Vanishing Act

“Are you sure you can do this?” Linda asked.

“I’m sure it’s fine,” Roy assured. He opened up the camera case in his lap as he sat behind the steering wheel and pulled out an old Canon AE1. Its shoulder strap unfolded and hung downward.

Linda looked out the passenger side car window and across a dirt parking lot to where people were gathering at a southwestern Native American reservation. “I don’t know. They may not like having their ceremonies being photographed.”

“I think that’s only private ceremonies,” Roy said unworriedly.

“You’ve taken a lot of pictures on this vacation.”

“I’m trying out my new hobby.”

“We’re supposed to be relaxing, not driving all over the place,” Linda complained mildly. “And we really should get on the road. We’ve both got to be at work on Monday.”

“Just a few more pictures, promise, then we’ll go,” Roy reassured as he pulled out a roll of film from the case. He set the case aside on the console, opened the back of the camera, and placed the roll of film into its left side compartment. “Besides, how often do you get to see this part of America?” He pulled out the feeder strip of film and wound it onto the spool to the right. He closed the back and adjusted the dial on the camera’s top right.

“That’s one old looking camera,” Linda observed.

“It’s not that old,” Roy said. “It was made in the late seventies.”

“It’s older than me.”

“This was state of the art in its day. It’s one of the first SLRs.”

“A what?”

Roy held up the camera with one hand and pointed to it with the other. “It means there are these little mirrors inside the camera that reflect the image from the lens to the view finder, so you’re seeing the exact image you’ll be photographing,” he explained spiritedly. “A big improvement over older cameras in which the two were not lined up.”

“Is that what they teach you in photography class?” Linda kidded. “Obsolete technology?”

“Technology is only obsolete if it’s replaced by a better technology,” Roy stated. “And digital, for all its convenience, is not a replacement for the purity of analog photography.”

“These days everybody is taking pictures with their phones, so even digital cameras are old.”

“But nothing has the look of film,” Roy said passionately. “It has its own special qualities.”

Linda turned toward Roy. “Yeah, but you can’t see your pictures as soon as you take them. You can’t delete a bad picture. You can’t download them and share them with your friends.”

“Why does everything have to be in such a hurry?” Roy argued. “What’s wrong with taking your time and making something beautiful? And I’ll tell you why else I’m using film. My instructor told us something that a movie director once said. Film captures the soul in a way that digital can’t, because film is a single image frozen in time just as it is. Digital, on the other hand, is a lot of tiny dots that each represent a color, and not a single interconnected image.” He felt a bit of a rush from his explaining. “And could you imagine Ansel Adams taking a picture of Yosemite with a phone?”

“Maybe, but doesn’t film also require more light than digital?” Linda asked.

“Yes, but that’s the essence of photography, light, ever since its invention close to two hundred years ago.” Roy pointed again to the camera. “Light travels through this lens, hits the film and triggers a chemical reaction and preserves the image in an instant, one of mankind’s best inventions. And so what if it isn’t as easy to use as digital? Does everything have to cater to our laziness?”

“Well, people are busy, have things to do. Most people don’t have time to go through all this trouble for a slightly better picture.”

“But sometimes you got to put in that extra effort to make something of quality, something that’ll last. Something beautiful.” Roy looked at his camera admiringly.

“That photography class you took has really brought out your artistic side,” Linda said after a pause.

Roy sensed he was finally winning over Linda. “I sure have taken to it. It’s like I tapped into something inside me I didn’t know was there, and now that I’ve found it, I feel…complete.” Roy opened another case, pulled out a zoom lens, and attached it to the front of the camera.

“I know I’ve been teasing you about this, hon, but I’m really glad for you. Photography has awakened something within you, and that’s a good thing.”

“Thanks.” Roy basked in the perceived glow of Linda’s approval as he looked over the camera one last time, set the shutter speed and aperture to maximum sunlight, then hung its strap around his neck. “Well, camera is ready. Let’s go.”

They got out of the car and Linda put on a straw sun hat. “Not wearing a hat? This desert sun is brutal.”

“No worries, I put some lotion on earlier.” Roy pulled out sunglasses from his shirt pocket and put them on. “And I got these.” They walked across the sandy surface of an unpaved parking area and passed other cars. The hot summer sun glared down on the unchanging desert terrain. Dusty, arid earth extended all around with brown and dark red rock formations, dry brush, and thorny green cacti sticking up from the barren plane. They approached the gathering spot as other people were coming together to an open area in the center of the upcoming event.

“Well you’re sure in the right place if it’s light you need,” Linda pointed out as she looked toward the bright, blue sky.

“Now you know why Hollywood was started in a desert.”

Linda looked around the gathering. “I’m not seeing anybody else with a camera, at least not one like yours.”

“This is open to the public,” Roy reminded. “I don’t think they’ll mind a few pictures.” He looked around as well. “I’m sure there are others. They might have them in their pockets, so small these days.”

“Maybe you ought to ask someone if it’s all right to take pictures.”

“Okay,” Roy agreed. He walked through the spread of tourists and other onlookers toward the open area where the tribe was gathered. He came up to a member of the tribe at the edge of the gathering. “Excuse me, is it all right to take pictures?” Roy asked him.

