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Mom at the enlarger, 1949 | by Joey Harrison
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Mom at the enlarger, 1949

[Self-portrait and narrative by my mother.]


I purchased this inexpensive Federal 6.3 diffusion enlarger along with a developing tank, thermometer, contact printer, safelight, timer, easel, basic chemicals, trays, and tongs. From the beginning I was most excited about being able to crop and compose my images with the enlarger. The contact printer gathered dust while I fed roll after roll directly through the Federal, making 4x5 enlargements instead of contact prints.


An eye can detect in the darkroom an out-of-focus photo or a subject who has blinked at the moment of exposure or other fatal flaws that make a negative a candidate for the trash bin before ever being printed, wasting paper, chemicals and time.


I was frugal, and the enlarger enabled me. Thriftiness actually made me a better photographer! Not wanting to waste led to careful composition, focus, and exposure. Actually, I took few photos. A roll of 12 exposures yielded 10 keepers or more. I would go on an entire afternoon shoot with one roll of film.


During my day we were advised to bracket our exposures, taking one additional picture at a slightly larger aperture than the meter indicated, and one at a smaller – probably a wise precaution. The Dutch in me said, Take a careful meter reading, silly, and use the result!


After a few years of darkroom experience I bought a bigger, better condenser enlarger –

an Omega B4 – and disposed of the Federal. Then I missed it greatly and never quite got used to the new one. It was supposed to be an autofocus, but I always found myself sharpening the image, creating images that were startlingly hard and unforgiving. I think the Omega intimidated me. It now sits shrouded in plastic in the basement. I never get a rush of warmth when vacuuming around it, as I do when contemplating this old photo of the dear Federal.


I made an attempt in this photo to create darkroom-like lighting. I used just one 100-watt bare bulb positioned where the safelight normally hung, and of course I placed the camera on a tripod. Remember, we didn't have auto-focus cameras then, so the solution was to place something where the subject was to be in the photo, (here, me!) go to the camera and focus on it, screw the self-timer in, rush back into position, look composed, and wait for the shutter to click. What I did was rest a yardstick on my chair leaning on the enlarger about where my head would be, and focused on it. To look authentic, I should have had a negative image showing in the easel. I thought about it at the time actually. Fussy, fussy!


For some reason I must have reversed this image, because the uniforms I wore at work buttoned on the opposite side. Although the darkroom was at the doctor's office where I worked, I did my darkroom work after office hours. I was his "right arm" and he kept me hopping all day long. But I stayed after work in the evenings or on Saturday afternoons if I wasn't needed on a home call after Saturday morning office hours.


The doctor was an artist himself. He painted fine European-style scenes in oil on an easel in his wife's pleasant sunroom. So he followed the darkroom set-up with interest, commented on my photographs, and in general was really encouraging, in addition to providing an entire room for my use. (Lots of water too!) It didn't hurt that I photographed his children often, took passport photos of him and his wife before they departed on a European vacation, and made a still-life of his favorite comfy shoes tossed next to his well-worn "doctor bag." I mailed an enlargement to him at his kinfolk's address in Amsterdam. The photo was a hit!


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Taken sometime in 1949