So I’m Not a Cinematographer

This memoir is dedicated to Stephen Grasz who, at the time I wrote it, wanted to make a career of cinematography. It covers seventy-some years of my experiences. Thanks also to John Dewey, who introduced Progressive Education to our country, and to my sixth grade teacher in 1934 who embraced and practiced that theory of education through practical applications.

The first week of our sixth grade, Mr. Harlen Wilson had us form clubs, according to our interests. I don’t remember why I picked the Camera Club, but I did, and I persuaded my folks to get me a camera. In those days of the depression they found a fine second hand Kodak for sale by a man who was upgrading his own equipment.

Mr. Wilson took us on hikes to locations near our school, and encouraged us to take pictures of nature. Then one evening every two weeks we would go to his house where he taught us to develop our own film. He had trays of developer and fixative ready for us, and we would hang our strips of film negatives on a clothesline strung up on his back porch to dry. The next week we would come back when he had already prepared the equipment for us to print our photographs. The magic of working in the near dark with only a red light bulb, and watching the emulsion wash off the film strips and the images appearing, was exciting times for me.

A photo I took of my sixth grade Camera Club friends.
A photo I took of my sixth grade Camera Club friends.

When I got into junior high school, I would take pictures of the student performances as they were getting ready to be produced. I already knew how to set up my darkroom in the kitchen or bathroom at home. I sent copies of those photographs to the San Diego Union, the morning newspaper, which published them along with stories about our school events. I didn’t think much about it at the time. I knew how to get good pictures, and I did it.

Through high school, I still took photos but my life was too busy with other things, as were the following years, when I went to work for the Manhattan Project in Berkeley, met my physicist husband Larry, got married, and bore four children.

One of my earliest photographs, taken from our car on a family outing.
One of my earliest photographs, taken from our car on a family outing.

Years later, when I married Bob, he told me that my beautiful Kodak was out of style, and he took me to a photography store and bought me a second-hand 35 millimeter Vitessa Voightlaender. The two of us vied for who took the better pictures. We solved this conflict by Bob choosing to focus on landscapes and architecture, while I focused on people.

Then color film appeared on the scene. I learned how to develop color 35 millimeter film in my kitchen, and still processed black and white photos in the darkroom I had set up on our back porch.

Next came Polaroid. It was marvelous to snap a photo, then have it print out and dry within moments. This enhanced our trips to Europe. Bob would wear his 35 millimeter camera around his neck, and I would carry the Polaroid. The local people recognized the Polaroid and were anxious to have prints of their families and homes. So they would take us right into their homes and treat us like celebrities. I would take the Polaroid shots for them, while Bob would take photos with his camera to bring home with us. He always asked permission first. At home we used Bob’s photos to produce slide shows for our family and friends.

Then someone gave me a Super 8 movie camera. The film and processing were expensive, but I decided to make a movie anyway. It was an era when massage parties were the thing, and so I decided to make a twenty-minute film of massage techniques. Our friends Jack and Sandy were the actors, friend Jim was the assistant cameraman, and I was head cameraman, as well as producing and directing the film. After I edited the film we invited about twenty-five friends to our “opening night.” It was a great success.

The husband of one of my teacher/dancer friends came that night. Unbeknownst to me, he worked in the film department at UCLA. He phoned me the next day, gave me a phone number, told me to use it to call the professor for the UCLA summer session class in motion picture production, and to sign up for the class.

I did. That eight-week session, our professor told us the first day, would take “twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, plus an extra five-hundred dollars for expenses.” That summer session was a story in itself. The upshot was that when I found myself breaking and entering someone’s house at 6:30 in the morning to take the macro-lens that I needed for that day’s shoot, I decided I wasn’t willing to take the consequences of my behavior if I were to be a movie producer.

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In 2007, Holly and I drove south to San Diego to spend a two-day graduation ceremony of grandson Christopher becoming a United States Marine. I said to my son Carl, “I need to buy some film.” “Film?” he raised his eyebrows. “What’s that?” Then he took me to Best Buy and helped me pick out my first digital camera.

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