The man looked at Roy, then at his camera. “Is that a film camera?”

“Sure is.”

“Don’t ever see those anymore.”

“Yeah, I like the look of film. Nothing like it.”

“Can I see it?”

“Sure.” Roy lifted the strap from around his neck and handed the camera over.

The man held the camera and looked it over. “Funny how big these look now.”

“They were very popular in their day, the latest in line.”

“I think my aunt had one of these, always taking pictures. My mother got on her for spending so much on a camera. She said it was a waste of money.” He looked through the view finder as he aimed the lens. “But this does seem like a fun hobby.”

“It is. Last fall I took a photography class at a community college, and it opened up a whole new world. I really wanted to learn all I could about photography and do it right. So I went to some pawnshops looking for an old camera, and I came across this. The zoom lens I found online, came in a set of four,” Roy said as he pointed to the accessory. “Progress may be inevitable, but you don’t want to forget the old ways.” He felt he had said something profound. “Yeah, I did pretty good in that class. The instructor even said I had a good eye,” he added boastfully.

“You don’t say,” the man replied somewhat indifferently.

“Yep. And if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that photography is a real art form. And it’s not just about capturing the image, it’s about how you frame it, and the importance of the subject matter,” Roy said solemnly.

The man lowered the camera and looked down at it. “So what brings you out here?”

“My girlfriend and I are on vacation from California. We have friends that moved out to Chandler a couple of years ago, and we were finally lucky enough to finally get some time off at the same time, so here we are. Then we heard about your ceremony, and I thought I would really like to capture it. If it’s okay, that is.”

The man handed the camera back to Roy. “On a day like this and with a camera like that, I think you should be able to capture some memorable looking images.”

“Thanks. I thought it’d be okay, but my girlfriend thought I should ask. She says certain ceremonies aren’t supposed to be photographed.”

“Those ceremonies aren’t exactly open to the public,” the man said as he began to move away from Roy.

“That’s what I figured. All these people wouldn’t be here otherwise,” Roy said as he pointed to the gathering crowd. “And I promise I’ll take some fine pictures that’ll do your ceremony justice,” he added.

“No doubt you will.” The tribesman left for the ceremony space and Roy headed back through the growing crowd toward Linda.

“He says it’s cool,” Roy said to Linda.

“Looks like they’re about to start,” Linda said. Everyone was gathering around a central area where the tribe, a few in colorful ceremonial dress, most in jeans and denim button up shirts or T-shirts, were congregated. Four upright streamers on poles were placed around a circle of open ground, and two drums with several drummers around each one were situated on either side. A couple of women was holding burning sage. A member of the tribe walked to the front of the circle and looked toward the crowd.

“Greetings!” he began. “Thank you all for coming here, and welcome to our annual summer powwow. This is the time of year when daytime is at its longest, and night at its shortest, so we come you here to celebrate the sun at its apex and its life giving powers. It is also the time to prepare for the coming darkness. One does not exist without the other in that great and endless cycle.”

Roy scanned around for photo subjects and became less aware of the speech.

“People often forget these connections in these modern times. Everyone always has somewhere more important to go, or they’re too busy looking at their iPhones or other electronic gadgets, so we gather here and places like here so we may reestablish that connection.”

Roy slowly moved through the attentive crowd until he got to the edge. He held up his camera and aimed through the viewfinder, but his sunglasses were obscuring his vision. He raised them up to the top of his head, and crouched a little until he found an angle he liked. He focused on the speaker, centered him in the shot, waited a couple of seconds until the right moment, then snapped the picture.

“I see new faces, and some old ones, but we’re all here for the same reason, even though we have come here by different paths. If there’s one thing that there’s too much of in society it’s compartmentalization. Everything is divided up to be more efficient, whether it’s the workplace, school, or the government.  But when people are compartmentalized it separates us from the whole, and isolates us.  And we come here so that we may feel whole again.”

Roy pondered his next shooting location as he meandered through the front of the increasingly attentive and unified crowd until he reached the other side.  He got down on one knee and pointed his camera at a slight upward angle toward the gathered tribe under the glaring sun.  He focused until he had as many of them as he could get into the viewfinder and took another picture.

“You may have heard of sun dances in which there is much praying and fasting, and hooks are driven in the skin and tug at the flesh. Some of you may be wondering if this one of those ceremonies. It isn’t, but that makes it no less reverent, though maybe not as intense.”

Roy looked around for a new shot location. He noticed the crowd and how absorbed in the speech they were. He aimed his camera and snapped a picture of the gathered people, then moved back toward the front, got low, and took another picture.

“Time was that many old traditions were lost, disease and treachery, our ancestors relocated, ceremonies and languages prohibited, and the scourge of alcohol. This is a reclaiming of old ways that represent our people and maintain our culture. It is our past, present, and future.”

Roy moved around the crowd toward the back where people were less packed. He tried to get a view of the center, then moved in a little closer. He shifted around the people in front of him, held up his camera, lined up a shot of the entire gathering, and took another picture.

