The Gift that Changed my Life
In 1972 I was a thirteen year-old Junior High School kid living the life of a very typical suburban boy in Houston, Texas. I was atypical in one respect because, unlike most Texas kids, I wasn’t into sports and didn’t play junior league football or little league baseball. Sports was not my thing and I was an especially atrocious baseball player which was proven dramatically a few years prior when my parents sent me to baseball camp and I’d failed miserably. I rode bicycles and minibikes, drew pictures, flew model rockets and read science-fiction. I was into art and science and had a chemistry set that (like Lisa Simpson) I actually used.
My parents never really knew all that much about me. They never really ‘got’ me or what I as about which led to them giving me some rather strange gifts at Christmastime. I think it was the previous year, 1971, I got a .22 rifle for Christmas. I hated that gift! What the hell was twelve year-old going to do with a gun? I couldn’t play with it unless I went someplace, under adult supervision, and shot it. Ah, but this was Texas and the Texan mindset is all children need guns so I got one, like it or not. I would have rather had some more phenolphthalein for my chemistry set, or a model rocket. I never liked that gun, shot it once, and gave it away years later. Yeah, Christmas got weird sometimes. One year I got a toaster. I can’t even begin to explain that.
That Christmas of 1972 was rather odd because I didn’t get a shitty gift. I didn’t get a gun, or a toaster, or an itchy sweater or a sci-fi book they didn’t know I’d already read. I got something I didn’t ask for, didn’t know about or even knew existed. I don’t know why my parents chose it except, maybe, it was vaguely similar to the chemistry set I’d enjoyed so much.
I got a GAF Deluxe Developing Outfit.
I tore the wrapping paper off the box fully expecting to find something that I either didn’t want or couldn’t use and was surprised. Pleasantly surprised! What’s this? Something scientific? Chemical? And it was stuff one would use in a ‘lab.’ Anything having anything to do with a laboratory was totally cool to me. But now that I had a Deluxe Developing Outfit I’d need film to develop. And in order to get the film to develop I’d need to take pictures and for that I’d need a camera.
“I need a camera!” I said to my Dad.
Dad gave me a dirty look. He’d apparently forgotten about that little detail, hoping instead to send me to some dark place to play with my Deluxe Developing Outfit and stay quietly out of his sight.
The Deluxe Developing Outfit had little powdered chemistry packets that, using the included beaker, were mixed with water to make developer, stop bath and fixer. There was a film developing tank and an adjustable film reel for roll films like 35mm, 126, 127, 828 and 120. There were clips for hanging processed film up to dry. For printing there was a little contact-printer box with a white light. Also included was a thermometer and two safelights, one yellow and one amber (OC). Finally there was a small packet of photographic paper and three little trays for print processing. I’d need a dark room, a darkroom, with running water to use as ‘the laboratory’ for all my cool Deluxe Developing equipment. Unbeknownst to my father his four-bedroom, two-bath, ranch-style Texas home was about to become a ranch-style, four-bedroom house with one bath and one darkroom. Yeah, go pee in the Master Bathroom, Dale is busy developing film. By the time I began setting up my Deluxe Developing equipment in the former bathroom, my parents, Dad especially, were beginning to regret their Christmas gift choice for me. Shoulda got the kid another gun.
In the meantime my Mom scrounged-up a Kodak Super Brownie 27 camera for me to use to take pictures. Hopping on my main mode of transportation, the Schwinn Stingray, I took off for the drugstore where I bought a roll of 127 Kodak Verichrome Pan Film. (Black and White, the Deluxe Outfit wasn’t for color film.) At the school library I checked-out a book about general photographic techniques and another one about black and white landscape photography by some guy named Ansel Adams. Then I went out and took pictures.
Except for one notable exception in 1968 (read Chapter One of my book ‘Photographic Memories’ available from Amazon) all the photography done by me or my family was of Christmases, birthdays and special occasions only. We were the typical Kodak Consumer Family: load a roll of film at Christmas, photograph the years’ festivities, finish the roll the next Christmas, and take it to the drugstore for processing and printing. Then the photos were pasted into a photo-album and promptly forgotten. Riding my bike around the neighborhood with the Instamatic Camera around my neck and looking for ‘artsy’ things to take pictures of was a distinctively different photographic activity than what I’d been exposed to previously. It wasn’t long before I’d shot the whole 12-exposure roll and was ready to head into the darkroom. Yes, now little Dale was ready to go to The Lab.
