Today I held a workshop at The Villages Inc. in Topeka KS - a group home facility for youth in need of a place to live and learn. It is an alternative to Juvenile Detention Centers and some kids that live there have been in and out of 'the system' since being very young. For the reasons of confidentiality I was explicitly asked not to post any images of them on here, which is a shame because before I knew of that rule I did take some great pictures of them at work.
I love how serendipitously this workshop came together! On Thursday, when I was done with my research at Topeka Library concerning John W. Rahill and his lantern slides and general activity as a minister of Topeka Central Congregational Church, I decided to walk a mile and a half to Wolf's Camera Shop. It was very hot and after just a few blocks I had a feeling that the walk is not going to be what I anticipated (pictures I wanted to take would have been rather boring as the neighborhood was pretty typical with no pedestrians to be seen and the day was just heating up) and I had a feeling that I should turn around and drive there instead. When I rounded the corner of the library I saw a group of three people peeking into Gilli's windows and looking intrigued. I offered them a tour and they loved the work and the concept. As it turns out one of them was actually the executive director Sylvia Crawford and she said that some of her kids might be into it, took my card and called me back later that afternoon after finding out that indeed there was interest. Sometimes things just work out when you follow your gut.
Today I had four 16 year old students, two boys and two girls, and met them at the property at 9am. They were very enthusiastic and as interested and focused as anyone at 16 can be. We briefly went through the history of photography leaving out some more boring details and focusing more on the evolution of the process of printing. I got a lot of questions about Polaroid manipulation and the technique of light painting. They loved seeing the historic daguerreotype next to the one of Gilli and me taken by Mr. McElroy just a week and a half ago.
Then I launched into the relationship between film speed and shutter/aperture combinations. Before I lost their attention with dry numbers I pulled out a light meter and showed them how it all ties in. I think they got the idea... Afterward I went through the number of formats of cameras starting with view cameras (the cherry Tachihara 4x5 seemed to evoke the most trepidation) and down to Minox - I illustrated all the cameras with my own images taken with the cameras I was displaying.
Next I pulled out my favorite Tele Rolleiflex, loaded it with a roll of Tri-X given to me in Rochester by the wonderful folks at Kodak and we went outside to take portraits of them using that wonderfully classic combination. I kept taking light meter readings and changing the camera settings, thereby reinforcing the material that I just presented to them. Each kid got to do three poses - everyone wanted at least one shot by The Photo Palace Bus, seems like it strikes a note with everyone who sees it.
After the quick photo shoot we went into the darkroom and I demonstrated what it takes to develop a roll of film. We went through the times with various developers and settled on using Rodinal at 1/25 dilution for 7 minutes. The pictures turned out pretty nice in my view, but, of course, girls will be girls and one of them was disappointed with the way her beautiful hair laid... What can I do - we didn't have a make-up artist on sight, this wasn't a glamor shoot.
Once the film was washed it force-dried with the aid of a conventional hair dryer because I would have taken a good hour or more for it to dry in current humidity that we are experiencing here. The kids seemed to be fascinated with the look of negatives - they kept referring to the 'setting on the phone' that inverts the images and now they knew what it was actually emulating.
To give them a good idea of how gelatin silver prints are made I went through the various aspects of enlargement controls while making the contact sheet. Then came time for them to chose their favorite poses and actually print one image on their own under my supervision. They did all right - I think as good as anyone printing for their first time can do. The prints came out a bit flat, but I wasn't about to push them to keep making infinite test strips because by then the darkroom was heating up pretty good and I could see the beads of sweat forming on their foreheads.
In the end we took a little walk down the picturesque hill on top of which their group homes are located and talked about Ansel and his pre-visualization concepts. When we came back to The Bus their prints were dry. I cut up the contact sheet and gave them each their three 6x6cm images and the 8x8in final prints. The highest praise they could formulate is the it was "G as hell" and I took that with gratitude - anything that deserves the 'G' label in their world means that it impressed them to the maximum.
The workshop ended at 3pm and we were all exhausted by then. Linda, one of the house parents, invited me in for hot dogs and a protein shake and before I left supplied me with a care package of fruit bars, Oreos and canned fruit - I will enjoy them all on my long journey back to San Diego.
Now I have the gas funds needed to make it back to California and am looking forward to being home again. It's been almost 3 months since I left and the time couldn't have been more adventure-packed. One thing I am not looking forward to is driving the remaining 1500mi through the scorching heat that is prevailing in New Mexico and Arizona... I will be extremely thankful next time when Gilli has a roof air conditioner - this was really a trial by fire kind of trip, but it was well worth it.