Clothes Dryer

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I’m pretty used to showing people my photos and having them ask why exactly I took a picture of this or that, and I understand why. This is the kind of photo you look at and think, “Wow, there’s got to be a story there.” And there probably is. Unfortunately, I’m not the one who knows it.

Those who read my most recent entry heard about my struggles with photographic philosophy. This clearly falls in the “not a person” camp and the logic behind it is the same: sometimes I think interesting photos are created by taking pictures of things you don’t see every day. I would say this qualifies, although whether it is interesting or not is always up to the beholder.

The photo was taken by me while sitting in the passenger seat of my wife’s Hyundai going down Interstate 94 to Milwaukee, on one of the many trips we took there (see the angel entry for more on that). It was taken with my Canon AE-1, a camera which I love but never use anymore because of the simplicity of digital. The AE-1 was one of the first consumer cameras that had computer controlled exposure, but I always had it set on manual—not because I never figured out how to use it (which I never did), but because I liked it that way.

These days, amateur-level film cameras are all but obsolete, and film itself seems anachronistic to most, and that’s fine; I don’t think film is going away permanently, and digital has become simple and inexpensive enough for the masses, so film no longer makes sense for the average snapshot-taker and family-vacation documentarian. I’m not here to lament the passing of film, but for those who recall (or still use) manual cameras–the AE-1 is actually older than I am–there is a certain love/hate relationship you tend to develop with yours.

Hate, because of all the fleeting pictures you were missing because you didn’t have time to set up the shot. Love, because for those who really get to know their camera, it becomes like a part of the photographer. I’m not talking about the point-and-shoot film cameras so cheap and common before digital technology had the quality or low cost to replace them. I’m talking about cameras where everything was manual—anything you wanted to do had some mechanical element to it that you were involved in. Not just taking photos and all that entails—focus, aperture, shutter speed–but the things that people today don’t even think about, because even in the film world we take them for granted: loading film, advancing film, rewinding film.

Even if you went out to buy a film camera today—and you still can–chances are you would just drop the film in it and close the door, and it would load for you, advance every time you shot, and automatically rewind when it hit the end of the roll. I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with those features (although the loud whine of the rewinding motor in the middle of a wedding ranks right up there with a cell phone ring for annoyances) but when you had to do them yourself, it changed the dynamic of how you looked at a roll of film. Because film was a commodity, each exposure was valuable, and guys like me knew that the twenty-four exposures listed on the canister was only a suggestion, not a limit. If you loaded it right, you could sometimes get 26 or 28 exposures before you hit the end. The catch was that you could never be sure.

These days, a full memory card is only a theoretical limit—most cameras will tell you definitively how many shots you have left on the current resolution, and big memory cards are so cheap, that number is likely to seem an embarrassment of riches when compared to the twenty-four exposure roll that was the standard in film days. But even if you fill the card, it’s only matter of going back and deleting something to be able to take another. When you were out on the road in a Hyundai, the film you had was a physical limit until you could stop at a drugstore and buy more.

So I would always load my film carefully (especially after having learned the lesson of more than a few shutters fired on to film that didn’t pull—if you thought you were upset about the shots you didn’t have the chance to set up, it paled in comparison to the despair at finding out you didn’t even get exposures on the ones you did have time to set up) and in doing so try to get a few extra frames out of the leader, which frequently I could. The catch was that you never knew exactly which shot was going to be the first one that actually had a full frame of unexposed film available, or at what number on the dial you were going to pull the lever to advance and feel the resistance of the end of the roll. So those first few and last few photos always had a special challenge to them—you wanted to take a photo of something that you were going to be willing to pay to have a print made of, but not something so important to you that you could live without, since you might only get half of it, or not get it at all.

I don’t remember exactly, but this shot has the look to me of a photo taken before the dial hit “1”. In the car, loading the camera, want to have it ready by the time we get there so I don’t miss anything, but what is around that I can take a picture of? And then, of course, there it was. An old clothes dryer strapped to a flat-bed trailer. Exactly what I needed to take a picture of.

The story of this photo to me is the questions it raises about the real story going on here that I don’t know. Where is this dryer going? Why is it strapped to the middle of this big, empty trailer, when it would easily fit in a pickup truck? Is there a matching washing machine somewhere? I don’t know the answers to these questions, and never will, but I guess if I did, I probably wouldn’t have taken the picture.

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  1. A suspension of small globules of one liquid in a second liquid with which the first will not mix: an emulsion of oil in vinegar.
  2. A photosensitive coating, usually of silver halide grains in a thin gelatin layer, on photographic film, paper, or glass.
[New Latin ēmulsiō, ēmulsiōn-, from Latin ēmulsus, past participle of ēmulgēre, to milk out : ē-, ex-, ex- + mulgēre, to milk; see melg- in Indo-European roots.]

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition