12.02.18: Matthew’s birthday

Our son Matthew holding a football in October 1980, 
when he was a couple of months shy of his second birthday.


Technical information

October 1980

38°27'0.259" N 82°38'8.609" W
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Today is our son Matthew's birthday. It’s one of those “round number” birthdays so it's a good time to use an old photo of him as my photo of the week. The day provides the perfect opportunity to tell the story behind this photo. And this is much less expensive than buying him a gift.

As I said, this is a “round number” birthday. I’m not going to give away his age, but anyone with basic math skills will be able to do the calculation.

I shot this photo in October 1980, when Matthew was a couple of months shy of his second birthday (hint: 2018-1980+2=??). It wasn’t a planned portrait but it couldn’t have turned out better.

I had just completed a portrait shoot in my “home studio” (otherwise known as our dining room) and had finished discussing delivery date with the subject when I returned to the “studio” to remove the lighting and convert it back to a dining room.

Matthew walked in with his little University of Kentucky blue souvenir football, climbed up on the stool and said he wanted me to take his picture. So I threw another roll of film in the camera (Kodacolor 400, a higher-speed, grainier film that wasn't the best choice for a portrait but it’s what I had nearby) and grabbed a couple of shots before tearing down the lighting and putting everything away.

Later that evening I processed the film from the portrait session and from Matthew’s impromptu shoot. I printed a contact sheet from the portrait session’s negatives first, since it was a “paying” session and every penny counted back then (for those not familiar with film photography, a contact sheet is a print made with the negatives pressed against the photography paper; this provides one sheet of negative-sized — 1.4 inches by just under one inch — images of each photo on the film and enables the photographer to more easily review and select shots to print). I reviewed the portraits and selected a couple that I would print the next day.

I was about to call it a night when I decided to go ahead and make a contact sheet from Matthew’s negatives. I had some chemicals remaining from processing the portrait contact sheet so I could save a few pennies by using the old chemicals instead of tossing them and starting fresh the next day. 

I remember pulling that contact sheet from the processing tube as clearly as if it had been yesterday. The blue in Matthew’s eyes jumped from the tiny images. His choice of wardrobe (the blue sweater) and prop (the blue football) accentuated his eye color. It couldn’t have been more perfect if I had spent days planning the shot.

So I mixed some more chemicals and made a few prints. We still have a framed print that I made that night, but I’ve since scanned the original negative into a digital file for use in today’s digital world.

Digital cameras have taken much of the mystery and anxiety out of the photography process. Had digital been available in 1980, I would have known immediately how Matthew's photos looked by checking the screen on the back of the camera. Within moments of taking the shot I could have had Matthew’s photo on the computer and made any necessary tweaks before posting the photo to social media or emailing it to relatives. The entire process takes minutes.

In the prehistoric days of film, shortly after the dinosaurs became extinct, a photographer didn’t truly know how a shoot went until he saw the negatives and reviewed contact sheets. It required mixing chemicals to develop the film, warming the chemicals to the appropriate temperature and maintaining that temperature throughout the process, loading the film onto developing rolls in complete darkness, processing through the different development steps, drying the film, mixing chemicals to process photography paper, making a contact sheet, developing the contact sheet and drying it. At that time (best case a little more than two hours after completing the shoot) the photographer would be at the film equivalent of digital’s “checking the screen on the back of the camera” stage. Then it was back to the darkroom to make a print, run it through chemicals again and dry it to reach the film equivalent of “posting the photo to social media or emailing it to relatives,” which was carrying the print to show to friends or placing it in an envelope and mailing it to relatives.

I have to admit that I’m a much better photographer today because of the experience I gained during the film and darkroom days. I also admit that I wouldn’t want to go back.

Enough reminiscing.

Happy 2018-1980+2 birthday, Matthew!

Each week I will post a photo from my collection with an explanation of how I got the shot. Previous photos of the week are in the archives.