Photographic Memories: The first pictures I took … and can’t help but keep taking

Rows of crosses. Photo by Dale O’Dell.

By Dale O’Dell

April 1994: Life is in chaos. The house is a mess. My darkroom and studio have been deconstructed. It is a time of extreme disorganization, stress — and joy. After living in the hustle-bustle metropolis of Houston, Texas, for 12 years we are moving away. We are moving to Arizona, to the country and to a new life doing the same thing, photography. We are forsaking freeways for dirt roads, suit and tie meetings for higher long distance bills, and two-hour E-6 processing for two-day processing. As I pack every photograph I’ve ever taken into a forest of brown corrugated boxes, I pause from time to time to look at the slides, some of them unseen since their original filing. What’s this? Looks like a shot of my feet when loading the camera. Why’d I keep this? I must have had some reason for keeping it, don’t throw it away now. Each subject category gets packed into its own brown box. Portraits, sports, aerial photos, oil rigs (maybe not living in Texas will mean not photographing any more oil rigs, could I be so lucky?), farming photos, travel pictures, religion and the files go on. Religion? What’s this? I’ve never shot for a religious publication; why do I have a file marked religion?

I should be packing those boxes, but I must check out this photo file marked religion. Holding pages of slides up to the window (the light tables are packed and crated, I know not where) there are photos of churches, missions, cemetery statues, stained glass windows and crosses, lots and lots of crosses; crosses alone, crosses in rows, crosses and more crosses. Why’d I shoot this stuff? I’m not even religious. For some reason I was, and still am I guess, drawn to photograph religious iconography, especially crosses. But for what reason? I have no prints of this on my walls. I’ve never exhibited or published a photo of a cross. Why did I take these photos? They have no obvious art or commercial value and I don’t even go to church; what could I possibly be doing?

For the rest of the time it took to complete packing the house and studio, I thought of those pictures of crosses. Driving alone in a rented truck from Houston to where we live now, in Prescott, Ariz., I thought about those mysterious, forgotten, and rediscovered pictures of crosses. Why’d I shoot them? What was I thinking? Am I some kind of subconscious Jesus freak? What’s the deal? Driving cross-country in a radio-less truck with a top speed of 60 mph one has plenty of time to think. So I thought about those pictures a lot, and passing through Las Cruces (Spanish for “the crosses,” how appropriate), New Mexico, at about two in the morning I realized exactly why I took all those photos. …

June 1968: I am leaving home for the first time. I am 9 years old. I am going to camp for two weeks. It is an exciting time — and a little scary. Camp is far away, in northern Michigan, and we live in a small town southwest of Detroit. When we get in the car to leave, my mom and dad make sure I’ve got everything I’ll need, backpack, sleeping bag, extra clothes and swim trunks. Just when I think I’ve got more stuff than I could possibly need (or carry) my Mom gave me one more thing, a camera. She loaded the camera with a little yellow-wrapped roll of film and gave me a brief photography lesson. Well, not a photography lesson really, but a camera operation lesson: look through here, press this button gently, turn this knob until you see the next number come into the little red window on the back, you can take 12 pictures. I remember asking her for a second roll of film, but she didn’t think I would load the camera correctly so I only got one. (Mom should have given me more credit).

So off I went to camp. I did all the things 9-year-old boys do at camp. We shot BB guns, swam, cooked weenies over fire, hiked, and got a little homesick. Near the end of my two weeks at camp I remembered that little Brownie camera my Mom had given me. I fished it out of my backpack where I’d carefully stowed it, wrapped in a soft towel to protect the delicate instrument I thought it was. I put it on a table next to my bunk and set my alarm for six the next morning because I was going to get up with the sun and take 12 pretty pictures. Why I knew, at the age of 9, that early morning light is the sweetest light of all is unfathomable, but in retrospect, it might be the only thing I’ve ever been absolutely right about. At six the alarm rang, and I quietly dressed and slipped out of the cabin while my campmates slept. The sun was just breaking the horizon, the sky was yellow, and the birch trees cast long bluish shadows. For the first time, I saw what I’ve now been seeing for nearly 30 years, the moment between day and night, a mix of light and dark, two worlds briefly overlapping. I took pictures! Not of my friends, who I’d forget in time anyway, but of light and shadow and all the pretty stuff that most people don’t see because when they wake up it’s too late. You’ve got to get up early to see the magic light, and even as a 9 year old I knew that. I counted each picture I took. I only had 12 chances and each had to be right. I walked and walked and looked and looked, looking for perfect pictures to take when I saw something wonderful. The camp had a little outdoor chapel with split-logs to sit on, like pews that faced three wooden crosses. Those crosses were beautiful. They were backlit and cast long, broken shadows across the pews. The dew that glistened off the ground gave the whole scene a wonderful glow. I don’t remember how many pictures I took of those crosses, but it may have been half a roll, six shots!

The author, Dale O’Dell. Courtesy photo.

When my time at camp was over, mom and dad came and picked me up. Camp was fun, but it was good to be back on familiar turf with my friends, riding bicycles and doing what kids do on summer vacation. I don’t remember how long it took, but I eventually remembered those pictures I took that morning at camp. When I asked my mom if she’d taken my film to the drugstore to be developed, she said she had but the film hadn’t come out. “How did they mess up my pictures?” I asked. (We always blame the lab, don’t we?) She explained that they didn’t do it, but I did. I forgot to wind that little knob that advanced the next frame and all my pictures were double-exposed. “Then let me see the negatives,” I asked. I don’t know why I thought to check the negs at such a young age, but it was no use, she’d thrown them away. (Moms are like that, always throwing stuff away when you’re not looking.) I was bummed. Those pictures of the crosses were burned into my memory, but my film was gone. I’d never be able to share them with anyone. It was a scene everyone missed but me.

I’ve learned a lot about photography in the past three decades, and I never accidentally double-expose. I also learned, driving on I-10 somewhere near Las Cruces, that for nearly 30 years I’ve been subconsciously trying to get that shot that didn’t come out when I was 9 years old. The thing is, I’ll never, ever get that shot. You can reshoot all you want, but you can never recapture the moment. Such is photography; such is life.


Condensed from the original, as published in “Photographic Memories,” by Dale O’Dell, 2009. See more of Dale O’Dell’s photography and digital art at DalePhoto.Com.

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