ESSAY ︎︎︎ A family negative, 2020
My mother often assigns small-scale family projects for me to accomplish, typically those that combine creative materials and analytic processes, the two skills she has often quoted to be my strongest. More often than not, these projects are tied to photography in some way, likely because this was a childhood hobby that eventually turned into my area of undergraduate study and then became my adult job.
In May of 2016, she gave me a black and white photographic negative. I don’t remember how the negative was encased when it arrived, or even the transference itself, but it now sits within an archival plastic sleeve, encased in an old Kodak Professional Ektar 100 Negative Film box. These boxes, which once contained unexposed film, were a favorite of students in my program for storing negatives, as most of us didn’t have the means of buying archival cases for our processed negatives. Now one of those used boxes held this family negative. I scrolled “Eveleth Neg 4x5 05/2016” on the front of the box, filed it with my other 30 or so Ektar boxes, and promptly forgot about it. The project, as my mother envisioned it, likely involved scanning, printing, and then distributing this document for the family, but as of today, is still incomplete.
Considering this family artifact in the words of Barthes (2010), I’m struck by several similarities between the photograph he contemplates and the one associated with the negative I hold in my hands. Barthes stresses the luck of its survival, the provincial nature of its creator, and the photograph as a record of truth, though that truth may be wholly introspective. For many of us, the photographs of our family are not considered by larger audiences to be important in the grand scheme of things. We are not part of famous families, so our archives are therefore fully ours to create, keep, and save. When I first confronted these topics in relation to my own personal history, they appeared gloomy and slightly defeatist. However, delving beyond those surface feelings, I began to find the idea romantic. There is something quite beautiful about the journey that personal archives must not only travel through, but overcome, in order to exist in the world.
The journey I’m specifically thinking about here is that of this photograph’s creation to its final resting place in the box in my fridge. A photographic image lives its own life, travelling through many iterations based on era or agenda. We see the creation of the image through the negative itself. This small, often fragile object then lives again as a print, which often become cherished relics themselves. And in contemporary culture, the image finally culminates in the digital realm as a file. Though the negative, the print, and the digital file are separate entities existing in space simultaneously, they continue to be the same image, cloned into new lives by a variety of players.
The photographic journey mimics the progression of photography as a practice, moving from the analog tradition to its rebirth in digital forms. But for me, the photographic object’s journey is deeper than a superficial change to the medium itself. It acts as a family cohesive, connecting us to the past by tracking the artifact through generations. Each leg of its journey corresponds to a different person involved in its preservation, which returns me to the romance of the provincial, the romance of a hidden life, as every single one of those players in my story falls into that category.
Physically, the document appears to be a large format black and white photographic negative, and I always assumed the photo was taken utilizing traditional large format processes. The difference here is between sheet film and flexible roll film. Though film is not as popular as it once was, many of us would be familiar with flexible roll film, consisting of a tight roll encased in some sort of light-blocking device. This is then loaded into a camera and after each exposure, the roll is advanced forward to allow for another photo to be taken. This eliminates the tedious nature of having to load film individually for every picture but is typically used for medium or small format photography. In contrast, sheet film requires loading an unexposed negative into a film holder, then sliding a light proof dark slide in place above it. The film holder is then loaded into your large format camera, and once the dark slide is removed, you can expose the film. However, unlike roll film, you must remove the holder and replace with a new one each time you wish to make an exposure. Typical sizing for sheet film is 4 inches by 5 inches (4x5) or 8 inches by 10 inches (8x10).
My negative, however, measures 3.5 inches across and 4.5 inches in height, slightly smaller than any other large format negative I’ve encountered in my practice before. Searching for information about this type of negative proved tricky. After exhausting multiple databases, I stumbled upon discussions on amateur archival forums about large format negative “trimming”. With this practice in mind, one can detect when placing the negative on a grid that the corners do not create the perfect ninety-degree angles as one would find in manufactured film negatives indicating that this negative had indeed been cut by hand. Furthermore, at the top of the negative is a small “G” indicator. Initially I assumed this was an element of branding, but given this negative was likely cut from a larger roll, the “G” could note the frame number (as in A, B, C, etc. corresponding to separate exposures). Additionally, above the “G” indicator, one can see bleeding from another photo, meaning there was an image exposed above, presumably the “F” exposure. Once cut from the roll, our negative carries the ghosts of its neighbors.
