A photographic journey

Photograph showing nickel slot machines

This is Red Nickel, which was one of my earliest works in color and how I found my identity as a photographer.

I went to an antique camera show the other day, and the room full of film cameras and lenses got me thinking about my own photographic journey.  Now I watch enough reality television to know that everything is a journey these days.  But I’m not talking about the journey from obscurity to 15 minutes of fame.  For me, like many photographers, the journey was from film to digital, from black-and-white to color, from 35 mm to medium format, and from darkroom to pixels.

As a kid I had a Kodak Instamatic camera with those fabulous flash cubes, and I didn’t get my first single-lens reflex camera until I was in high school. It was an off brand — a Bell & Howell body with a Canon lens — and I eventually replaced it with a Pentax K-1000.

My technique improved over the years, and I learned my way around a black-and-white darkroom. Now and then a photo from those early years showed hints of what I now recognize as my style.  But my work  wasn’t consistent and many of those early photos were forgettable.

Flash forward to the mid-1990s when I took a few classes and had my first solo show at a branch of the Cambridge Public Library.  Still black-and-white, still darkroom, still 35mm.

And then I discovered color.  I had always avoided color darkroom.  Too complicated.  Too expensive.  And there was something pure about black-and-white photographs, with their reliance on form and composition without the distraction of color.

Photo of sign showing submarine sandwich shop

A great vintage sign for a sub shop in Wakefield, Massachusetts, where I was attending an antique camera show.

But along came Photoshop, which opened up the world of digital printing.  I was still shooting film, although I had upgraded to a Nikon FM2, and I started scanning slides and negatives into digital files.  One of those early shots came to define my photographic identity.  A photo of some nickel slot machines at the Luxor Casino in Las Vegas, then decorated in an ancient-Egypt-meets-bordello theme.  I dubbed the photo “Red Nickel,” and the name stuck.

A few years later I took a class called Photography Atelier (then at Lesley University and now at the Griffin Museum of Photography) with the late Holly Smith Pedlosky.  An early assignment was to pick up a thread from an abandoned piece of work.  So I found my old Holga camera, which I had set aside 10 years earlier because of some bad karma better not discussed here, and bought a few rolls medium-format film.

Instant connection.  A shot from my first test roll ended up in a juried show, and over the next few years I built up a portfolio of work that focused on mass transit, bridges, and neon signs. I loved shooting square images and the Holga required just the right combination of skill, experience, and luck to keep me engaged.

I could have happily stayed in Holga-land forever had I not run into some problems. First, my medium-format film scanner no longer worked with my new laptop (epic fail, Nikon). And, second, I began to research photo workshops in exotic locations and virtually every program was organized around digital photography.

So two years ago I took a deep breath and bought a digital camera.  A sweet Leica point-and-shoot.  No heavy interchangeable lenses.  Small enough to fit in my purse. RAW files and square format.  And it inspired a whole new body of work.

I never thought I’d be here but, despite a few twinges of guilt, I’m glad I arrived.  As for my Holga?  Let’s just say we’re on a break.

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