Frisky Timmy Straub

Dad and I made a darkroom in our home’s basement when I was 12. He learned photography as a boy and wanted to teach me all he knew. He assigned technical literature to teach me about f-stop, aperture, lighting, depth, and so on. I started with a vintage Eastman Kodak Brownie, the sort of camera you have to look down into and hold steady enough so that all the sides contain only the image and none of the blur. It took me a while to master. We experimented, taking pictures around the neighborhood, stills of the pets, self-portraits, and one shot of the giant oak tree in our backyard, ensuring the old oak would now, and forever, stand as a sentinel to the seasons.

Our repurposed workspace in the basement was originally a mahogany bar where he and Mom, Donnie and Joy, hosted parties. There’s an old picture of Dashing Don taking orders from behind the bar, bow tie, pompadour, and the sort of smile I’d never seen on him before. There was plenty of counter space on top of the bar, under the bar, behind the bar, and there was a sink with running water, to boot. We hung black curtains over the small, rectangular windows where any possible light might seep through. This was a certified pitch-black darkroom, guaranteeing complete sight deprivation and demanding your other senses to step up and find the way.

Timmy in the darkroom

Donnie really knew what he was doing. He bought all the necessary equipment, and he took me through all the steps of the developing process, first with the lights on and then with the lights off, before allowing me to do it on my own. Loading the undeveloped film into the plastic reel was the most difficult part, and the most important. The film had a frustrating tendency to get stuck a lot of the time, and once the process had begun there was no turning back without potentially compromising the film’s undeveloped integrity. I was left with little choice but to finish what I started, or else I’d lose the captured moments to the light.

Dashing Don

A few months earlier, my sister Kathy had held a group make-out session in the very same spot. The five couples sat on the basement floor, including behind the bar, and I was in charge of turning the lights on and off, indicating when the kissing started (lights off) and when it ended (lights on). The power I held was intoxicating. Two out of the ten kissers eventually came out as gay, one kissing couple found out later they were second cousins, two others are now dead, including Kathy, and one of those couples got married, had three children, and remains married to this day.

Chippy and Timmy

I spent countless hours with Dad in the dark, mixing chemicals, enlarging photos and hanging them to dry. I came to love the process but gradually gave up what had become a boyhood hobby. Setbacks were greeted with inaction. A burned out bulb in the enlarger went unchanged. Chemicals ran out and were unreplenished. Donnie left me to my own devices, like a flight instructor no longer sitting in the cockpit with the student who now has their pilot’s license, and I didn’t like flying alone.

Ultimately, as my interests turned elsewhere, the darkroom was abandoned, left to gather dust and cobwebs. Over the years, I visited the equipment now and then like relics in a forgotten museum. I bought a Nikon camera in my 20s and would take the film to a local photo store to be developed. When I moved away, I sent my father photos of the New Mexico sky and the Santa Fe streets, writing captions on the backs. He did the same for me from back home: pictures of the dogs, his garden, and one of the giant oak tree in the backyard that had fallen in a storm.

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