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My First Photograph

Self Portrait with Popsicle, The Cummington Community, 1968

Everyone has a story about that moment, the one often experienced alone… even when in the company of others, the instant when one of your life-strands is forever changed. This is mine.

In the late 60’s, a perfect and dangerous time to be 21, a group of invisible patrons, inspired by the seductive idealism of that era, and perhaps a little bit by the romantic notions of Robert Rimmer’s book, The Harrad Experiment, spent the better part of a year interviewing art students around the country. Their intention…  putting 14 of them together with an equal number of free-spirited mentors, life and supplies on-the-house, with the single objective that we begin to work in a medium that was unfamiliar to us… presumably to determine how darkness was illuminated. I was tagged and became part of that tribe. I sold my BSA 500 Goldstar motorcycle to buy a very old VW with painted white angel wings, refrigerator tubing for brake lines and clothespins for throttle adjustments, and moved into a barn in an arts-centric commune in western Massachusetts called The Cummington Community.

We listened to Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin, did improvisational theater, built salt kilns, used barns as canvases, and I constructed what I imagined to be a darkroom with my only reference being David Hemming’s English-loft workspace in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-Up. Unlike the loft, my selected space was an unused and crooked donkey shed walled with opaque black silage plastic from a local farm supply to eliminate the light. My plumbing was a green hose, that had seen better days, hooked up to the main barn where we all lived on a single open floor. My mom had given me an ancient Russian enlarger she had purchased for 50 cents at a local church flea market… unique in that would set a negative on fire for any exposure lasting more than 9 seconds. My safelight was a caver’s headlamp with red cellophane… saved from a caramel apple wrapping.

On a run-a-way to New York, with fellow barn-mates, Martha and Tony, I had made exposures with my very first used camera, the exact same model, both precious and cheap, that Hemmings had photographed Veruschka on purple seamless in Blow Up. I was eager to see if it worked. I also had a manual, Enlarging Is Thrilling – Or the Joy of Making Big Ones Out of Little Ones, by Don Herald; a book printed in 1945 to serve as a manual for the Federal Model #269 enlarger in a suitcase for $39.50.

After processing my first roll of film in a tall Galliano bottle that I found behind the barn, I set up the donkey shed for printing. Selecting a frame, I placed the negative in the Russian enlarger’s negative carrier and exposed one of my 10 precious pieces of Agfa Portriga 111 paper, held flat to a board with masking tape, until I smelled the smoke. A deep breath in the darkness, I immersed my first paper exposure in a baking tray that held the Dektol developer. Nothing…  and a lifetime of seconds later… my first photograph, of a carefully dressed man, eating alone in a Hayes-Bickford, at the intersection of 8th and 34th in Times Square, emerged. In that very moment, in the midst of my satori, i knew without hesitation where the rest of my life would be centered.

Christopher James, Sidewalk Supper, NYC, 1968


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