Carefully mixing the chemistry, I learned about stock solutions, working dilutions and that the Metric System of liquid measurement was much more useful than the stupid ounces, pints and quarts system I’d grown up with. Under the glow of the red safelight, just like on TV and the movies, I unrolled the film from the backing paper, successfully loaded it onto the reel and developed the film. And it didn’t ‘come out.’ The entire roll was black. Completely overexposed. Well damn! This was like my previous photographic experience from four years ago; the film didn’t come out. Back then, even though I’d made the fatal mistake, I blamed the lab; now I am the lab and I’d still failed. Referencing the Photographic Techniques book I’d gotten from the library I finally figured out that film must be developed in total darkness and the red and amber safelights were for printing the negatives onto photographic paper. Yes, those red-light film development scenes in movies are all fake! (And why not? Total darkness cinematography is really boring!)
At this point I’m sure my Dad hoped I’d give up. After the initial failure, the GAF Deluxe Developing Outfit should have been relegated to some dusty corner of a closet but my Dad had never been more wrong. I still had enough chemistry left to develop one more roll of film so I went back to the drugstore, bought another roll of film, shot it, and headed back to the darkroom. This time in total darkness.
The second roll came out just fine. I now had negatives to print! By now I knew the printing process could be carried out under the safelight so I selected a negative, sandwiched it emulsion to emulsion with the unexposed photographic paper and made an exposure using the contact-printing box and my watch as exposure-timer. I processed it in those three little trays of chemistry and…
…I witnessed for the very first time the most remarkable and magical thing any photographer ever sees, the image slowing forming on the paper in the developing tray! (If you’ve ever worked in a darkroom, you know exactly what I mean. For me, and I’m sure many others, it’s a life-altering moment.) I’d finally taken a picture from the camera, developed the negative and made a print. This was totally cool! Somewhere in the ether of The Universe my future stretched out before me and I’d just gotten a glimpse of it. I liked the artistry of the camera and the science-ness of the darkroom. I really liked photography! And to me, photographers were cool. Maybe I could be one?
My Dad was none too pleased with the expense of ‘expendables’ when I begged him to take me to the camera shop for more chemistry and photographic paper, but he bought the supplies for me anyway. After a few more darkroom sessions making tiny, negative-sized contact prints I came to realize wanted to make bigger prints, I needed an enlarger.
Back at the library I learned about enlargers and lenses and gained a theoretical understanding of how they worked. Then I set about finding one I could afford, because the enlarger would be the most expensive piece of equipment in my bathroom-darkroom. Eventually I found one listed in the weekly Shopper want-ad newspaper for twenty-five dollars. I had twenty-five dollars saved from my weekend lawn-mowing jobs (they’ve got big, green, lawns in Texas) and went to buy the enlarger. The enlarger-seller was a guy about twenty years old and was really sad to sell it. He’d just been drafted to serve in the waning days of the Vietnam War and needed to get rid of stuff before he shipped-off. Poor schmuck! With less than three years left in the war, his number finally came up. I never heard what happened to the guy but I hope he never got deployed and I hope he’s still alive.
I do know what happened to his enlarger, it went to my darkroom and I used it for six more years.
After moving the enlarger into my ‘lab’ I began making 4x5, 5x7, and giant 8x10 inch prints. Studying the black and white photos in the book by that Ansel Adams guy I upped my printing game and started making some pretty darn nice prints. While I was making enlargements in my darkroom, my Dad was scheming a way to somehow get his bathroom back. Since my Dad was an above-average carpenter and woodworker we made a deal: he’d build me a darkroom in the back corner of the garage and he’d get his bathroom back. I told him I’d move out of the bathroom and into the garage-darkroom the moment it was finished and I’d never seen my Dad work so fast! A few weekends later I had a ‘real’ darkroom with everything I needed except running water. Dad wasn’t a plumber so print-washing from then on involved a garden hose and a hairball grey-water system of my own design. In case you don’t know it, photographic fixer will kill grass.
Now I had an actual darkroom in the garage. And it wasn’t much of a sacrifice of garage-space because our garage had never had a car in it. Our garage was always filled with tools and lumber and bicycles, and at one time, up to a dozen motorcycles and scooters in various states of disrepair and restoration. The great thing for my parents was if they couldn’t find me, I wasn’t out getting into trouble, I was usually in the darkroom.
The gift of the GAF Deluxe Developing Outfit was mostly a success for my parents because it achieved their goal of getting me out of the way and keeping me busy. At first they didn’t care for the on-going cost of buying more film, paper and chemistry but my weekend lawn-mowing money covered most of the camera-shop expenses. After about a year I was a pretty good darkroom technician but I needed another piece of equipment that was out of my reach, cost-wise. I needed a better camera. I begged and sniveled and cried that I really, really, needed a 35 millimeter camera. After an inordinate amount of early-teen begging and whining my Mom finally realized I was serious and gifted me an actual 35mm camera. She gave me her 1950s-era Argus A-Four rangefinder camera. It was way better than the Super Brownie I’d been using but it wasn’t a great camera. It had a fixed, 44 millimeter f 3.5 lens, no light meter, a manual-focus lens (requiring me to learn about depth-of-field to get anything in focus), a shutter that required manual re-cocking after each shot, and a wonky film-advance knob that took an inordinate amount of time to advance the film. But it was 35 millimeter and it would do.
