I didn’t know jumping the stairs would lead to a revelation about photographs, exposures, and creativity. Silly challenge activities like rapid stair descents are not conducive for inspiring creative outcomes in photographic classrooms. Though in this case, one reckless activity spurred another. Jumping the stairs led to creative photographic discoveries, new learning experiences, with a major emphasis on experience.
It all started when I began searching for a practical way to flow into the work force and leave my Air Force days behind me. When I processed out of the Air Force I looked for a school close to home where I could earn an Associates Degree in photography, and get into the work force.
A Practical Application
MATC (Milwaukee Area Technical College) is a five story building in downtown Milwaukee, in Wisconsin. It has an associates degree program in photography. At least it did back in the day. First, I checked out Madison Area Tech College, but they only had a few courses, not a program in photography. Too bad. I like Madison, and my brother lived there. Being close to family is good and would have been comfortable after being isolated in Germany for three years.
Milwaukee it was. The photo department was mostly on the fifth floor. Wouldn’t you know? The building did have elevators, but mostly, I didn’t use them. I’d run up the steps, two at a time to the fifth floor. I acclimated to the stairs quickly and ran up them almost everyday.
On the way down I’d jump about six steps at a time. Eventually I jumped from the top of the steps to the first landing where the stairs changed direction and then I jumped down the other half. it took some time to master that technique. I never fell or hurt myself.
The Games We Play
Jumping the stairs was a silly challenge game I played after mastering the jumping technique. People who took the elevator were surprised to see me walking past them when the elevator doors slid open and there I was, already walking out the door. Silly challenges were a mainstay of my youth. Not so much anymore.
I was writing poems back then and reading a lot; some poetry, but mostly science fiction short stories. Short stories are a personal preference, as opposed to novels. The same is true with t.v. shows. No soap operas for me. Those story lines leave you hanging until the next episode. I prefer complete stories with a solid beginning, middle, and a strong ending with a twist. Law and Order, for example, or most of the Star Trek shows.
Which brings me to an activity I used to do at school. The fifth floor was mostly photo class rooms, with a few lab classes, lecture rooms, a stage like room for commercial stuff and a few small classrooms. Almost every room had a blackboard.
A Secret Writer
I don’t remember when it started, but at some point I happened to be the only person around and as I passed one of the class rooms I stopped, looked at the blackboard and decided to write something on it without signing it. For example; “When you do good for others, you do good for yourself.”
It became a “thing.” Classmates wondered who the mystery writer was. Most of the students thought it was interesting, and began to anticipate each new writing. I kept silent about being the author. Writing sporadically, I never wrote in the same class room twice in a row. It was easier to avoid detection by never writing on the lecture hall blackboards, .
Eventually, I was caught in the act. A curious thing happened. I dried up. I couldn’t write anything after I was discovered. Students knew who it was and expected me to write everyday. I couldn’t do it. Funny, it was such a small change.
A Marvelous Discovery
But I found something else in one of the smaller rooms on a bulletin board when I discovered I couldn’t write anything anymore. A 4×5 print pinned to the weekly notice board. At first glance it appeared to be just a black 4×5 print.
I looked closer. Faintly, barely discernible, a portrait of a young woman’s face emerged from the black. Just her features, almost a profile, and hardly noticeable at all, her hair in a small curl by her cheek. Hand written on the bottom of the image was the word Whisper.
It made all my writings seem like dribble. I wanted to be the author of that image. It fascinated me beyond understanding. It was so perfect. To show so much detail in so little space of the curve of light. For such a minor thing, it made a deep impression.
Examining the image, it was difficult to access how it was done. I tucked that barely visible but clearly stated image into my mind and thought about it for the rest of my career.
Recently, I’ve begun emulating that image. Oh not as a portrait but anything I shoot. So far, I’ve decided it can’t be done digitally. It is more likely I haven’t discovered the technique to do it digitally. I don’t work it constantly, but I do attempt it here and there.
Jumping the stairs, and writing the blackboard ended, and another impression burned itself into my mind. Which student accomplished that and how? Was it the exposure? Did the photographer use special lighting? Was it mostly in the processing of film? Was it in the printing process?
A Learning Device
After contemplating ‘Whisper’ for so many years I’ve decided it was possible to shoot that image through a combination of factors. Namely, the proper exposure, the minimum use of light, and trial and error in printing the image until the correct effect is achieved.
Sounds a lot like life itself. Exposure to certain influences in life change our paths. Some moments seem insignificant at the time, but turn into stepping stones to larger events. How we use our gifts and when we use them shape our character. Always as we learn, many times through trial and error or trial and success, our choices bring us to our goals and satisfaction of jobs well done.
It really is the little things that have the most impact.