Additionally, the negative is in extremely good condition, given how easy it is to ruin film, especially over decades of storage. There are only a few minute scratches on the surface and no discernible fingerprints. This is a tad shocking; most of the negatives I’ve found in my grandparents’ basement are still encased in the paper envelopes they came in. Photo negatives stored in this way often can scratch simply by shifting within the envelopes themselves.
The photo is a studio portrait taken in the late sixties of my mother and her three older siblings. They are in a room, a set explicitly created for the performance of photography -- the background looks like a traditionally painted photographic backdrop but is bookended by wood paneling. There is a shag carpet, and the siblings are centered in frame. Jenny, with long blonde pigtails and wearing a striped dress, is seated on a small wooden stool. Just behind her, Nancy is seated in a broad-backed chair, ankles crossed and hands in lap. She wears her hair in a slight bouffant, falling just above the collar of her floral dress and turtleneck sweater. Dan is standing directly to her right. His hands are behind his back, and he stands straight, chest pushed out slightly, in a tweed jacket. His bangs are meticulously brushed forward, one gathers by watchful parental hands for the purpose of the photo. Molly, my mother, is positioned right in front of him, her right-hand gripping Nancy’s thigh. She’s wearing a patterned dress and appears to be fidgeting with it. She might also be mid-laugh. Nancy recalls that the outfits were likely sewn by my grandmother, Marian, as during those years, she made most of their clothing by hand, a skill she passed to my mother.
None of the children confront the camera directly. Their gaze is instead pointed slightly above and to the left of where the camera was positioned, perhaps at a parent or the photographer, Dean Palmer. Descriptions of Dean’s practice imply that he was likely the one our subjects are looking at. My grandfather, Norm Eveleth, recalls that he was a lively and dynamic photographer who had a knack for drawing people out of their shells. “He had a charming personality, was always friendly, and could get a smile out of anyone,” he noted. This often produced staged portraits that mirrored the visual allure of candid shots. Subjects look alive, as a good portrait photographer can draw your personality out, simultaneously freezing it in the image. Of all the photographs Dean took of our family, I was unable to locate one where the subject looked stuffy or static. As in Barthes’s meditation (2010), our own provincial photographer, Dean, not only took photographs, but recorded truth in this way.
The photograph appears to have been lit by only one or two lights. We see this by studying the shadows present within the photo, as well as any reflections we might be able to locate within frame. For example, the illumination of each child’s face and the direction of the shadows around the seating indicate that there is one studio flash (a “strobe”) located to the left of the camera, likely covered by a diffusing soft box. It is likely positioned above the photographer, where the children’s gaze is directed, meaning it is positioned a few feet above the photographer’s head and pointed downward. This ensures that shadowing on faces is minimal, but also that eyes don’t accidentally absorb the full power of the flash, which can cause severe discomfort and is a risk particularly with children as subjects. The second light may be a hair light off the left of the frame. This is a rather common studio trope, as it creates the pleasant sheen you see on subjects’ hair. It would have been placed so the beam of the hair light hits the direction of the camera’s gaze at a ninety-degree angle.
The subjects of this photograph are the most apparent players. However, the image could not be produced without a photographer. By the 1960s when this image was taken, snapshot photography (the act of visually preserving a memory or moment) was very much ingrained into American culture. Kodak Eastman had introduced the Brownie box camera around the turn of the century, making photography accessible to the average person, birthing the “Kodak moment”. Polaroid pushed the snapshot aesthetic further with the development of instant cameras in the late 1940s. With the ease of use associated with these inventions, as well as their affordability, photography was now a method of recording that could be embraced by amateurs, but studio and most film photography remained a skill that had to be learned. Specifically, studios traditionally processed and printed their film in-house, processes that the everyman would not have been directly involved in. Therefore, hiring a photographer for professional portraits was common practice.