While I was shooting a lot of photos, and spending many hours in the darkroom between 1972 and 1974 my younger brother was busy doing his thing –which was playing little-league baseball, the very thing my parents could never get me to do.
As mentioned, my own baseball skills were, and remain, aggressively awful, however my brother was a decent player and I started going to his games. At first attending little-league games was little more than an excuse to drink sodas, eat Frito-pies and laugh at Texas parents making asses of themselves, but I had my trusty Argus A-Four camera with me and I shot photos of the players. I mainly shot ‘action photos’ of the runners and batters but I also shot a few informal portraits in the dugout. I worked on my action ‘panning’ techniques and learned to anticipate the ‘peak of action.’ I’d take my Tri-X negatives of little-leaguers, make prints of the best shots and then take the prints to the next ballgame where I’d show them to the players’ parents. Then something happened I didn’t anticipate. While I was fishing for compliments on my incredible photographic artistry, the parents were buying my pictures! Whoa! I can make money doing this!? As it turned out, for the entirety of my brother’s little-league baseball career, I’d developed a nice little side-business selling photos of little baseball players to their Moms and Dads –and it paid better than mowing lawns! I made enough money to finally get rid of that wonky Argus A-Four and got a ‘real’ SLR, a Canon FTb complete with three lenses. Baseball was good for me, but not as a player.
Within two years of receiving the Christmas gift of the GAF Deluxe Developing Outfit I’d become a good enough photographer to join my High School yearbook and newspaper staff as a freshman, something you usually couldn’t do until you were a junior. I shot for my school until I graduated in 1977. I got a part-time job working in the portrait studio of a local department store. At the same time I shot photos for numerous local weekly newspapers including a publication devoted to the local motocross scene (dirtbikes were everywhere in the 1970s and I had one too). I shot portraits and made photos for publication in small companies’ brochures. I even shot my school’s Junior Prom when I was a sophomore when the ‘professional’ photographer didn’t show up! I made more money that night than I’d ever made before! I joined camera clubs and got to hang out in great big photo labs and cool photo-studios. I met all sorts of photographers, designers, lab-techs, printers, models and, in an odd twist of fate, I met Ansel Adams himself in 1976.
That’s the story of the GAF Deluxe Developing Outfit. I’m pretty sure it was a ‘throwaway’ gift that my parents thought I’d use once and forget about. They, nor I, had any idea it would ultimately lead to a photography degree and a fifty-year career. My choice to become a photographer, and work in the arts, never set well with my Dad and he actually hated my career-choice. He must have really regretted giving me that GAF Deluxe Developing Outfit! My Mom, on the other hand, must have thought it was pretty cool. Shortly after graduating college in 1982 I did a photo-shoot of two nude models. When we wrapped the shoot we shot a portrait of the three of us. I gave a print to my Mom. My Mom looked at the 4x6 inch print of me, fully dressed wearing a Wall of Voodoo T-shirt, standing between two beautiful, naked women. “Can I keep this?” She asked. “Sure, but why do you want it?” I asked her. “Oh, I want to show it to some friends at the beauty parlor.”
My Mom was a typical Texas woman who had a standing appointment every Thursday at the beauty parlor to get her hair back-combed and made bigger, higher, taller, and more Texan –big hair! I can imagine her, chatting with her friends and impressing each other with what brilliant careers their kids had. I can also imagine her responding with the typical Texan expression of, “Isn’t that special,” when some other woman tried to her impress her with whatever her kid was doing, then whipping that print of me and the models out of her purse and saying, “That’s my boy in the middle!” I’m sure it made my Mom laugh when it freaked-out the other Texas ladies.
When my Mom died in 2012 she still had that print. I found it in her purse, bent and dog-eared, obviously shown-off to her friends. I have it now.
And, thanks to eBay, I just bought another GAF Deluxe Developing Outfit from 1972. New in box, 49 years old. Nostalgia!
I think I’m going to create a personal time-capsule. I’m going to put my new/old GAF Deluxe Developing Outfit and the Argus A-Four camera (which I still have) in a sealed box with a note for someone in the future to find after I die. The note will read: To whomever finds this, before you download Adobe Photoshop Version 95 (or whatever) give this a try, it just might change your life. It certainly changed mine!
I found this 1974 calendar with the previous owner's development notes in the box containing the GAF Deluxe Developing Outfit I purchased on eBay in 2021.