At the entrance to the National Monument there was a one-hour photo lab, an incongruous business next to the tourist-pandering souvenir store. I was surprised to find it there, but evidently there were enough tourist snapshots to support it, so I was pleased to take advantage of its services. I brought in my roll of LE400; it had the one single shot that I took last night when the clouds broke. I was hoping to find out if the exposure was going to be usable or if I should plan on spending another night to try again.
The photo lab was run by two women who were distinctly unexcited to see me– a scruffy long-haired guy who had been out camping the last couple days– coming in with a single film cassette. One of them started to make fun of me because I told her there was only one exposure on the roll. She must have thought I was nuts.
Well, since it was a one-hour photo lab, I came back an hour later and I encountered a completely different response. She was effusive in expressing how excited she was and asked “How did you ever take this picture?” She wanted to know if she could have a print?, could she show people?, how did I?, where did I?…
So this one picture, an orphan on a full roll of otherwise empty film had completely changed her attitude toward me. I was now a rock star, and she wanted me to sign a copy of my latest hit, and so I did. She placed it prominently among her portfolio of prints promoting her one-hour photo lab in this remote and most unexpected place.
Note from the future: The invention of photographic film, a light-sensitive emulsion on a flexible strip, along with the access to photo labs, allowed photography to become widespread and popular throughout the entire 20th century. But there were distinct limitations associated with film that simply don’t exist in modern digital photography. The limited number of exposures that could fit on a roll of film was one of them, requiring careful consideration of what scenes were worthy of each precious frame. There was also a need to keep the film safely stored away from direct light and at the right temperature and humidity. But the most severe limitation was that there was no “preview”; each exposure was taken on faith, because the film needed to be chemically developed and printed before the success (or failure) of a shot could be determined.
I was now a week into my travels and had experienced the luck of good weather and had succeeded in making a few exposures of the night sky from my small arsenal of cameras. Some of them were astrophotos taken at the prime focus of a telescope, and others were time exposures of the landscape rotating under a starry night. I was starting to complete entire rolls of film (although admittedly, some were quite short—only 12 exposures. But even if the film had not been completely utilized, I was eager to find out if my settings and techniques were working. I would happily wind off the rest of the roll to see if those first few exposures yielded successful images. But that meant that I would need to find a place that could develop them.