The Army Years - Part 1

My interest in photography was minimal until I found myself in upstate New York, stationed at Camp Drum in 1973. I was looking for something to do when a friend invited me to accompany him to the base Special Services facility where they had crafts, woodworking, and a photo lab for servicemen to use. John was from Florida and had a pretty serious interest in photography and told me that he was going to develop film and make some prints. That sounded better that going to town and hanging out at the California Brewery again so off I went with him. (I don't remember if the California Brewery actually brewed beer on site but their claim to fame was that they had a couple dozen taps of beer from all over the country. They were located at Mill St. and Main Ave. in Watertown.)

I watched as John developed that roll of film and, while not really understanding the process and not being able to see anything happen since the film had been placed in a closed tank, it did seem to be an interesting diversion. While the film dried he got things set up to print from some negatives he'd developed on his last visit there. That's when things changed for me. Under the safelights, John made an exposure on a piece of enlarging paper and slipped it into the developer tray. When I saw a picture magically appear on the paper I was overtaken with a sense of awe and knew from that instant I wanted to learn how to do this. I peppered him with questions and he suggested that I get my own 35mm camera and give it a try.

The next day I bought a Minolta SRT-100 35mm SLR, some film, and checked out a handful of books on photography from our small base library. In my non-working hours I traveled around the area, shooting roll after roll of film, simply so that I'd have something to play with in the darkroom. I was shooting mostly Kodak Plus-X with the occassional roll of Tri-X. It become addictive and I wanted to know everything about the process of developing film and printmaking. I was also fascinated by exposure and the direct relationship between f/stop an shutter speed. It all made so much sense to me.

Here are some photos from my first film roll of film, Kodak Plus-X developed in Microdol-X or D-76. While these are from scans of my negatives, back then I was printing on Kodak Polycontrast enlarging paper, single weight, fiber based, that I could buy at the base exchange. I developed the prints in Dektol at the standard dilution. I learned about contrast and how to control it using the Kodak polycontrast filter sets.

Getting a Focus as a Lab Rat

While some people get interested in photography and want to become the next, in those days, Peter Gowland, Brett Weston, Ansel Adams, or Richard Avedon, I wanted to master the darkroom. I discovered that I am a lab rat. Unforunately, the famous names in photography are usually not associated with the darkroom but rather the camera which was fine with me and I continued to pursue the craft without much in the way of mentoring. For me, the camera was simply a tool to produce material that I could develop and print. I didn't dream of an ever-expanding camera bag with a wide assortment of camera bodies and lenses because I thought more about enlargers, safelights, timers, and the types of processes that were possible in that little, dark room.

I worked in many darkrooms during my Army days. At Camp Drum there was no one to provide instruction and whomever was in charge simply made sure that the chemicals were mixed and ready to use. We provided our own enlarging paper and film. The darkroom was small, about 4 enlarger stations, Omega enlargers if I remember correctly, and a large, group sink to use for the developing, stop, and fix steps. A large print dryer was located in the open area outside the darkroom. Other than John and myself, there was not much competition for access. After all, Camp Drum was a reserve camp, that is, it's where Army Reserve and National Guard troops came to do their two-week summer training. There was a year-round contingient of folks, mostly civilians, who kept the camp operating during the harsh winters after which, troops like myself would arrive on TDY (Temporary Duty) for about 9-months to "activate" the camp for the summer training cycles that ran from March through October. The population would swell from the hundreds to the tens of thousands in a week's time. For those transient troops, using the base darkroom during their off-duty time was the last thing they were looking to do so we generally had the place to ourselves.

I had my 35mm camera with me most days and although cameras on military bases can raise security issues, Camp Drum wasn't exactly a high security compound and, besides, I was in the Military Police, assigned as an investigator so who was going to question that? One of the operations we engaged in was bringing in the payroll from a bank in nearby Watertown, about $2 million in cash. We carried it my the trunk of a goverment car and had 4 gun jeeps as escorts and a helicopter overhead. Here are some photos of that assignment:

Because of this money operation I got to know one of the finance officers who was also our helicopter pilot. I told him I'd never been up in a helicopter or a small plane so he invited me to go up on a Saturday morning when he and a couple other pilots were going to do some training to keep their hours up. I showed up at the base airport and, of course, brought my camera. We flew all around that area between Watertown and the St. Lawrence River for a few hours.

I did lots of sightseeing in that area after I acquired a car, a 1970 Ford Maverick which I bought from, coincidentally, the base photographer. I made trips to the little town of Alexandia Bay, stops along the St. Lawrence Seaway, a boat trip to Heart Island to see Boldt Castle, and across the border to Canada and up to Montreal. Here are a few images from Boldt Castle. It was pretty rough in 1973 but has now become quite the tourist attraction.

I did take lots of grab shots, snap shots, and whatever shots, always expirementing with exposure, focus, depth of field, and composition. Here are a few of them, even a couple "selfies" before they were a thing:

Looking back on this time, I can see that I was off to a pretty good start with this hobby/interest/passion. I was totally engaged with it and it took my mind off being in the army. I knew I had much more to learn and had very little idea as to where it would take me. I was just enjoying being in the Flow.

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Updated December 2020.