Dean Palmer was our photographer, at least as much as a working-class mid-century family could have a family photographer. “He took all of our pictures,” my grandfather remembered, noting baby photos, wedding pictures, and high school photos to name a few genres. While those posing in front of the camera tend to be the surviving proof of the experience, Dean was our invisible truth-maker. According to his obituary, Dean was the owner of Dean’s Photography Studio in Shelton, WA for 42 years. His invisibility is pointed out in an article about the photographer (Green, 2009); we learn that “for a man whose career was spent taking pictures of other people, Palmer wasn’t often on the other end of the camera.”
On top of his prolific photographic career, Dean was also a businessman, a local politician, active with the area’s Boy Scouts, and as my grandfather noted, “very active at the annual [Kiwanian] pancake breakfast”. According to the Shelton-Mason County Journal (1976), he was quoted as saying, “In the 40 years I’ve spent in Mason County I have seen it grow from a small logging community to one of the state’s major tree growing and recreational areas.” He was deeply ingrained in the community of Shelton and Mason County and continually proved that he was invested in the success of the area. Part of that commitment came in the form of documenting the lives of its residents.
It is interesting that he is now considered what I’ve been referring to as a provincial maker. His grand contribution to the community and the preservation of its history seems to have faded from public knowledge, except in the memories of those that once knew him. While his photos continue their lives, hopefully for centuries more, researching Dean made for some surprising discoveries. He was a vet, and a world-traveler. He was college-educated and, while his interest in photography stemmed from a high school hobby, he was employed by prestigious institutions like the University of Washington and the State Legislature (High School Hobby Became Dean’s Profession, 1959). During World War II, he was drafted and served as a photographer in aerial reconnaissance for the US Air Force. He had his work published in art books, shown in the Seattle Art Museum, and was recognized by the State Photography Association.
After learning more about Dean’s personal journey, it appears that he began as a rural photographer, then left to explore, but ultimately returned to the working-class community of Shelton. Giving in to the stereotypes I often try so hard to push against, I had assumed this man lived an entirely quiet life. He did not. He took his photography out into the world, and then chose a quiet life, and to me that is an entirely different narrative. The choice involved makes his work more meaningful, as he could have pursued a far more famous and visible legacy.
I wanted to highlight another quote that became integral to the reconciliation occurring for me while researching this project from theorist Rosalind Krauss:
These [social] functions he sees as wholly connected to the structure of the family in a modern world, with the family photograph an index or proof of family unity, and, at the same time, an instrument or tool to effect that unity (p. 56).
Here Krauss introduces the idea of the photo as proof of the family unit, but also as a unifier itself. Family photographs become proof of the family unit as a concept, but also as the cohesion and preservation of that unit overall.
In a way, I believe that images have always been our (the Eveleth and Parker) family unifiers as well. I assume that there are many families like mine. As a whole we are scattered across the country but still search for connection with each other. My father was in the military, and as army brats, my sisters and I looked to photographic images to remember who our relatives were. In an age just dawning on the digital, our family would pass photographs back and forth, from Washington to North Carolina. The photograph of Dean’s that I remember the most vividly from my childhood was a portrait of my grandparents, set on a white backdrop. Framed as a headshot, the pair is seated quite close to each other, and there’s a slight glow effect. The photo reads as almost ethereal, and this version of my grandparents became the stand-in for their person in my own memories.
Returning to the document at hand, the sibling photograph exists as its own object in the collective family history. The print itself is a beautiful art piece. The enlargement would have been printed in a traditional black and white darkroom. These processes have been deemed obsolete with the shift to contemporary digital photography and printing practices, but if you’ve ever been lucky enough to spend time in a darkroom, you’re struck by the meditative nature of the process itself. I was not able to find information about Dean’s process specifically. This is not surprising to me; like magicians, photographers keep the exact process of their practice as closely held secrets. It is my opinion that darkroom photographs exist more solidly in the world than those made on digital printers, mostly because they seem to be birthed in a way that’s impossible digitally. They possess an inherent aura.
