Woke up this morning to 10°F.
While that may be normal for some parts of the country, it’s uncommonly cold for what most people consider “The South”.
Like most of the world, we’ve been suffering through serious cases of cabin fever, on top of normal winter blues. We go weeks without seeing other people, other than to wave in passing. This is not uncommon. So despite the cold, on Saturday afternoon, Doug and I arranged to meet for a couple of hours, if only to get out for a little daylight.
I still have my grandfather’s old Graflex 2 ¼ x 3 ¼ press camera. It was on the top shelf in the office next to the worst part of the fire, but in a padded camera bag. Everything on the shelf melted, and everything on the floor got soaked in standing sooty water. But somehow the camera and a few accessories survived.
The thing is built like a tank, all mechanical knobs and dials. No batteries, no electronics. No plastic. In the bag with it were a half dozen rolls of 120mm film. Why not try them out?
OK, the film expired 30 years ago, and went through a fire, but what better reason to get outside than to find out of all this stuff still works?
Doug has a couple of plastic Holga cameras he could bring that use the same size film. Part of the charm of those gumball machine cameras is the crappy pictures they take. I mean, he has duct tape over the back to stop the light leaks, and they rattle when you shake them. Putting rolls of crappy film in them is just icing on the cake.
We met at a little farm brewery a few miles west of here in Nelson County. A beautiful spot high on a hill with a fine view of the mountains. The snow from last week had melted a bit and refrozen to a thick crust over the fields, making walking more like skating. But wow, what a clear, blue, cold, winter sky.
There’s an old road nearby I know well. It’s narrow and curvy and runs along the Rockfish River as it winds through a gorge cut into the next ridge, past old farmsteads and quarries. With just two hours of daylight, we could follow it to the quarry town of Schuyler, then head back by sundown.
The first stop is a bit inauspicious. I rediscover how far technology has advanced in the past 70 years. It takes a good half hour for me to fumble with all the camera components, set up and fiddle with the various settings, just to take one photo. Tripod, light meter, film cartridges, and all the fidgety settings to twiddle on the camera:
- Take a light reading
- Manual focus
- Manual aperture
- Manual shutter speed
- Wind the film cartridge
- Cock the shutter
- Compose the shot
- Remove the light shade
- And finally trip the shutter.
Dispensing with the tripod speeds things up, but even in daylight, in the shade this camera is bumping the limits of what you can do handheld. Doug is done long before I begin the second shot, and we’re both already cold.
My foot breaks through the crust of ice over the ditch, and into the cold black muck. Great. The one-finger wavers in pickup trucks don’t seem to be into the whole art photography thing, studying my odd rig as they pass.
Doug has an app on his phone that takes the perfect digital photos and converts them to look like old analog film images. He snaps a few shots, flicks a couple of buttons, and texts them to me. Takes a couple of seconds.
Down the road is a covey of old barns I’ve admired over the years. It’s a nice balance of shapes, beyond basic vernacular architecture. Well made. Dovecotes in the eaves. The foundations made of cut field stone and river rock.
A small graveyard in front has a mix of very old headstones and newer ones. It’s clearly tended more frequently than the old barns, which are slowly melding into the hillside. Trees grow up around and through them. The wind has peeled back sheets of tin roof like rusty soup cans. But they’re still standing after maybe 100 years. Not unlike the old camera.
Doug goes to explore while I load more film, which becomes increasingly difficult. The sun doesn’t reach this part of the gorge along the river. I’m wearing flannel-lined pants, wool socks, two shirts and two jackets, and a scarf, a hat, and I’m still cold. Can’t wear gloves and still turn all the dials and switches, fingers are numb from the cold
I set up and take a few photos and realize, by the feel of the winder, that the film is not advancing. I’ve loaded it wrong.
I pull out my phone and take a couple of photos, then go back to the car and reload.
Meanwhile, Doug finds lots of cool stuff to see. From the doorway of the big barn, he finds a deer has wandered in and died, now just a bare skeleton on the floor. Old equipment and tools covered in dust catch the late winter sun through the windows and gaps in the walls.
I finish reloading the film cartridges and we head down the road, the heater turned up high.
Schuyler was once a booming mining town. One of the few places in the world where high quality soapstone is accessible, it was a quarry and stone cutting operation for over 100 years, starting in the late 1800s.
A stone church sits on the hill above the town. It looks abandoned, and mostly is during the pandemic, but still has a small Mennonite congregation. We stop and get out to take more photos, glad that this high point still gets some sunshine.
The low sun shines in through the west windows, across the nave, and strikes the stained glass windows from the inside, setting them ablaze with golden light. Lovely. I’m starting to get the hang of the old Graflex now. It helps that I’m a little warmer.
Doug takes a photo of me holding my two top-of-the-line pieces of photography tech, a 70 year spread between them.
We pack up and head back.
Up on the hill at the brewery the sun is going down fast. I get a few more shots with the Graflex with the last roll of film I have.
Then put it away and pull out the phone again. Just a stunning panorama of light and color everywhere you look.
All these photos were taken with iPhones, which are ready in an instant.
I have no idea whether there’s anything on the film we shot. Probably not. Even if the film still had some life, operator error likely nuked whatever was left. Heck, the camera may not even work right. Won’t know for weeks, months even.
Doesn’t matter really. Just getting out, looking deeply, and with purpose, makes it worthwhile. New fresh film has been ordered, so we’ll try again soon.