“We ask that you respect our rules and to not interrupt the ceremony,” the speaker continued, “but if you’re feeling the drumbeat inside of you, and the spirit trying to release itself, feel free to move amongst yourselves. By being here,” he reminded, “you are a part of this ceremony as well. Now to begin.” The speaker stepped away and joined the line in a semi circle. All was silent. Then the drums on either end began to beat slowly and simultaneously. The beat moved to a steady pace. Others holding noisemakers moved them to the beat, and those in ceremonial dress stepped in time with the drums and into the center. One called out a chant into the air, and the others repeated.

Roy burrowed to the front of the crowd as people got out of his way. He dropped down onto one knee, pointed the zoom lens at the chanting tribe and snapped another picture. The chanting moved at a steady rhythm in tandem with the beating drums. The cadence and volume slowly increased as the ceremony began to take a life of its own. They moved in step with the rhythm as the spectators were rapt with attention. The energy of the ceremony increased and blossomed as Roy looked around for a new shooting angle. He went to the other corner, focused on set of drummers, and snapped a picture.

The dancing became more intricate as the people in ceremonial dress gravitated to the center as the chanting increased in volume and vocabulary. The focus went onto the blazing sun overhead as Roy scurried to the other side of the ceremony and took a picture of the other drummers. He then turned his attention back to the ceremony and went to the center of the spectators. He focused his lens on the leaders of the ceremony, centered them in the frame of his viewfinder, and clicked the picture taking button. The ritual continued under the hot sun as Roy went around taking more pictures of the tribe and a couple more of the spectators from various angles.

The ceremony approached its end as everyone lined up for one last chant and the drummers decreased their tempo. The vocals and the drums then rose to one last peak and ended. There was a sudden silence, followed by applause from the spectators. Roy stepped away a bit and snapped a picture of the entire congregation then everyone began to disperse. Linda came up to Roy. “So you get some good pictures?” she asked.

“Yeah, I think so,” Roy said positively. “I got some clear shots of the ceremony from a number of different angles. Even got some crowd shots.”

“It was a real good ceremony,” Linda said. “And we didn’t have to sit on a hard, wooden pew.”

Roy looked around at the surrounding desert. “Maybe a couple more shots of the landscape.” He focused onto the open desert and focused the lens to a wide angle to take in as much as the vista as possible then took the picture. He looked around and focused on some rock formations. He centered them in the surrounding desert in the frame and took one last picture. “That should do it.” They left with the exiting crowd for the parking area. “Can’t wait to get these back home,” Roy said as they got to their car and got inside.

“Are you going to develop them yourself?” Linda asked.

“Sure am.” Roy round up the roll of film with the dial on the top left of the camera. He then open the back of the camera and removed the film. He found a plastic film roll canister and popped off its lid. “The younger generation doesn’t even know what these things are,” he said as showed the canister to Linda.

“They probably think they’re for stashing weed.”

Roy dropped the roll of film into the canister and snapped on the lid. “Yeah, they are good for that.” He carefully placed the camera, lens, and canister into the camera box, and placed the box into the console.

“So what did you think of all that?” Linda asked.

“It was good,” Roy answered.

“What that man was saying at the beginning sounded profound.”

“You know, I was so focused on getting pictures that I barely noticed,” Roy admitted. “So you want to stop and get something to eat or just get on the road?”

“Let’s get going,” Linda said. “If we pick up some speed with the windows down we might get a nice breeze.”

“The road it is!” Roy started up the car and they drove off.

* * * * * * *

Roy entered into the red light of his darkroom, a converted laundry room with great anticipation. A length of twine was strung across the narrow room with a drying roll of film hanging from it. Some bottles of developing fluid were on the shelf above the washer and dryer. He carefully removed the film from the string expectantly as he contemplated all the pictures he took at the summer ceremony back in the Arizona desert.

Roy held the film up to the light. The first cell appeared to be a white splotch. He looked at the next cell, and it also appeared washed out. His anticipation turned to dread as he looked at the next cell, and the next. He was suddenly crestfallen as he looked at the entire roll of overexposed film. “Oh no!” he cried out.

“What happened?” Linda called out from the kitchen.

“I forgot to put the sun visor on the zoom lens!” Roy said dejectedly. “The entire roll of film was overexposed to sunlight. I ruined the film.”

“Oh no! That’s too bad.”

“And I got some really good pictures at that powwow!”

“Yes, Roy, you sure did,” Linda said supportingly from the other side of the door.

“I thought I really captured it, but for all my effort I end up with nothing,” Roy lamented.

“I’m really sorry about that, honey, and after all that work,” Linda said. “Wish I could do something to help.”

“It’s all right.” Roy brooded in the small, red lit laundry room and stared at the exposed roll of film morosely.

“Oh, honey. If you’re done in there, can you take out the garbage?”

©2015 Robert Kirkendall

12 thoughts on “Vanishing Act

  1. Wow Nick! This is really interesting and I love the ending. I also experience many mistakes with film photography, but oh well. That’s part of the fun.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Hilary! I have a special fondness for this story because of the passion of the main character for his new art form. And mistakes are the best way to learn. 🙂


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