It was four o’clock in the morning when the hideous chorus erupted next to my head. My Westclox shrieked at me like a merciless automaton from hell sent to torment our wretched cadavers. I heard Carol’s muffled adenoidal protest and felt her playful elbow shove my ribs. ‘It’s your turn to get up, Ted,’ she said, pulling the blankets over her head to block out the awful din.
I struggled to part my eyelids in the murk and extended my numb fingers towards the infernal clock. Fumbling in vain to stop the persistent racket, I sent it tumbling onto the rough floorboards. The impact jolted the alarm mechanism into silence, and the clock scuttled under the mattress to join our bedpan. I sighed with relief, exhaling a cloud of white vapor that condensed into miniscule droplets on my shoulder.
This was the fourth morning in a row we’d dragged our aching limbs through self-inflicted purgatory in the name of my passion for photography. We’d travelled seventy miles by train from Sacramento to Modesto and a further eighty miles on horseback to get to the Pioneer Village. I’d rented the cabin for two weeks and wanted to maximise our time here. I’d scouted potential locations on my previous trip and intended to capture the sunrise on the high ridge-line before leaving. So far, the atmospheric conditions had thwarted us. The last three mornings, I’d saddled up our horses and the sumpter mules and headed off on the valley’s rocky trail. I calculated for thirty minutes to load up the animals with my photo equipment and an hour to reach our vantage point. Setting up the gear was second nature to me. I’d my methods for ensuring the camera was steady and level and had a supply of pre-loaded dry-plates to hand should I require extra shots. In my experience, the set-up wouldn’t take too long and so I’d be ready for the first rays of light by half-past six.
I hauled my weary legs out of bed and, huddling under a woollen blanket, raised the cover of our storm lamp. I struck a match and offered the hissing phosphorous flame to the charred wick. The shrivelled cord spluttered to life and emitted a sooty plume of smoke. Once I nudged down the protective glass bulb, the lamp’s cheery orange flame illuminated the shack’s interior like a newborn star at the centre of a homespun solar system.
Behind the pot-bellied-stove’s front grill, I could see precious glowing embers; the remains of last night’s fire. I scrabbled about, adding a handful of kindling and a couple of quarter-cut logs to resurrect the flames. With gentle encouragement, the dry fuel caught fire, and I set our pot of cold water on the top plate. I’d look forward to that steaming brew once I’d fed the animals and rubbed them down. They had a morning’s work to do and so did I. Coffee and toasted rye bread would help me recover my wits and set me up for another day of photography in the wilderness.
Decades before the convenience of film cameras, my father experimented with dry-plate photography using glass painted with photo sensitive liquid. He housed individual plates in light-proof wooden boxes before inserting them into the rear of the camera’s body. In historical terms, it was the first time one could capture images and store them in a latent state before processing them. His equipment with its cable release lenses and cloth bellows would be unrecognisable to future generations. Nothing was automated, and he had to devise ways of calculating focal distances and exposure times. Once he’d caught his image, he processed the transparent glass plates using home made developing and fixing chemicals. He called his system “painting with light” and to a lad of my tender years, he was a magician.
We had a spare room in the basement and he converted it to a darkroom. A dull reddish bulb illuminated it and, according to my mother, his darkroom was a satanic laboratory; a place of devil worship and sorcery.
She said no good would come from his Mephistophelian chamber and when he demonstrated his grainy images appearing in sulphurous liquids, she left the room in a fluster. It was wicked trickery and became my life’s infatuation.
My father encouraged me to create my own images and introduced me to the delights of pin-hole photography. He explained the ‘camera obscura’ was a renaissance artist’s tool designed to aid perspective drawing. I understood the principle, and made my own ‘cameras’ from old shoe-boxes, painted photo emulsion onto thick cards and inserted them one at a time into my homemade picture maker. I too would be a master of light and aspired to a life of making pictures.
When Carol met me, I was a military serviceman photographing soldiers prior to their voyage across the Atlantic to help the war effort in France. Most times, this was the last portrait the families would receive; plenty didn’t return or received disfiguring wounds in Europe. The portraits also identified the bodies of lost compatriots, if they were lucky enough not to be abandoned on the battlefield.
By 1917, the British had been fighting over a hundred yards of wasteland for three years, making no progress. The body count had risen beyond all measure, and both sides now longed for an end to hostilities. Armistice wasn’t too far off, but now there was the additional threat. Spanish flu was about to destroy lives and businesses around the world. My portrait work trailed off as governments enforced isolation policies on the public and I had to consider other alternative means of income.
‘But what would persuade people to part with their hard earned money?’ I’d asked Carol, stuffing my hands in my pockets.
‘Art, of course,’ she’d said, as though it was obvious. ‘The pictures only you could take.’
Carol encouraged me to start a novelty picture business and acted as my agent and muse. She had visions of owning a gallery. We’d sell my pictures and curate and sell the works of contemporary artists. ‘Artists can’t sell pictures,’ she’d say, sighing. ‘There’s no point in taking great photographs if you can’t sell them.’
She was right, of course. We’d seen many a “fly-by-night” flogging tatty shots and plenty of talented creatives begging next to a pile of unrecognised masterpieces.
Carol’s suggestion inspired me to head off into the Sierra’s in search of glacial valleys riven by cascading waters, silent forests of lofty redwoods giving shade to sacred lakes and the promise of precipitous cliffs, topped by vertiginous peaks sprinkled with the crystallised remains of a hard winter.
‘They say it’s all in the timing, right?’
‘Sure,’ I said, checking my exposure guide as the first rays of deep orange stroked the distant ridges. ‘There’s not much to it.’
‘Anyone can click a button,’ she said, laughing.
‘Just one thing to remember,’ I said, removing the dust cap. ‘Right place and right time.’
Well, that’s certainly true about landscape photography. This wasn’t the first morning we’d got up early to take the perfect picture. The previous three mornings had been a waste of time. The rising mist and low cloud had conspired to muddy up the foreground and obscure the peaks, leaving me with a disappointing low contrast image and uninspiring views.
Finally, we’d encountered a bright sunrise with roving clouds casting drifting shadows on the pastures and towering escarpment.
‘You’re ready for this, Ted?’
I’d fixed my sturdy tripod in position on a rocky outcrop with the optimum vantage point. It was still near zero and we waited, shivering, for a shaft of sunlight to flow over the distant trees. A horse grazing in the frosty pasture stood facing away from us and resembled a gnarled tree stump at that distance. I made five exposures as the uppermost mountain ridge caught the beautiful clear light, but the distant beast refused to walk on. The final shaft of light approached across the wide meadows. I primed my camera for one last shot. At the last moment, the horse turned and presented a clear silhouette.
‘A solitary animal in an endless plane, below mountains of granite.’
‘That’s a bit of luck.’ I said. ‘Perfect timing.’
‘You make it look so easy.’