for photographing each piece of artwork we did before shipping it out to the client. Our camera had three or four special lenses, plus a pull-out measuring tape for making accurately focused close-up shots. I duplicated the same equipment for my own home use, and later obtained a state-of-the-art Polaroid SLR (Single Lens Reflex) camera - which soon became obsolete! It was, for me, very expensive, and now lies here on one of my shelves, totally useless. Film for it was at least one dollar per shot, and only color film was available. But it served a good purpose for a time.

I was rather late in getting into computers, but by 1995 or '96 I had made the transition. Once I had gotten the "hang" of digital photography I was hooked! All of the above problems suddenly vanished into thin air, and I now own a digital camera (more than one, actually) with picture cards where I could travel around the world shooting dozens of pictures of the Taj Mahal, Mt. Fuji, and/or London's Tower Bridge - all on that single card, purchased years  ago! I can re-charge my camera's battery overnight, and view my images instantly on any of the devices I wish. Violet Studios went away overnight, as did many another photography studio across America - totally superseded by the Digital Revolution!

I have met photographers in various chat-rooms on the Internet who still swear by "film" photography, but they pay a lot of extra cash to stick with that conceit. (The 35mm movie industry keeps "film" alive, but you cannot find rolls of 35mm film for domestic use anymore).  And I believe Polaroid still produces film for 1:1 reproduction of such projects as the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. But I for one have NO such need, and would never touch another roll of film if it were the last thing on earth! Those "horse and buggy days"(of Photography) are long past!

Perhaps the only thing I miss about the old photo shops is the good smell! There was always a mild odor of pungent chemicals emanating from a workroom, never seen, where photos were being processed, dried, and printed. That good odor indicated the "high-tech" of the day; the "Wheels of Industry", if you will. It was the kind of odor to inspire many a young boy or man and get his creative energies going.

But I remember sentimentally those earlier days and still keep my mom's ancient Kodak Brownie as the sole relic of those times.

---

Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net.


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