Camera Bug

Sara's darkroom enlarger instructions

“[Gene] Rutland [Commercial Appeal  editor] told me I would have to learn to take pictures for the paper, so I bought a Dura-Flex camera by Kodak, paid twenty something for it, and studied all the instructions. I had always liked to take pictures but had never had anything but a box camera. He told me they would pay me five dollars for each picture they used so I was determined to take a lot of pictures.

A Kodak Duraflex camera

“Since the paper was paying for my film I decided I would learn how to print my own negatives and pictures and then I could use part of the roll of film to take pictures of Cathy and Mary Carol. I bought a little darkroom kit from Sears and set it up in the closet under the stairs. I shared the closet with the hot water heater and struggled many an hour in the dark learning to load the film in a tank to develop the negatives. I bought a small Federal enlarger and all the other darkroom equipment I could afford and started printing. Photography quickly became one of my favorite hobbies, and I read everything I could get my hands on to teach myself all the tricks. I joined a camera club and the other members gave me a lot of hints.

“I took hundreds of snapshots both for the paper and for myself, and then I decided it would be fun to do some portraits, so I bought flood lights, set them up in the living room with a big shade on a wooden frame as a backdrop. Russell and Tricia’s husband, Claude, had put the frame together for me. From that time on Cathy and Mary Carol were asked to pose almost daily. Thus came all the thousands of pictures and portraits we now have in albums and stacked away. Later I bought a Yashicamat camera which took much better pictures and an electronic flash which helped a lot.”

Cathy and I grew up with our own personal paparazzi. Once Sara got the hang of photography, she was insatiable. That “$5 per published picture” arrangement had her out on the streets of quiet little Greenwood on a daily basis, snapping Halloween parties and boys fishing and pick-up baseball games and carnivals and report card days and anyone who would stand still long enough for her shutter to click. Her bed (which always doubled as her desk) was littered with camera manuals and Modern Photography and borrowed library books on light and shadow and technique.

One of thousands of portraits. How in the world did Sara get us to hold hands?

And if there was no one else to photograph, Cathy and I were dolled up and herded into her living room “portrait studio.” Cathy loved it and there are entire photo albums, literally thousands of pictures, of her progression from kindergartener to college student, always carefully posed and highlighted. I, on the other hand, hated everything about this hobby of my mother’s. I was self-conscious and shy and wanted nothing more on Sunday morning than to get those scratchy petticoats off and get into jeans and a grubby shirt. Sitting under the hot lights and smiling while Sara barked orders was torture: “Sit up straight. Look up. Look down. Put your hands in your lap. Would it hurt you to just smile for a moment???” Yes, actually, it would. There were baseballs to be tossed and basketballs to bounce and dogs to tussle with, and I could imagine no need whatsoever for yet another picture of me. She was relentless, even taking a picture of me one Sunday morning in the top of a mimosa tree where I had taken refuge from the camera. What we had here was a failure to communicate.

One of my more cooperative days

When Cathy and I cleaned our her house in 2009, the hardest room for me was that tiny, tiny darkroom tucked under the staircase. It couldn’t have been more than 4 feet wide, maybe 10 feet deep, and for all the years of my childhood it held a rather large and very toasty hot water heater. Somehow, I’m sure with Russell’s help, she wedged in an L-shaped workbench that held a photographic enlarger and three trays of developer, stop bath and fixer. Those chemical solutions carry an overwhelming odor even in a large darkroom (remember the smell when you walked into Lamb’s Camera Shop?) and it was just concentrated in that small space. There was a half-moon-shaped cutout in the bottom of the door with a piece of heavy fabric over it to block out all lights. And every surface in the kitchen was doing double duty for dripping negatives and drying prints on Developing Days.

Sara was very satisfied with her makeshift photography lab and she turned out extraordinary work for a self-taught camera bug. When she was making prints just for fun, she’d often let us slip in and help, and I still remember the thrill of seeing those images emerge from shiny blank paper in the developing tray. The downside to this hobby was the bathroom ban. Until the upstairs rooms were finished, sometime in the mid-60s, the only bathroom in the house was directly across the back hall from the darkroom. Even a sliver of light from the bathroom or the small window that looked out over the back porch could ruin a batch of negatives, so we were banned from answering nature’s call while Sara was developing Commercial Appeal photos. I would hop from foot to foot, calling in and begging her to tell me when she would be finished, and it would always be “Just a few more minutes. Just one more picture. Go next door.” “Go next door” meant a dash across the driveway to the Gwins’ house, where we basically had free reign and lifetime bathroom privileges. God bless Nancy and Elmer Gwin: I’d be on dialysis now if not for them.

One thing to watch for when The Help comes out on DVD: In the “toilets on the lawn” scene, where Hilly Holbrook shoves the newspaper photographer out of the way, notice the camera around his neck. That’s Sara’s old Yashicamat. Wouldn’t she be proud?

No one was safe when Sara was loose with her camera.

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About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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2 Responses to Camera Bug

  1. jenny says:

    I wish i had known this earlier. I wish i had taken up photography earlier and been able to ask her questions and go shoot with her
    maybe somewhere she’s laughing at my struggles and sending me some help
    nice post

    • sec040121 says:

      Now that I’ve figured out how to reverse-scan negatives into Iphoto, I’m consumed by a totally new and overwhelming Sara project. There are literally thousands of negatives, some in envelopes labeled “not printed,” meaning that none of us have seen them in her albums. And, for your interest and anyone else tagged into this blog, Turnrow Books will be doing an exhibit of Sara’s photographs of Greenwood children through the Christmas season. I hope this exposure will put some names with the faces. She id’ed some pictures but not many. I’m really excited about it and appreciate Turnrow’s support.

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