I went to Vermont to help my friend burn down a barn that belonged to somebody else. This was in the sixties when Gracie Slick was singing about doing things that haven’t got a name yet. Burning a barn had a name but I hadn’t done it yet.
The barn accompanied a house which was deserted except for leaves blowing on the floor and some things left behind, like the picture on the wall and a logjack, two pitchforks, and a harmonium with a stool. The stool made me think somebody came and went and played the harmonium. I imagined somebody sneaking in and playing a little Bach, maybe from the Anna Magdalena Songbook, or maybe Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow, or maybe some Doors, like Come On Baby Light My Fire.
While the barn burned I went inside the house with my camera and wide angle lens and shot the harmonium. I used a Nikon F and a 28 mm F/3.5 lens and Ektachrome and my Weston Master V light meter to make this shot.
Notice the blue patterned bowl, the decoration on the front and the different wear patterns on the left and right pedals. Somebody pumped more vigorously on the right one.
Notice two keys stuck down.
Notice that you cannot read the names of the stops.
Notice that the exposure is not perfect. Bracketing exposure is good practice, but I didn’t do it. With slide film you only get the one chance and I liked living on that edge. In those days I used natural light exclusively. It was a statement.
I had no slide projector but wanted the barn burning on display. I used my slide copier and bellows to make an internegative, using Tri-X film. I brutalized the Tri-X by developing it in hot Acufine, which produced coarse clumpy grain. I enlarged and cropped and printed the harmonium on 16 x 20 Agfa Brovira matte #6 paper, to get the effect I wanted.
In the sixties grainy high-contrast was popular. I had already shot a wedding in grainy high-contrast. The bride and groom had seen some of my prints displayed in Harvard Square and paid me to do it in that style. Sometimes I wonder if the couple is still together and what they think when they look at those prints I made for them. Everything is more or less of its era, but high-contrast grainy prints are more of that era than anything I can think of now, except some kinds of rock and roll. Maybe hair, too, and I suppose tear gas.
This is what that print looked like when I went to my garage and found it in a box of large old prints and imaged it, which is what we say these days instead of “took a picture of it.” It’s torn at the top.
You can still see how the right pedal has more wear, and you still cannot see the stop names.
This image is from a digital camera. I cannot remember the stop and shutter speed I used for the slides, or how long I exposed the Agfa paper. I do remember that I used an Omega B-8 enlarger and a EL-Nikkor 50mm f/2.8 enlarging lens, a Simmons easel, and a GraLab timer.
When I made the image in my garage my Nikon D300 recorded all the data, even the camera’s serial number.
Only people who knew me when I was young will recognize me there under the harmonium print. In that picture, which my first wife took, I have a Hasselblad 1000F slung around my neck. I don’t remember how much it cost, but it wasn’t much.
In 2012, a digital Hasselblad and lens costs nearly half as much as I paid for my Colden house, and its accompanying barn and woods and creek.
I am not going to burn down my barn.
I will never own another Hasselblad.
You cannot make an organ note louder by hitting the keys harder. You do it by opening up more pipes, by pulling out all the stops. It’s the same with a harmonium, only it has reeds, not pipes.
I made a smaller print, bringing out even more grain and killing off more of the tonal gradation. My stark print expressed the harmonium’s intrinsic limits. I loved the velvet black that replaced the slide’s soft brown patterns. The harmonium picture has stayed askew in that plastic tub in the garage along with some photofinisher prints for many years. You can see my son’s head in a triangular frame and that’s me upside down with crutches, and my mother, now dead, and two people I knew from college, all in a picture taken by my second wife. I don’t know where she is or what she’s doing.
You can see I used Photoshop.
You can see that I played with colors by sliding the Vibrance and Saturation sliders with abandon.
I am happy to have a Vibrance Slider at my disposal because at sixty-eight I feel less vibrant than I did when I was twenty-five, which is when I made the original harmonium image. I am sorry that it only works on digital images.
I am saturated with memories, sounds, pictures I took, images I have altered, simulacra whose power exceeds that of the originals but does not deny them, as I do not deny the young man who burned a barn and took pictures only of what he did not burn.