or, lessons from the first contact sheet
I took my first course at Pittsburgh Filmmakers twenty years ago this summer.
Mine was one of the the last terms at the old location, on Oakland Avenue. You entered at street level, and before you’d gone up a step you were punched in the nose by a stinging smell I soon learned was photo chemistry (always “chemistry,” never “chemicals,” I don’t know why), especially fixer. Ventilation wasn’t the building’s strong point, so you smelled fix whether you were studying black and white or not. All summer, one of the two stalls in the ladies’ room bore the legend, “THIS IS SO, LIKE, OUT OF ORDER YOU DON’T WANT TO LOOK.” In the darkroom, you were cautioned to close the enlarger head gently on your negative so as not to release a cloud of dust. The windows of the daylight room, where you processed film and squeegeed your prints, were propped open with chunks of wood. To me, who was used to a school with deans and professors and secretaries and facilities management, the place had an air of gleeful rot, as though all the grups had died and left the kids in charge. It was intoxicating (or maybe that was just the fix). The building was rumored to be haunted, but if working alone after hours gave you the fantods, you could look out across Forbes Avenue, where the Beehive was reassuringly buzzing, a movie showing in the back, gamers upstairs, cool kids drinking coffee outside.
The fourth of Buddhism’s Five [Deeply Depressing] Remembrances (which I rank alongside Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return as stuff I could use more help forgetting) goes like this: Sabbehi me piyehi manāpehi nānābhāvo vinābhāvo (sure, I knew it offhand). Or,
I must be separated and parted from all that is dear and beloved to me.
Or, the translation that makes me want to put my head down on the table:
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change.
There is no way to escape being separated from them.
Taking pictures was, and is, one of the many ways I leave claw marks in all that is dear to me and everyone I love. But photography is a continual lesson in impermanence. Behold (if you prefer Ecclesiastes), all is vanity and a striving after wind. One of the first things you learn is to mistrust that satisfaction of popping a roll of film out of your camera. My first contact sheet of that summer, above, was not the first roll of film I processed, about which I remember two things: one, that it contained my first truly great (I was sure) documentary image, rowdy Central Catholic boys out on their lunch break, vying for my camera’s attention. Two, that the negatives emerged from processing a sickly pinkish white, the film having fused to itself. Vanity of vanities. I peeled it and ripped it and threw it in the trash. The Central Catholic boys are now about 35 years old.
Almost every roll that summer was partially damaged, until I got the hang of winding it (and bought better reels).
Some shots made it safely to the negative stage, but I didn’t yet know much about metering.
And some succeeded. Which is to say, they are a reminder of the ruthless fact of change.
Other changes aren’t as obvious, but they’re there, too many to number.
The one thing I didn’t think to preserve that summer was Filmmakers itself. The building was torn down not long after my term. The one on Melwood Avenue, which after twenty years I still think of as the “new” Filmmakers, has more darkrooms and computer labs and a bigger gallery and a much better screening room and a cafe and toilets that flush. And somehow I don’t feel the same affection for it. Maybe I will when it’s too late. I should probably set about preserving it now, just in case. Like everything else, it is of the nature to change. There is no escape.