The photograph was a surreal, black and white portrait, just the sort of clumsy stab at art that one might expect from a college student in an introductory photography course. Its subject was a young woman whose eyes were obscured by the pair of oranges she held before her face. Perhaps it was its humor that earned it a spot on the wall of Haskett Hall, where I stopped to regard my handiwork each day after class. Passers-by might have mistaken my look of concentration for the solemn focus of critique, but my motivation was shallow. The truth was that I had something of a crush for the model, and standing for a moment in front of her portrait allowed me stare at her captivating image and daydream of impossibly good things.
Making films and videos interested me far more than capturing stills, but having declared my major as Photography and Cinema, I was obligated to learn the rudiments of picture taking and photochemistry. The lecture section of my introductory class was taught by Tony Mendoza, who was known at the time for a whimsical series of black-and-white photographs featuring his cat, Ernie. His artistry was inspiring, but as I was to discover, creativity was only a fraction of what was required to produce good photographs. The technical side of it – everything from light meter readings to focal lengths to maintaining the proper temperature for photochemical solutions – was daunting. I was long on ideas but short on technique.
My shortcomings were made painfully clear (all too literally, I’m afraid) when I received my first roll of negatives back from the department lab. A few hours of traipsing about campus and shooting whatever caught my interest had produced nothing more than unexposed film, apparently the result of loading the camera improperly. Mind you, this was well before the advent of digital photography, when pointing and shooting would get you a good image only if you knew what you were doing. My borrowed SLR was a bit of a mystery to me at first, but gradually I came to appreciate the subtleties of aperture settings and shutter speeds. Oh, and making sure the sprocket holes of a fresh roll of film are fully engaged before setting off to take pictures.
My TA was a short, curt woman whose brusque manner seemed affected in order to weed out anyone who was taking the class as an easy elective. She was brutally honest rather than unconditionally encouraging. One weekend we were assigned the task of creating, printing, and mounting an image that suggested motion. The obvious route would have been to take a prolonged exposure of a car passing by at night, its taillights extending like phantom lightning bolts, but I was not about to succumb to cliche. I wanted to impress my TA with my creativity, and so I embarked on a photographic expedition in which I shot a game of bowling, snack bags falling out of vending machines, and various objects being tossed back and forth. Not satisfied with the result of any single image, I hit upon the idea of creating a four-panel collage of my roommate attempting to catch a soccer ball, which I cleverly titled The Catch. I smugly submitted my work and pitied the efforts of my conventional classmates.
My TA hated it. She absolutely lambasted my work, tarring my effort with a grade I was not accustomed to earning. I pleaded for a second chance, and she graciously allowed me to redo the assignment for full credit. That evening, I strolled out of my dorm, stood at the edge of Cannon Drive, dialed up a slow shutter speed, and snapped a few frames of passing cars. Later I printed the photographic world’s most pedestrian image of streaking taillights. My TA loved it. Or maybe she just felt sorry for me. Either way, she gave me an A.
By that time I was beginning to have a few misgivings about my major, not only due to its technical challenges but also because of the somewhat odd crowd that the courses attracted. I felt little affinity with many of my photography classmates, perhaps because I failed to understand their work. There was one outgoing young woman who had engaged me in friendly conversation every so often after class, and one day she seemed excited to share with me her latest series of photographs. Standing outside our department building, she handed me a stack of black-and-white prints, and I tried to maintain a blank expression of earnest critique as I flipped through them.
“That’s my boyfriend,” she explained. Indeed it was, or parts of him anyway. Her creative license involved laying on the floor and aiming the camera upward to capture her model au naturel. “What do you think?”
“Wow…” I murmured, glancing nervously around us with the paranoid suspicion that my reaction was being documented for some sort of feminist Candid Camera. I quickly ascertained that in the art world, there was only one politically correct answer. “It’s, uh…wow, these are great.”
Things picked up a little as I gained confidence and started taking a few artistic risks again. My TA liked my self-portrait, a high-contrast close-up in which I had shielded half of my face with the black fabric of an umbrella. That inspired me to go a little further while taking portraits of my roommate’s girlfriend’s roommates. Probably I made the suggestion to hold up a pair of oranges as faux eyes for the basest of reasons: to make a pretty girl laugh. I can’t remember. In any case, I chose to print that image, and my TA liked it so much that she allowed it a place of honor as part of a hallway display.
My final project that quarter was a portolio of stereo images taken around campus. Caught up once again in the naive enthusiasm of doing something novel that I thought would distinguish me from my peers, I unwittingly committed myself to twice the amount of work. Every image had to be photographed once with the left eye and again with the right, resulting in double sessions of enlarging, printing, cropping and mounting. In addition, every pair of prints had to have the same overall texture and contrast, and I found that neatly affixing twin images to gallery display boards required a lot more time than mounting just one photo. Were it not for my brother’s generosity in setting up a free darkroom in his apartment, I never would have finished. As it was, my efforts were largely wasted, for although my portfolio earned a good grade, my TA was unable to manipulate her eyes in the manner necessary to view the images in three dimensions. Having reached the end of the quarter, she favored encouragement over criticism and assumed that the work was impressive, if only she could see it properly.
Aside from a history of photography class, I never bothered with still images for the rest of my major. I did, however, coax the girl with the oranges to act in and provide technical assistance for some of my film and video projects. In fact, much to my surprise, I learned that sometimes impossibly good daydreams come true. We’ve been married for twenty years. And still, I find that mysterious and oddly humorous portrait as captivating as I ever did.