What darkroom processes require first and foremost is focus. Following that, you need access to a reliable space, as well as a set of sturdy supplies. There are many steps required in the undertaking, but a high-level understanding of printing allows for a higher appreciation of the object that is produced. As outlined by Beltowska (2019), one starts in a light proof room with a photographic enlarger, a negative, and a sheet of light-sensitive paper. The negative is loaded into the enlarger, a type of projector that literally enlarges the image for exposure on paper. There are many minute steps to this process, but once the paper is exposed with your enlarged image, it is then run through a series of chemical baths and then rinsed clean. During this process, you watch as your image slowly emerges below the waves of chemicals. It’s an almost magic reveal, something that never loses its luster. I believe the darkroom is where the photographer feels closest to the finer arts.
Our print was made on a deep matte paper. Visually the texture mimics velvet; it absorbs light and seems to glow from within. You have the initial gut reaction to reach out and touch it upon viewing. For this reason, no glass has been placed over the print itself. Instead, it’s framed bare, lined by matte board covered in a beige linen which measures about an inch in width. This is framed by a thin wood outline. The object is about 11x14” and Dean’s embossed signature is visible in the lower right-hand corner of the print. For my entire life, it has hung in the stairwell of my grandparent’s house, a house that my grandpa built. The area of the wall it hangs on is shielded from sunlight, making the lack of protective UV glass on the print a non-factor, and it remains in excellent condition.
Another contributor to its lasting quality is likely the photo’s warm tone. Tone is typically seen most notably in the shadows of your print but is also noticeable as an overall cast which colors your print slightly. While tone can be influenced by your print developer as well as the paper you’re using, it is most likely that this print was traditionally toned in the darkroom after it was exposed on the light sensitive paper and run through the chemical baths. It should be noted that toning a print involves “some of the most toxic chemicals used in conventional darkrooms” (Anchell, 2008, p. 109). Anchell also explains in his pivotal textbook, The Darkroom Cookbook, that there are two reasons why a photographer would choose to tone a photograph, either for coloring or longevity. He continues:
At one time, every portrait studio had its own signature warm-tone formula. Many times the tone was achieved by using more than one toner in a multiple-toning sequence. Often the formula and technique were a proprietary secret of the owner, who disproved the adage, “you can’t take with you,” as many of them most certainly did (p. 113).
It is highly likely that Dean’s Photography Studio utilized their own “signature warm-tone formula” to produce the print we’re discussing. It is also likely that their preferred process included protective toning, as the print today still retains rich, deep mid-tones and shadows. In analog printing methods, you wash and fix a print after it is developed, which freezes the image on the paper and removes the chemicals. However, even after this process, the print can still form “silver sulfide as a result of atmospheric pollutants” (Anchell, 2008, p.114). Utilizing a protective toner helps add an archival quality to prints to avoid this. That said, from certain angles, our print does show the signs of silver sulfide, most visible in the deeper shadows. It appears almost like a metallic coating on top of the image itself, though it is slight given the age of the photo.
Just as Dean was an invisible force behind the photograph, there were characters behind this method of family unity as well, namely my grandfather Norm Eveleth, and my great-grandmother Sada Eveleth. For as long as I can remember, my grandfather has been a family, town, and county historian. He is a fifth-generation resident of the area, and an expert in many subjects that are integral to life in Mason County. He has a degree in forestry and has worked for the US Forest Service as well as the local Simpson Timber Company (Foundation Members, 2018). Currently, he’s the president of the Cranberry Lake Foundation, which hosts its own education and research center. Additionally, he was one of my main sources of information for this project, emailing with me about his memories of Dean Palmer and local photography, as well as pointing me in the right direction of online resources for the area. He also would have been a guiding force in having these portraits taken, therefore integral to the existence of my document.
Additionally, his mother, my great-grandma Sada, was deeply embedded in the world of photography herself, normalizing the studio practice as well as instilling an importance for the print in the rest of the family. According to her obituary (2007), “she learned photography using a Kodak box camera”, and she worked for the local photography studio for years as it moved from one set of hands to the other, eventually becoming Dean’s Photography Studio. She worked for Dean as she was “the only person with the talent locally” (N. Eveleth, personal communication, November 20, 2020). She developed film, as well as performed retouching and tinting requests, “doing it at home well into the 1960s” (Obituaries: Sada M. Eveleth, 2007).
