The Best Photograph I Ever Took

Last Wednesday’s post about shooting at night without a tripod brought back a potent memory for me.

Those of you who know me from other contexts may not be aware that, many careers/years ago, I took photographs for a living. I look back on the time in my life with the sort of indulgent fondness that you would have for a cute puppy that has no idea what heavy doggy responsibilities are soon to come. I was full of energy and enthusiasm, and delighted in exploring the possibilities of my tools. I shot exclusively with a pair of Nikon FM2 bodies (black, natch!), and my normal lens was a very pricey but absolutely gorgeous piece of glass, f/1.2: fast and full of luscious character.

In addition to documenting events (including *shudder* the occasional wedding) and commissioned portraits, I spent a lot of time doing street photography. I was interested in pushing the technical edge and loved trying out new materials ~ of course I did all my own black-and-white processing and printing. It’s been so long now I can’t even remember the name of it any more, but I bought some super-high-speed black-and-white film. I do remember that it was quite expensive and rather tricky to process. The results, while very grainy, were reputed to be amazing (i.e., you could actually get a picture). Since I abhorred flash, I was eager to put this miracle medium to the test.

One summer evening, I slung my camera around my neck and headed out into the nighttime street life of Harvard Square in Cambridge, MA. This was familiar territory to me. I had lived in Brookline, Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville for most of my life. I felt comfortable in the environment, and recently had taken to adding casual portraiture of total strangers to my repertoire. I just went up to people, told them I liked the way they looked, and asked if they minded if I took a photograph. I was pleasantly amazed that most people were just fine with that and enjoyed the process.

That night, as twilight passed into darkness, I knew I was in the zone. My eye was locked in. I was seeing and capturing things that gave me goosebumps. Streetlamps’ sodium glare, neon refracting through windows, and passing headlights ricocheted among the people on the sidewalk listening to buskers or the line of folks waiting to get ice cream at Steve’s, and revealed the lovers making out on a bench beneath trees. With my fast lens and the ridiculously high ISO film, I was getting it all.

As my frame count hit 30, I knew I needed to be careful and conserve the half-dozen remaining frames ~ save them for just the right subject. (Remember when frames were a precious commodity? It made photography a very different enterprise than it is today.) I found it in a man standing beneath the marquee of the Harvard Square movie theatre. He was dressed more heavily than the summer evening warranted, wearing a military-style jacket with metal buttons. His face was genial but curiously asymmetrical. The light skimmed him and separated him from the dark background of the box office kiosk in a startling way. I had never seen this before; I had never seen a photograph of this before. I went up to him and asked if I could take his picture. He said yes.

I took six photographs, carefully and deliberately, metering for the detail I wanted. As I composed the shots, talking with my subject to keep him engaged, my heart was pounding: I knew these were going to be great images. I was incredibly excited, but went through my mental checklist with every release of the shutter to make sure I was getting things right technically. As with every exposure I’d made so far that night, the images were seared into my memory and I was already formulating plans for how to print them.

I shot the 36th frame, thanked my subject, and headed for the subway. I couldn’t wait to get home and process the film. As I took my seat in the train, I pressed the release button on the bottom of the camera and turned the rewind crank to bring the film back into the cartridge. The crank spun easily and loosely in my fingers. There was no tension on the spool. My blood ran cold.

My first thought was that somehow the film had become detached from the uptake sprockets or had somehow torn. This seemed odd to me, because I had detected no difficulty with the manual advance while shooting. I determined to do nothing until I could get into my darkroom. I was concerned that I might have to open the camera back and handle the film without rewinding it first. Once home, I went straight into the darkroom. In the utter blackness, with a film development canister and spool at the ready, I opened the camera back. I pulled the cartridge spindle up by feel with my left hand and reached for the film cartridge with my right.

It wasn’t there.

I’d spent several hours making wonderful photographs. I had the contact sheet already laid out in my mind’s eye. The last five or six frames were the best pictures I’d ever taken, without question. But despite the absolute clarity and vividness with which I could picture each frame from that roll of film, they simply did not exist.

Somehow, I had gone out to shoot without actually loading the film into the camera. To this day, I have no idea how that happened. The film was still in its canister in my camera bag. For years afterward, I could have described to you ~ in detail ~ every shot on that roll of non-existent film. Mercifully, that’s no longer true.

I can hear my skeptical readers mumbling: sure, the one that got away is ALWAYS the most brilliant. I understand. All I can tell you is that, in many, many years of taking photographs I have only rarely had the experience of being perfectly present and completely locked in and entirely confident of the magical image-making taking place. And every time that’s happened, great pictures have been the result. The loss of that roll of film-that-never-was felt like the loss of an unborn child (in quality if not, of course, degree) and I cursed myself and mourned for a very long time afterward.

I also never made that particular mistake again. And these days, it’s a mistake that is impossible to make with a digital camera. If there is a heaven, though, I hope that I get to see the pictures from that night’s outing. I’d really like that.

2 Responses to The Best Photograph I Ever Took
  1. Patrick
    July 29, 2010 | 8:39 pm

    As sad as that moment might have been, and continued to be, I suppose some good can be found. Had you not been a practicing photographer, it would not have happened, meaning that I suspect that every pro out there has a similar story. That puts you in rare company.

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