Photomicrography Low-Tech Style

My first exposure to photography was prompted by the need to have something to present at a science fair. Three guesses who came up with photomicrography. Obviously not me, since I had never heard of it.

Of course, we had a microscope. I mean, who doesn’t? Here we were in Fred, Texas in 1972 and we didn’t have a shotgun or a fishing pole or a football, but we had a microscope. We also had an International Harvester tractor, but that was an aberration.

Dad had his Argus C3, a cable for triggering time exposures, and a tripod. Everything a growing boy needs for his science project. The drama that ensued was one of many of Dad’s lessons in creativity and perseverance.

Warning: We now venture into the realm of technical detail.

We set up the microscope on the kitchen table, pointed it at a human hair (mine), and positioned the camera above it. There was the matter of focusing, but Dad was all over it like a tick on a June bug.

Step 1: Focus the image in the microscope.

Step 2: Set the focus on the camera at infinity.

Step 3: Track the light coming out of the eyepiece of the microscope by raising and lowering a sheet of paper until you find the point where the circle is smallest.

Step 4: Position the lens of the camera at that point.

Step 5: Take a half-dozen or so time-exposure shots of varying duration, from one to ten seconds. Repeat for the next subject.

Step 6: Take the film to Silsbee (the nearest town sixteen miles away) to be processed.

We got back 24 photos of a white rabbit in a snowstorm. I was mystified. Not surprising since everything about the process was as foreign to me as a date with the head cheerleader.

Dad deduced that the culprit was the ambient light in the room. He fashioned a tube from a toilet paper roll, taped a flat piece of cardboard at the bottom with a hole just big enough to fit over the eyepiece of the microscope, and stuffed black cloth around the top.

Twenty-four hours later we had a set of prints featuring a blurry human hair in a circle of light on a black field. It became obvious that if we were to rely on a trial-and-error approach, we required a shorter time between the T and the E.

No problem. All we needed was our own personal darkroom. However, we ran into a scheduling problem. To be precise, outfitting a darkroom wasn’t going to happen on a preacher’s salary in a million years, and the science fair was just a week away.

As I pictured my academic career disintegrating before my eyes, Dad announced that we might be able to pull it off with a Polaroid. I pointed out that we had Polaroids and darkrooms in equal quantity, but Dad was too busy explaining that while such a camera lacked everything that the true photographer desired, it delivered the one feature that we required: instant feedback.

The next day he walked in with a borrowed Polaroid and two packs of film. We were in business. That is, until the first few attempts produced a reasonable representation of a black bunny on a moonless night. It turned out that the Polaroid was fully automatic. Holding down the button didn’t hold the aperture open like it did on the Argus C3.

Dad explained the problem. “With a real camera, you pick an f-stop and then use a light meter to set the length of the exposure. Somehow the Polaroid figures all that out for you. But how do it know?”***

He examined the front of the camera and noticed a small lens next to the main lens. “Ah, a built-in light meter.” He then used tape and cardboard to fashion a cover for the light meter that could be pulled away without disturbing the set up.

A few minutes later we had our first successful image. In a few hours I had everything I needed to build a display for the science fair.

[Photos from microscope.]

Even so, the experience failed to endear me to photography as a pastime. That came later.


*** A mechanic, a sales guy, and a redneck are discussing the greatest invention ever.

The mechanic says, “It’s the automobile. It gave us mobility and changed society forever.”

The sales guy says, “No, it was the telephone. It revolutionized communications, made anyone accessible to anyone else, anywhere in the world.”

The redneck says, “It’s the thermos.”

The other two say, “How is that?”

The redneck says, “Well when you put something hot in there it stays hot right?”

The mechanic says, “Yeah.”

“And when you put something cold in there it stays cold right?”

The sales guy says, “Of course, it’s a thermos.”

The redneck says, “But how do it know?”