Much of her color work still exists in our own family archive, a practice more akin to the skill of painting than photography. It’s unclear whether she had a hand in the post-production process of my small document, but through the research about my negative, I uncovered this poignant connection to my past. My great-grandmother, a woman who by all accounts was a radically interesting personality for the age but was known to me by the geese she kept in her front yard as pets, may have actually been responsible for my interest in photography. In the middle of the century, she was hunched over a light table, delicately removing stray hairs from portraits, and here I am, seventy years later, doing the same thing digitally.
The Digital File
I am the final character to enter the scene of this story, a role I am still struggling to reconcile. When the photographic negative passed into my hands, it entered into a new stage of its journey. It ventured from the physical world into the digital realm. This passage is not as immediate as one would initially assume, as migration from analog to digital file requires its own set of specialized apparatuses. In an age where everyone is a photographer, making photography a physical object still remains relatively inaccessible, just in very different ways from the studio darkroom of ages before. The enlarger, emulsion, and chemicals are replaced with expensive scanners, programs, and high-tech printers. With this shift come new physical implications such as size and storage, but also carry alarming conceptual undertones as well.
The precious nature of printing, and of photography in general, doesn’t exist in the way it did when this image was created decades ago. Instead, it requires a different set of technical skills. In a way, I felt I removed a layer of the photograph’s originality or selfhood when I created the digital file. There’s an aversion to further removal of uniqueness through digitally printing as well, especially given the personal connection to the matte print hanging in our family home that already exists.
The conceptual weight that photography has always carried is heavy. Specifically, there are no original photographs. In fact, it is argued that photography can never produce an original artistic piece at all. It is the first dissension you’re introduced to during a conceptual photography program. One of the most notable critiques of reproductions comes from Walter Benjamin (2010) who famously noted that “photography freed the hand of the most important artistic functions”, because it is a reproduction, and as such is “lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (p. 13).
As a photographer, you’re learning to create facsimiles, ghosts of the world around you, in hope of preserving, communicating, or understanding. In a way, the negatives produced are proof that you are not an artist, you’re an interpreter. Printing an image separates it further from its place in time. Essentially by creating a digital file and then printing the image on my own, I’m making a copy of a copy of a copy. Keeping those schisms in mind, where does the image become too diluted in relation to its source? And does that reduction somehow minimize the truth, as Benjamin would frame it, substituting “a plurality of copies for a unique existence” (p. 14)?
For me, the aura of a photograph is preserved within the darkroom practice but is not easily replicated using our new digital processes. This may be tied to antiquated ideas about the photograph as an object but continues to be a question I struggle with. Given the inaccessibility of darkrooms in society today, I’ve shied away from turning the digital into a new print as I wouldn’t be able to recreate the complex depth or luxuriousness of Dean’s print and would assumably experience a loss of the photograph’s “spell” or “magic” of personality (p. 24).
My investigation of this document has not come to a close. As an object that I have thought about in the abstract for years, I feel a stronger connection to its history than I have before, which triggers an internal conversation about my place in its story. I cannot tell if I’m too sentimental, too close to the object itself. I return to the romanticized idea of the photographer and the family photograph time and time again and begin considering Barthes word choice when he was coming to terms with his own artifact. The terms he uses are beautiful, poetic even. For example, selecting to refer to his photographer as provincial, instead of rural or working-class, seems to justify my pathos. I’m not the only descendant to hold an image and wonder at its inherent aura.
Dean Palmer remains an invisible force in my life, and the further we’re separated from him in time, the further he retreats into the background. Regardless of these shadows, he is a central figure in the truth of my familial records. He is proof that choosing a quiet life is noble and admirable, as well as essential to preserving the cultural history of those of us who are born without titles or money.
His photographs are a singular thread holding together memories of people closely linked to me, the author of connections I held with a long-distance family for so many years. His photographs became my truth. To come full-circle, the image I mentioned of my grandparents -- the one with the ethereal glow that worked as a stand-in for relatives that lived on the other side of the country -- was published with my grandmother’s obituary when she passed away this October. It will remain the singular image that comes to mind when I think of her now and continue to remember her in the future.
Dean was the invisible arc behind my memories. I study this document and am indebted to him.