The Other Notebook
by David Helwig
A room in the basement of an art gallery with a table at one end; a tiny bathroom with a piece of plywood over the tub; another bathroom, even smaller, where my chair had to be set on top of the toilet when I needed to open the door. I worked in the dim illumination from the red-orange safe-light, air tainted with the smell of chemicals, eyes straining to focus the image from the enlarger. These were the circumstances in which I learned to develop and print black and white photographs. My first attempts, done when I was in high school, were thin in shade and contrast. But later, still using the old fashioned technology of wet chemistry, I produced the richer, sharper prints that hang on our walls.
One thought leads to another. I was watching a not-very-good movie about Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn. One of the minor characters was the famous war photographer, Robert Capa, and I recalled that I owned a biography of Capa by Richard Whelan. The book was given to me years ago, and I originally read it, without great concentration, during a plane ride. Time for another look. It’s a good account of Capa’s adventurous life, his dramatic and compassionate photos, and it left me thinking about my fascination with the short and intense history of black and white photography.
Capa was born in Budapest in 1913. He grew up in a period of political unrest, and left Hungary at 17, spending some time in Berlin before moving on to Paris. Early on he got work as a darkroom assistant for one of the new photographic agencies, and this led to his earliest photographic assignments. He became part of the new world of photo-journalism, learned from figures like the great André Kertész, who hired him to develop and print pictures. Capa’s darkroom work was often unsatisfactory, but Kertész recognized imagination and talent, and like most of Capa’s friends was willing to forgive him a good deal.
This was in the 1930s when the small new 35mm cameras had made photography a swifter, more immediate process. The borderline between art and journalism became an uncertain one. Art photography had been a slow, patient craft, but suddenly photographers like Cartier-Bresson produced pictures that caught dramatic instants of public life—these momentary glances soon to be accepted as a major contribution to the art of the 20th century.
In 1936 Life magazine began to offer a weekly survey of public events in which words took second place to photographs. It was, I’d guess, somewhere around 1945 that my parents bought or were given a subscription to Life. I began learning from great photographers before I was aware of their names. In 1955 The Family of Man, an international exhibition of photographs assembled by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art, presented itself as a climax of the journalistic tradition. I saw the show, bought the paperback.
It was 1954 when Robert Capa was killed while covering the French war against the Vietminh. Photo-journalists went on with the work, continued to produce powerful pictures, but the controversial American involvement in Vietnam was also importantly documented on television. Life magazine began to go downhill. Colour photography was improving; finally the digital explosion cleared the decks. Now my difficult darkroom equipment has been packed away and the chemicals tossed out.
The images and the anecdotes live on. How Capa went ashore on D-Day in 1944, spent a couple of hours under machine gun fire on Omaha beach, used up his film and boarded a landing craft to get back to England. In London, editors in a hurry melted the emulsion of his film—all but eleven of his shots were unprintable. But the surviving images appeared in the next week’s issue of Life.
I know, it’s true, digital photography is effective and easy, but I do still sometimes miss those intense and solitary darkroom hours.