Photography: My Early Years

In which I continue to interview myself.

What was your first camera?
That’s a bit like asking the name of my first boyfriend; because the day my mom gifted me her old Zeiss Ikon Contessa, I fell in love. It was as if she handed me a ticket to see the world in a creative way. I knew from an early age that I was an artist, but with little natural talent for drawing pictures. With a camera in my hands, there was no longer a question of what I could bring to life, and I set out on a grand adventure.

What exactly is a Zeiss Ikon Contessa?
Briefly, this particular style was a 35mm folding/rangefinder camera that was manufactured by Zeiss Ikon AG in Germany. It had a sturdy little body with a Tessar Zeiss-Opton T, 45mm f/2.8 lens. To focus, you had to match the yellow rangefinder images in the finder. It had a brown leather case that was always dangling from the bottom when I was shooting photos. If you are into vintage cameras, there are plenty to be found online at pretty reasonable prices.

What was the year you received the Contessa?
Probably around 1970. I remember taking it with me when our theatre group performed at Yale University as part of a play festival. I took the camera for a walkabout all over New Haven. The cemetery was a photographer’s dream for graveyard sculptures.

I remember coming upon a gravestone that had my exact name, Mary Delia Quigley, with the date of birth and death. I quickly snapped a picture, excited to get home and make a print.

Ironically, it was the only shot that did not take. When I printed the proof sheet, the space on the negative was completely white. Yeah, I know, signal the eerie music.

My mother must have bought the Contessa in Austria. My father received orders for Salzburg in 1951. Mom packed up my two brothers plus me for a four-year stay in Europe. Looking back through the color images she captured on Ektachrome slide film has made me realize what an exceptional photographer she was.

Sounds like a book in the making?
Actually, yes. It is planned as part of the Lifting The Veil series, this time on Mother~Daughter.

So, your mother set you on the path?
Or the lifetime journey to parts unknown. Photography became my passion, and in those early years, I began to see it as a possible career. What happened was, right after I graduated from college, I was teaching special education in a Catholic daycare center in Tampa, Florida. It was located in a strip mall in what was called the Projects.

From time to time, a truck would pull into the parking lot, and a brisk trade of goods would take place. A Flash sale, if you will. Thus the term, “it fell off the truck.”

One of those times, a brand new Minolta 35mm camera emerged from the back of the vehicle just as I was leaving school for the day. I knew the dealer, as his two children were in my class, and he called out to me, held up the Minolta, lifted his eyebrows while flashing five fingers ten times. Always dramatic that dude. Fifty dollars, and she was mine. Ah, what’s a photographer to do? He then discreetly handed me the camera, as I equally discreet palmed $50 cash, and the deal was struck. This then began the next part of my journey, and boy oh boy, did I have fun.

Unfortunately, not much has survived from that time. I was traveling the world and storing my negatives in moms’ garage. Amazing what the Florida heat can do to film negatives.

Ever have any formal photography training?
Those were the days when there were photography stores all over town. They were the hub of the photo scene with the coolest guys working behind the counters. I was young, hot, and eager to learn. When I started taking classes, you can only imagine the extra attention I was given. It gave me a chance to explore different camera formats, film brands, paper, and all the parts that went into printing your own photos.

Besides the Minolta, I was shooting with a Rolleiflex. With dual lens and 120 film, the negatives were much larger than the 35mm, so you could make big prints. It was the camera Vivian Maier used to capture her street photography. You could carry it low, making it unobtrusive when out amongst people. With the larger format, I was able to create some interesting effects with those negatives. Today I can work in Photoshop to get much the same result.

What type of scenes were you shooting?
Working in the theatre and with the Tampa Ballet Company, I began photographing actors, dancers, and models who were looking to build a portfolio. I would take them out to different locations and shoot them without anything but the Minolta. The 50mm lens was perfect for portrait work, which was a good thing because I couldn’t afford to buy an expensive lens. I was also shooting local bands and did a whole series on my young students. Everyone loved posing for the camera, so it was a win-win situation.

Did you have a darkroom?
As I was often on the move, I brought it with me. It was set up in the kitchen in one place, and I would develop and print at night because it was just so hot in Florida.

Not a lot of air conditioning back when, so there were drops of my sweat mingled with the developing chemicals, which may have given the prints a longer life.

At dawn, I would peel back the curtain, have a morning smoke watching the sunrise then head off to sleep for most of the day.

So what came of it all?
Not much. I entered a few art shows and won prizes. I had this idea to sell 8×10 matted photos on the street corner in downtown Tampa at lunch hour. Naturally, I dressed very artsy, with a bit of Parisian flair. Priced the prints at $10, and with those sales was able to cover the costs for film and darkroom chemicals. I like to think those photos are out there somewhere, probably at the bottom of another Boomer’s trunk in the attic. I didn’t stop taking photographs, but my life changed, and photography as a career took a back seat. I do have some great memories of those photoshoots, though, and will share a few in blog stories once I find the box where I stored them.