On the negative side 2

don't drop your camera in the waterI guess I’m not shocking anyone when I say this is not how I intended this image to look at all. And it’s a shame, because it was a rare opportunity that might actually have come out with some artistic merit. I know, right?

The scene opens on a casual photo competition on this thing that used to exist called, ‘Usenet,’ that somehow died in favor of chatrooms (pretty much the same damn thing) and Tumbler and Reddit and such – don’t ask me, people are weird. The challenge for this week was to get an interesting photo with a disposable film camera, the basic premise being that good photographers could produce something compelling regardless of the equipment, which is a point I’ve often promoted myself. These little plastic, inexpensive cameras were about as simple as they could get, and of course extremely limited in their abilities: single molded acrylic lenses, fixed shutter and aperture and focal length, questionable quality control and accuracy, and preloaded with a specific film. Nobody was expecting National Geographic images, but what would we be seeing?

While I had used these from time to time before, because waterproof ones were available and, at that point in history, the only way to do subsurface or water-sports images without spending a lot of money on specialized equipment, the one I purchased for this attempt was not waterproof, but included a flash instead. I was out prowling around with the camera in a shirt pocket, and visiting one of my haunts in Florida, a wading-area that stayed shallow for hundreds of meters out, playing home to horseshoe crabs and manatees and the occasional dolphin.

I noticed that the light conditions were producing an effect that I’d used before, where looking downward into the water near my feet produced a clear view, but as my gaze went further up and out, the water gradually turned reflective and showed only the sky, producing a nice fading effect and color change – I was determined to capture this visual curiosity, and went in search of something under the surface to provide a focal point for the transparent water portion. With delight, I spotted a stingray not far away, and managed to get quite close to it without spooking it, an accomplishment of its own since they’re notoriously sensitive to movement in the water and don’t tend to hang around people. While the focal length listed for this one seems short, it’s on an earlier small-sensor digital camera, and is an equivalent of 190mm, moderate telephoto.

So I framed the image the way I wanted just as the stingray became aware of my presence and bolted – it’s barely visible in the photo, the only shape right at the edge where the water goes from green to purple (we’re getting to that – just be patient.) The ray is facing away, the tail towards the bottom left corner if that helps. Obviously my ability to keep the camera level in my haste left a bit to be desired, but I succeeded in nailing the stingray right at the transition from transparent to reflective. Cool!

And then, a short while later while wading in the same location, I bent over to scoop up something at my feet and the camera vaulted out of my shirt pocket and into the water. I immediately snatched it up, but really wasn’t holding out much hope that the snap-together construction would be sufficient to prevent or even slow the incursion of saltwater into the depths of the camera, especially when the flash capacitor discharged into my hand as I picked it up (I do not recommend this experience, by the way – it’s a hefty amount of voltage and god will damn you to hell for cursing.) Nevertheless, I took it in to be developed, and managed to salvage a few images from early in the roll, tightly wrapped by successive layers of film. This, however, was not one of them, and the salt damage is rather prominent.

There is a curious, somewhat illusory effect within, as well. The deep purple spot in the sky is not what happened to the sun, since I was facing north, but just a random reaction of the emulsion to the salt and mineral content – even though it appears to produce a reflection from the horizon beneath it. It’s just coincidence, but one that’s easy to slip past us because it mimics something we expect to see.

This event occurred in those tumultuous days when digital was gaining popularity, and the early adopters were seeking any examples they could to denigrate film. This image might have caught their attention momentarily, until they realized that a digital camera would probably have fared a bit worse with the dunking…

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