By Don Mitchell


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.


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DON MITCHELL is a writer and ecological anthropologist, born and raised in Hilo, Hawai'i (where he graduated from a public high school -- in Hawai'i, that's important). He has published academic works, poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, and both published and exhibited photographs. He recently published a story collection, A Red Woman Was Crying, and is working on a novel set on Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea, where he did fieldwork. He lives happily in Hilo with his college girlfriend, a poet and yoga teacher, whom he lost for forty years but, lucky for him, finally found.

23 responses to “Harmonium”

  1. kristen says:

    Nice one, Don. A life in pictures.

    Interesting to think about that couple whose wedding you shot, so many years later. Love those mental wanderings.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Thanks, Kristen.

      I’ve often wondered about that set of wedding pictures. Has anybody ever said to them, “Aren’t there any, you know, regular pictures from your wedding?” I still have the negatives and a couple of prints I made for myself. Some day I’ll scan them and flip through them to see if they really do capture that era. I hope they still do.

  2. Enjoyed this, Don. I’m fascinated by the art of photography. It’s one of those things I wish I had more skill and know-how in regards to. Love the various incarnations of the harmonium in the burning barn here (in text and in pictures).

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Thanks, Cynthia. Having a good eye is as important as skill or know-how, so if you have any kind of equipment at all you should grab it and start shooting. With digital there’s no waste and no expense once you buy the flash card.

      • My family bought me a digital Nikon not long ago, and at an antique store I picked up a Brownie box camera that I’ve been playing with using 120 film on some 620 spools I bought on Ebay. So maybe I’m getting there using (perhaps) the best of both worlds!

        • Don Mitchell says:

          My photographer friend Willow (not actually her real name)


          loved using a Brownie Hawkeye box camera. For her, making the negative was only the beginning. She used first-rate equipment when she figured her vision required it. The Hawkeye gave a very soft image, because it didn’t have much of a lens, but the depth of field, as I remember, was very great. Anyway, it was a lot of fun to see her put down her 35mm SLR and pick up the Hawkeye. And she made some great images with it.

  3. stefan kiesbye says:

    Wonderful piece, Don. Great pictures. It would be so cool if the couple read the piece and contacted you.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      I still have a few boxes of papers from that time, and it’s not impossible that I have their name. Also, I probably wrote their name on the negative holders. I’m not near any of it now, but next time I am, I’ll look.

      I suppose I should have said, “I’ll never own a new Hasselblad.” But maybe at just the right yard sale I could find a working 500C or even another 1000F. Ah, but then there’s the matter of film. The 500C can take a digital back, I think — but the last time I heard, the Hasselblad digital back was itself $30,000. Maybe the price has dropped since then!

  4. stefan kiesbye says:

    But I must say that the sentence “I will never own another Hasselblad” made me really sad. It’s one of those days when you notice how many things will never happen or at least might never happen, and that sentence is just so final. Sigh!

  5. Irene Zion says:

    I’m stuck on the picture in your garage. The torn print of the harmonium with the print of you, mustache-free, underneath looks to be in a drawer. The drawer looks to be on a wooden surface which is free of dirt or even dust. How can it be that you have a garage which is free of dust? You clearly said it’s in a garage. You vacuum your garage?

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Easily answered.

      The prints were in a box with a cover, not a drawer. The box was on a platform up high in the garage and I’d made the platform only a couple of years before I put the box there, so not very much crap had accumulated.

      And I made the image in the spring. It’s so cold in Colden that dust freezes in the winter and then in the spring, it melts and runs away.

      Now as for facial hair, also note that the upside-down red-shirted me is clean-shaven as well. I had an on-again, off-again relationship with razors.

      • Irene Zion says:

        I’ve lived in a few really cold places, Don, but I’ve never seen dust melt in the Spring. Alas, if I missed such a thing as that, there’s no telling what else has passed me by, unnoticed.

        • Don Mitchell says:

          Have you read Haruki Murakami’s “1Q84?”

          We have two moons in Colden. That should tell you something.

          • Irene Zion says:

            Huh, like Tatooine, but with moons…how does that affect the tides, by you?

            • Don Mitchell says:

              Nope. The two moons means that you’ve slipped onto another reality track, known both as iQ84 and Cat Town. It’s an interesting novel, but if you don’t like Murakami’s way with “reality,” you won’t like it much.

  6. Photographs fascinate me because so much constellates around an image–who took it, who else was nearby, what the occasion was, what was happening in the world. Pictures are often worth way more than 1,000 words.

    Nice piece, Don. Thanks for sharing the memories.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Thanks, Ronlyn.

      “Constellates” is an apt word here. In most cases, like anybody else, I’m aware of a photograph’s context and if I took it, probably what was in my mind as well.

      But sometimes there’s no information at all. In the early sixties, I bought a heavy army coat at a war-surplus place in California. In the pocket there was a small picture of a dead Japanese soldier. On the back of the print, someone had written “A Good Jap.” Even as a young man I realized there were multiple levels of meaning and history and intent “constellating” around that little print and I could never access any of them beyond the obvious. I kept it and I still have it because to me it’s a rich and potent symbol.

  7. “Sometimes I wonder if the couple is still together and what they think when they look at those prints I made for them.”

    I love that. I loved the piece and all the comments that followed it, especially Ronlyn’s. I’ve heard a lot about Hassleblad’s over the years. They must be something special. Several years ago I went through an intense photography phase. Not shooting, but looking and reading. Arbus, Walker Evans, Witkin. I learned a lot but at the same time it only made the mystery deeper.


  8. Totally dug this, Don. As an old chem photo guy (right on the digital cusp) I empathized completely. I miss Agfa paper!

    • Don Mitchell says:

      A couple of years ago I tried to give away my Omega enlarger, but couldn’t find anybody to take it. And it was Omega’s mid-range enlarger, too.

      Right now I have a Nikon F5 sitting on a shelf, along with an N90s. I’m going to put them on Craigslist and see what happens. The last time I put the F5 up, not a single person responded.

      I did love using those chemicals but I shudder to think how unhealthy and ungreen I was — everybody was. My darkroom had no ventilation and I wore no respirator. And the chemicals went down the drain. Ugh.

      Did you mess with solarization? I adored it. Now I’m stuck with Photoshop Posterization, which is kind of like it. But what I liked about darkroom solarization is that you never quite knew what you’d get.

      Anyway. Good to know there’s another chem guy around.

  9. This was so compelling I took a peek at your profile page and to great excitement saw more great stuff. This Harmonium piece was so haunting. I hope to find more photo-related stuff there, and if I don’t, I hereby request more!

  10. Rolf Yngve says:

    Exceptional piece, I’m thrilled by the way the narrative and the photos/images speak to each other. They are more than descriptive of each other. R

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