The Impermanence of Life Highlights the Importance of Photography

Just outside of the Twin Cities in Minnesota, in my childhood home’s partial basement, there were only two rooms without windows: the darkroom and the crawlspace, which younger me had deemed the “icky space.”

When the darkroom was in use, there weren’t any lights — only noises. When I stood in front of the door and cupped my ears towards my father, I could hear the film making its way out of the canister as it bent its way onto the spool until it was wound up. That is when my dad would give me the “OK” to turn on the light and hurt our dilated eyes.

Other times, in the dim, paper-safe red light of the darkroom, I would look in the developing trays and watch the cut-down 5×7 paper turn from its semi-gloss ivory white to a plethora of grays. Every single shade of gray between black and white would slowly land on the surface and settle before it was deemed “developed,” which qualified to move it to a new tray for the rinse, before going into the fixer bath. Then the enlarger would flash again, only staying lit for 5-10 seconds, before the other piece of paper would follow the same fate of the baths as the piece of paper before it.

As I stared into the developer bath — where the photo would start appearing on the paper — I would think back to what story my dad was telling me when I took it, or what I learned from the photo.

Such was the case every weekend: Saturdays were for going to the Lake Elmo Park Reserve to walk around and take pictures, and Sunday was for developing film and making prints before the Minnesota Vikings or Minnesota Twins game started, whichever season it was.

This was the case except in September. On Sunday mornings before the Vikings played, we would skip doing the developing and printing ourselves. Instead, we brought the film to a local Walgreens to be developed and printed. We always ordered 4×6 doubles in a matte finish. The color film used too many chemicals and was too difficult for us to do at home, but the football weather deemed color film particularly favorable.

During halftime of the Vikings game, typically around 1:30 on Sunday afternoons, my dad and I would thumb through our stacks of photos and critique them. I didn’t know what I was talking about yet and I had no real concept of composition, but I knew what I did like and what I didn’t like. Younger me never understood why my dad took so many photos, but now I can’t understand how he took so few.

“Why do we take so many photos anyway?” I asked one Sunday as the Vikings prepared to get set into formation.

“To practice,” he would respond.

“Practice what?”

“Practicing, I guess,” he said as the play began. He waited until after the whistle to continue. “Apparently more than Jackson!”

Jackson would go on to get four interceptions on the road against the Detroit Lions, a third of his total interceptions for that season, and I would watch the game and ponder on what practicing practice meant, and whether my dad meant we were practicing practice, or that we practiced more than Jackson did.

Practicing photography didn’t make sense to me at the time. I didn’t think of it as an art to capture or say anything. I figured it was just a hobby to have pretty pieces of paper to hang on the wall and to have something to do with my dad.

“Is there any way you can fix this photo?” the gentleman asked me from the entrance, as he walked towards the counter with wet cheekbones.

This would be the first time I dealt with something like this, but I quickly learned we would rarely go a week without this sort of scenario at the photo and film processing store I worked at. We frequently had customers come up to the counter holding the last photo of their parent — occasionally the last photo of their spouse — and, a handful of times, the last photo of their pet.

“We can do our best! What happened?” I asked, opening Photoshop on the computer that sat on the front counter.

The man continued to explain to me between sobs that when he was taking the photo out of the frame — to bring to us and make more copies of in the first place — that he had dropped it and a corner had been chewed by his pet dog.

“It was such a stupid mistake. I don’t know why I took it out at home, or how I even dropped it,” he said, as he pushed his palms into the sides of his head and then into his wet eye sockets.

“It’s the only photo I have of my wife and me at our wedding, and she just passed this summer,” he said as he continued to insult himself for his mistake.

I stood in shock. I knew how to process film orders and photos, but I didn’t know how to process what I was looking at in front of me.

“Let me see what I can do,” I told him, grabbing the photo to scan it.

A few minutes later, I had pulled it up at the computer on the counter and was attempting to repair it in Photoshop right in front of him. It wasn’t that badly damaged, really: just a few dimples in the corner and a small crease that hardly even showed up in the scan. It was just a few clicks away with a spot healing brush from being nearly as good as it was. None of the damage on the photo was over any of the subjects, just the background.

“How did you do that?” he asked me, sniffling his sadness back inside.

“Practice,” I told him, “I’m just glad I was able to help you today.”

The customer made his way out the door after placing an order for six 8×10 photos, and I started to think:

“How many photos do I have of my dad and me?”

When I got home from work that day, I plugged in my portable drive with all of my photos and looked around. It took about five minutes, but I eventually found a selfie he and I had taken when I had my first digital camera.

I continued to look, and by the time I had gone through each folder, I realized that, just like my customer, this is the only photo I had with someone who means so much to me.

Just outside of Montgomery, Alabama, in a town of 310 people called Pike Road, former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Travaris Jackson would die in a car accident at the age of 36, just 17 days before his 37th birthday, survived by his wife and three children.

While there are plenty of photos of him in football uniforms as a player, I hope his family has pictures of the father and husband he was, too.

I still don’t know what kind of practice my dad was talking about when I was a kid, but looking back I’ve decided that the practice is making memories and making them into a physical copy — whether in a darkroom, a lab, or even just a Polaroid — and if those memories involve other people, you should always make as many physical copies as you can.

All of this is why I’m asking my dad for one more selfie this summer: partially as a joke, but mostly in seriousness as a way to double the number of pictures he and I have together.

Image credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.

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