word craft


The Art of Fixing a Shadow

camera and darkroom

Pho­tog­ra­phy has long fas­ci­nat­ed me. When I vis­it art muse­ums it is the pho­tog­ra­phy sec­tion to which I inevitably go. I have, more­over, spent a good deal of time read­ing and learn­ing about it. At one point, when liv­ing in Prov­i­dence, Rhode Island, I took pho­tog­ra­phy class­es at the Rhode Island School of Design, at a time before dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy became the norm.

And more. I set up a dark­room in the base­ment of my house and worked with film. I had an enlarg­er, and pans of chem­i­cals to devel­op the images I took, along with a book of care­ful detailed records of how I devel­oped indi­vid­ual pic­tures. There, shroud­ed in red light (which did not affect the pho­to­graph­ic process) I spent many a night cre­at­ing black and white images. There was a mys­tery and adven­ture about it all which I loved. Any­one who has watched an image blos­som up in a pan of devel­op­er flu­id will know what I mean. 

[I wish I could share one of my pho­tographs, but they are all stored away — I’m not even sure where.]

At the time I was immersed in all of this I wrote three books, which, I believe, were great­ly influ­enced by my engage­ment with images.

The first book was City of Light, City of Dark, a graph­ic nov­el (cre­at­ed with Bri­an Flo­ca). While cre­at­ing a fan­ta­sy adven­ture, the great empha­sis was on the visu­al depic­tion of sto­ry, envi­ron­ment, and char­ac­ter. When I first sug­gest­ed such a book to my edi­tor, Richard Jack­son, he had no idea about what I want­ed to do. Only when I sent him a copy of Art Spiegelman’s Maus, did he under­stand what I had in mind.

The sec­ond book influ­enced by pho­tog­ra­phy (in a reverse way) was “Who Was That Masked Many Any­way?” This is a nov­el that is one hun­dred per­cent dia­logue, with­out any descrip­tion of place, with not one “he said,” or “she said.” It is a homage to my youth­ful days of end­less­ly lis­ten­ing to children’s radio adven­ture stories. 

Two books: one with noth­ing but visu­al­iza­tion, the oth­er with­out any visualization.

The third book, Seer of Shad­ows, is a ghost sto­ry, set in the 19th Cen­tu­ry. It tells a tale about a boy who is appren­ticed to a pho­tog­ra­ph­er who makes fake “spir­it pic­tures,” images that pro­fessed to show ghosts of depart­ed fam­i­ly. (Such images were enor­mous­ly pop­u­lar in the 1870s, a time when most peo­ple didn’t under­stand how pho­tographs were made.)

In my sto­ry, the boy dis­cov­ers that his pho­tographs real­ly do show images of the depart­ed, and the sub­se­quent adven­ture that follows.

As part of the sto­ry, there are descrip­tions of the way film pho­tog­ra­phy was done, based, in part, on my dark­room work.

[After my father — who had dab­bled in pho­tog­ra­phy — passed away, I found a roll of film in his home, which he had nev­er processed. I took it to my dark­room and brought up the images. One such image was of my twin sis­ter (aged two?) stand­ing next to my moth­er. It had to have been tak­en fifty years before.

My moth­er was wear­ing a fur coat, which, to my aston­ish­ment, I instant­ly recalled. More than that: the moment I saw it, I recalled what that fur coat smelled like. The scent-mem­o­ry of that coat last­ed only sec­onds, after which I nev­er could retrieve it.] 

I had to give up the dark­room when I learned how tox­ic were the pho­to chem­i­cals I was using. Added to that I also real­ized the base­ment in which I was work­ing was coat­ed with asbestos. Not — to put it mild­ly — a safe environment. 

As I learned more about pho­tog­ra­phy I became an admir­er of the work of Carti­er-Bres­son. One par­tic­u­lar image he made fas­ci­nat­ed me. Because of copy­right restric­tions, I can’t show it here. But if you Google Carti­er-Bres­son Girl On The Steps, you will see his pic­ture of a girl (in Greece) run­ning between two build­ings. Cap­tur­ing as it does, a fleet­ing image of a girl between places, it remains, for me, a per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of what Children’s Lit­er­a­ture is all about, catch­ing a moment in a young person’s life. 

William Hen­ry Fox Tal­bot, (1800–1877) who in 1835 became one of the inven­tors of pho­tog­ra­phy referred to his process as “The Art of fix­ing a shadow.” 

Those words always also seemed a per­fect descrip­tion of the writ­ing of novels. 

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