One of the perils of shooting film is that on occasion, things go wrong at the lab. You think you have the shot you’re looking for, only to find that when the negatives come back—you don’t.
In my case, “the lab” is me, since I do my own processing in a trusty Jobo ATL-1500, an omnicompetent machine that does B&W, C-41, and E-6 with insouciant ease. The Jobo, however, depends on competent help from its human handlers; in this case, the human managed to botch the reel loading. Jobo reels take two 120 film rolls each, one after the other, with a “stop” mechanism that prevents the two rolls from overlapping. I somehow failed to engage that mechanism, so the two rolls overlapped by a few frames. The result: processing chemicals couldn’t make proper contact with their emulsions, leaving the mess you see above. Dang it. This is the first time—after at least several hundred rolls without mishap—that I’ve screwed something up fatally in the Jobo. Live and learn, I guess.
As for the Day-Glo T-Rex, we have passed by this billboard for Dinosaur World dozens of times over the years on I-65 en route to or from Nashville or Florida, and I’d never stopped to shoot it until last week. We’d somehow managed to get away from home as the sun rose, and by the time we’d reached Exit 53 in Cave City, Kentucky, the light was just right, low in the sky behind me. I shot the scene on Kodak’s exceptional Ektar 100 emulsion in a Mamiya RZ67 with, I think, the 90mm. The image is straight from the scanner with no adjustments except black and white points; I’ve not even adjusted white balance.
The scene is a rich melange of orange and green in warm morning sunlight, colors that Ektar loves to reproduce in vibrant saturated glory. I love this scene for its kitschy Americana strangeness. It brings to mind all of the signs touting “Alligator Farms” and “Indian” relics that used to dot the landscape along the beach routes we drove on our frequent Gulf Coast vacations during my 1960’s/70’s Deep-South boyhood. Back then, the Gulf Coast wasn’t the overbuilt “Redneck Riviera” it has become, with hi-rise condos looming over every foot of beachfront. It was mostly small bungalows and no-tell-motels at ten bucks a night, run by grizzled retirees and sunburned refugees from midwestern winters.
We’d pile into whatever Detroit-built chrome-blinged land barge Mom and Dad were driving at the time (I recall a preference in those days for Chrysler 440 4-barrel carbs, sucking 30-cent-a-gallon “ethyl” like an F-15 on afterburner) and head south and east from Baton Rouge until we picked up US 98 in Mississippi. During the four- or five-hour trek—it always seemed like an eternity to us kids, stoked to a fever pitch of excitement by the sight of the Gulf and by the margarine-soaked toasted day-old Krispy Kremes we’d bolted for breakfast—our first major landmark was Biloxi. There, we’d pass by the ruins of grand antebellum coastal mansions leveled by Hurricane Camille just a few years before. Down there, until Katrina punked-slapped it out of its place of disaster pre-eminence, Camille was spoken of for decades in hushed, apocalyptic terms. Everyone had a story about “Camille” (no “Hurricane” descriptor needed, just as with Katrina), and we heard them all over again every time we passed through Biloxi.
Mobile Bay was our next trip marker, with the USS Alabama lying at anchor in its retirement berth there. This meant that the sugar-sand beaches of Destin, Ft. Walton, or Panama City were only a short further hop away. We’d get there by early afternoon and stop at the first not-completely-dilapidated motel with a darkened “No” neon next to a glowing “Vacancy”, and wait with fidgety impatience like greyhounds in the starting gate while Dad completed negotiations with the proprietor. Like the faithful waiting for smoke from the Vatican, we fixed our gaze on the office door: if Dad emerged spinning the room-key fob around his finger, we were golden. No fob meant no deal, and it was on to the next motel.
Eventually, lodgings would be secured—a kitchenette was mandatory, given budget constraints—and we kids would be turned out onto the sand until dark, reporting in only for half-cut baloney-sandwich lunches, or for jellyfish stings, or sting-ray encounters. Sunscreen? Are you kidding me? Do you remember the bare-assed bronzed-blonde Coppertone kid on the billboards? That was us, burnt brown as biscuits by Chernobyl levels of radiant energy for days on end—well, at least I was, with my sun-loving olive-toned Sicilian hide.
I remember the faint stinging tightness across my upper back and shoulders that warned of impending sunburn, for which the treatment was to put on a T-shirt and return to the beach. White cotton Fruit of The Loom must have had a fairly high UV Protection Factor, because I don’t recall ever having a serious sunburn until I returned during college trips, when beer and testosterone made me disdain any form of sun protection lest the ladies find me (even) less appealing for such prissiness.
As I write this, I am amazed at the memories evoked by a ruined negative of a fiberglass facsimile of an extinct lizard standing mute by an Interstate. This post was to have been a short lament about a careless lab accident; look a what you, gentle reader, have endured instead. I am reminded once again of the power—so oft repeated it’s a bleached cliche—of images to move us. Maybe this is what lies at the heart of my fondness for images of kitschy Americana: that they stir in me, until now unconsciously, sentimental boyhood memories that are slowly darkening and dissolving—sort of like my ruined negative—as time swallows all.