I have not used a changing bag in years. The black lump of fabric looks like a windbreaker that was crammed into the bottom of a closet and forgotten. I unfold it, flapping it hard to get any dust off of it. There are two arm holes lined with elastic and a zipper at the other end. Inside this zipper is a second zipper, so that the bag is completely light tight.
This was any everyday object in film school, next to a splicer, a light meter, various clothespins and hand tools. I line up a few of the film holders, and the box of 4x5 film. Everything needs to happen by touch, so all of the order and repetition I can muster will make it go well. You need to have a system, but I have not loaded this type of film holder ever. I stare at things, mumble words to myself about safety clips, about the smooth ridges of plastic that are the stop signs. I make sure the box of film will open easily. My watch comes off. I make sure my hands are clean, no oil from lunch on them then plunge them into the arm holes. E stands in a doorway, hypnotized by what I am doing. She knows enough to keep quiet and try not to distract me. I do not close my eyes. I stare at a spot on the floor, my head cocked to one side. This is how I used to do it. It all starts to come back, the fumbling in the dark turning into small confident acts. The double-checking, the little tugs on edges. The box opens easily and I tear into the film packet inside. There are little notches on one edge. I know where they line up. Slide the film under the lowest ridge, back it up, fold the flap over, slide the dark slide, give everything a tug. Yes, good. Flip it over, do the same. Move the film holder to a far corner of the bag and get the next one.
We are downstairs now. E is carrying my travel tripod and her camera on her shoulders. I carry the heavy tripod and a giant cotton bag with my 4x5 camera in it. Today will be the first time I actually try to shoot with it, beyond an inspired test shot in the living room of the stray objects on the windowsill. It is hot out, and mosquitoes are zipping around our ears. E looks up at me, that Mona Lisa smile on her mouth.
The woods are buzzing with little frogs and birds. I want to take pictures of the dinosaur weeds, the ones I grabbed quick sketches of with my phone a few days before. There are thistles, daisies, tall stalks with purple flowers sprouting from them in heavy clumps. I manage the camera, throwing a shirt over my head to stare into the focussing glass, the image upside-down and murky. I need to get used to this.
E shoots part of her film, images I hope to see later but I do not want to interrupt her process. I see she is thinking, hand on a hip jutting out, mouth twisting around.
I work carefully, methodically. When the picture is ready to be taken, I have to slide in the film holder and click when it feels right. I cannot see through the camera when I click the shutter. That will take some getting used to.
There is a spot next to the green, murky stream where the sun splashes against the trees. We pack things up and make out way to it. E trots next to me, half out of breath, half excited. A man stands there, hanging a garbage bag from a broken limb. I nod, smile. He eyes us. I wave my hands around, telling him I am going to take a picture of the trees and he asks if he should leave . I say no. He lights a cigarette. My hands are shaking. Maybe he does not understand that this black accordion box is a camera. I take a light reading, focus, yanking the shirt over my head. I think it is right. Set the shutter, pull the dark slide. Hope for the right pose, click the shutter asking myself if one of my fingertips strayed in front of the lens, and then press the dark slide back in. Unbelievable - a portrait of a man smoking in the forest with great light splashing around behind him on our first day. Maybe this camera brings luck, this cumbersome beast. Maybe it is out of focus and a mess, I remind myself.
People always ask me why I shoot film in a digital age. Most of the time they expect me to offer some haughty reply, looking down my nose at the auto-focus, instant gratification of digital. They think I look down from some film pedestal. I am sorry they think that, and I have a feeling they could use some therapy. That is all about them, not me.
I shoot film because it is difficult. This difficultly leads me to try to do things that seem impossible at first, until I gain a foothold, some scrap of branch and earth to hold in my hand, then placing one foot in front of the next. Why do people climb mountains? I think they feel something similar. I shoot film because I love film cameras. They are simple beasts. None of my cameras even use a battery. They are %100 manual objects, like a wind-up watch, or a bicycle. These manuals relics were designed in a different time, when the world was a simpler place. Using them forces me to simplify, to sharpen my wits, my sensibilities. I know shooting with this new camera looks like I have fun trying to push an elephant down the street, but imagine how you would feel if you pushed and the elephant really moved.