Tuesday, July 26, 2011

"Regular Customer" project

I'm nearly done scanning negatives for my “Regular Customer” project (aka: “50 years at the Pike Place Market”). About a year ago it popped into my head that it soon would be 50 years since we moved to Seattle. We have lived here for 43 of those 50 years. I was one of the modern nomads, an aerospace engineer, so we moved away and came back twice.

Both of us were flat-landers, raised in Illinois, college in Indiana, and neither of us had ever lived in a city. Barbara had been in Seattle once as a child and I had never gotten farther west than central Missouri. We found a 2x4 apartment in the heart of the city with the notion of spending a year figuring out where we wanted to live, bought a machine that roughly resembled an automobile and declared ourselves natives. We kept stumbling on to places that gave us the “Toto, I don't believe we are still in Kansas.” feeling and one of these was the Pike Place Market. Before many weeks passed we were on a first-name basis with some of the merchants, had learned what fresh salmon tasted like, and knew how to navigate the maze of shops on the lower floors.

Not long after that my interest in photography turned from the random family slides – I still had the camera I bought in Germany the summer I played on a USO tour band – to developing my own black and white and making (absolutely awful) prints in my makeshift darkroom. The market became the place I would go to photograph just for fun or just because we were going to be there anyway – I got pretty good at photographing with one hand while holding a grocery bag in the other and balancing a kid on my back. I decided that I really had become a native when I noticed a tourist taking a photograph of me. Time passed and a lot of film wound up cut into neat strips, contact printed, put into plastic protector-pages, and filed in three-ring notebooks.

Did I have enough photographs of the market for a book-length project? I flipped through the contact sheets and my film log (thankfully, I started keeping notes after a couple of years). I counted up well over 300 rolls of film that had at least some market photographs on them. Yeah, probably enough. For just over a year I have been plodding through those rolls of film, ignoring the uninteresting or obviously unusable negatives and scanning the rest. “Plodding” is the right word. Some wag noted that all human progress is made by people who don't understand what they are getting into. If I had realized how long a job this would turn out to be I likely would never have started. But now I'm nearly done – only about 15 more rolls of film to go through – and I have about 850 scanned and lightly edited photographs of the market and its people ready to …. do whatever comes next.

I intend to edit the 900 or so “first cut” photographs down to about 200 but before I start editing I had better have at least a rough idea of how the resulting book is going to be organized. I'll let you know when I do.

I have no idea how this project is going to turn out. I have even less of an idea of whether or not I can get it published if I ever do finish it. On the other hand, it has been fun to slog through nearly 60,000 negatives most of which I have never printed. I have become quite efficient at editing the scans to the “good enough” state that will allow me to make informed choices for the second cut. Which leads me to another observation: I would never have undertaken a project of this size if I were going to do it in the darkroom – I can edit 6 or 7 prints an hour to the “good enough” state. I would be lucky to print 6 or 7 prints a day in the darkroom. Since my goal is an ink-on-paper book I'm eventually going to have to have digital files for each print anyway. When this is all done, the book is published and I'm getting rich off of the royalties (yeah, right) I may well go back and silver print a very select few of the final cut for a portfolio.

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