So the guy says to me, "Ted, who's the most important photographer who ever lived?"
I scrunches up my face, the way you do when you're digging way deep into your idea piles and I says back, "You mean who do I think did the most for the way I wonder about image making? The one guy who opened my feelings to the possibility of this stuff?"
"Well, yeah," He says, looking all out of patience and like that....
"Simple," I says.... "No contest. This guy."
Ever noticed how crackling memories are vividly colored, but... but.. the details kind of bleed into one another? Like when you recall a spring afternoon when the sun was hot as a friendship and when you yelled to your friend... "Jim! Freeze!" And your mind and your camera fixed an instant... the latter in black and white, the former in the sizzling palette that the sun had washed away.
I was eighteen when we met. I'd taken some box-camera high school pix and lessons from a camera-happy priest. But the darkroom overwhelmed me. Still I got the rush of seeing images "come-up" in Dektol. Jim already knew all that tech stuff. And he had a Kodak Retina 35mm fixed lens folding camera that he insisted I borrow. He was more than an enabler to a kid with a passion, he was a pusher. We spent three, four, sometimes six nights a week and a lot of the weekends in the college darkroom.
We brewed our own chemistries, burnt through tons of war-surplus paper and film, and tried every trick and stunt the camera mags yacked about. The college had a couple of 4X5 Speed Graphics and a ton of fixed bulb lighting equipment. We lugged the big cameras to sports, car wrecks, politics, and flash-bulbed-out candid pix of our friends. The editors we free-lanced for back then still insisted that we use the old 4X5 150ASA, f4.5 monsters.
But we were young and strong and didn't much care. It did teach us a lot about framing, tripods, lighting, and carefully controlling the instinct to shoot. Even with young muscles we rarely lugged more than eight cartridges or eight potential shots.
Ahhhh... but Jim had a Canon, range finder, interchangeable lens, 35 mm (bought during his AirForce stint... he was the older guy), and until I bought my first Miranda SLR, I used his f 2.8 Kodak. We rolled our own, over-packing each 35mm film cart with 40 shots of Tri-X that we casually push-processed to 1600 and even 3200 ASA.
It was a monochrome world since the critical chemistry demands and expense of processing our own color were unthinkable. Our fixer-turned-brown-fingernails off-put some girls, but the pictures we caught of them somehow seemed to make us more exotic than grungy.
We studied all the periodicals, pestered the library to order all of the classic art and photography books, debated visual art, and of course, whether photographers could ever be artists. Jim and I became drinking-buddy close, dark-room close, obsession-close. And along with Guy, Mark, Lenny, Harry, Jimmy, Santo, and Bebey ... we walked through the door where our feeling-about-ideas lived (or was that ideas-about-feelings?).
Jim graduated to go off to media school and a career in photography and cinematography. I considered that, decided, "Nope, too damned hard" and enrolled in economics graduate school. But Thanks to Jim's little folding Retina camera, the stink of darkroom fixer, and the wonder of feelings "coming-up" in the magical developer baths... photographic art has been my refuge. A place to go where the only deadlines and tensions were my own. Where either darkroom doors or computer monitors could erect force fields that held in pleasure and escape.
And all because of the most important photographer who ever lived, and who died last month. My dear friend Jim Furlong. He made me so lucky.
What a debt.