That same small town in each of us

by Amy Turn Sharp


One night in college we decided that it would make a lot of sense to take sexy photographs of each other. I had a 35mm Nikon that my father had bought me for yearbook staff in high school two years back. I knew how to use it because I was fortunate enough to have one of the best teachers of photography live in my cow town. The backdrop of my high school experience may have involved a lot of farm country and chewing tobacco mouthed boys drinking Keystone Tallboy Lights, but it also had interesting and gentle characters that taught me art and life and will forever be imprinted upon what is me.

Mr. S was a quiet man who probably wore thin corduroy pants before they were cool. He also wore thick brown leather belts that made sense and had a style that was earthy and chic. He was not a large man but he commanded our attention and we adored him. We knew he was talented and special. He never told us these things but we knew all about him.

He taught us how to process film in a darkroom on the basement level of our school. People signed up for the class just to get access to this room. I swear. It was like a myth or something. The room was only big enough for about 3 people to comfortably work and even then it was a mingle mangle of bodies and arms and toes bumping. I never touched hands and faces in the glow of the developer lights with anyone, but I know lots of kids that did. I may have drank a few swigs from a silver flask that belonged to a bad ass senior a few times while I watched the magic happen in a tray, but I was really there for the magic. The paper and the silver containers and the chemicals that were strong against the air and the tiny clocks that timed you as you raced against getting better each week with the voodoo that is processing film. And then you could hang them up on the wall or the line and look into the paper and the paper would tell you truths. I took lots of photographs of people. People that I loved and people that confused me as I tried to place my very square self into the circles of Appalachia every damn year. I took pictures of myself because as insecure and indifferent and unkind as I was to myself back then I was smart enough to know that someday this would be the person that I looked back on with wonder. I took photographs of the countryside and the creek bed by my house. All of the relics of a childhood in the country stared back at me. I stared at them and they got clearer and starker with Mr. S's guidance. He was amazing and every time the circle blackroom door would rumble I would hold my breath and hope it was him coming inside of the room where the old boom box was constantly playing music. When it was my choice to play music I rarely took to the alternative stuff that I always listened to and instead played the hell out of Don Henley’s  "The End of the Innocence" after I bought it on a whim because my dad played the Eagle's on loop at our house.  And the greatest thing in the world was when Mr. S would come in and dance with us and sing Henley too. I felt understood and under my breath I would tell myself that

 this is the real world Amy

this is the fourth wall and I am exposing it

So I was a pretty good clicker with the camera when I went off to college. I realize now that I was simply decent with the camera as an object to capture things. I could hack it and I could work with it but I was really good at taking the people behind the lens and making them do things. I was really good at arranging art or scenes of love or lust or anything that could be traced back to a word and written down and made like a sentence that I threw off my full mouth.

Just come here and I will make beautiful pictures of you I must have said and lots of my friends let me do this and it's so strange that I just dropped the practice and pretended years later that I never even once loved the art. I even pretend now. I believe my lie. I don’t know anything about photography.

So of course I would take the photographs of my friends and I in the nude. It was during a break at school when we were in complete a-motivational response mode. No one made plans or even went back home to visit the parental units- instead we kept the economy of the tiny college town humming with our bar purchases. We would budget 5.00 a day for entertainment and food. We were obviously delirious when we thought about this project. Not many of us had boyfriends to give these photographs to. We just wanted to do it because we had seen some stupid art house film together and got jazzed. This is the same group of friends who were certain two months prior that we were going to be the next famous all girl folk rock band. We had no instruments or musical background. We all just thought we could sing and we locked ourselves in a room for two days recording on two boom boxes an insane cover of the Indigo Girl's “Hammer and a Nail” while finishing up a whole bunch of Meig's County Gold.

Yes. That was us. We were doers.

So we took charge of the Tuesday night before us and the curtains were closed and we transformed the box apartment into a boudoir set. I loved seeing the vulnerability of my friends. I would tell them to look at me with more of this or that and it was kind of magic. The drunker I became the more certain that I was that I was most definitely going to be a famous indie something or other. I was so on the cusp of something big here and my mind was running wild. When it was my turn to pose it was like magic and I felt like the world was all in order and things are blurry towards the end but I know we made the most beautiful photographs that night.

In the morning the film was all over the nubby carpet and I could not get my photography student pal to get me some time in the lab so I just told my bestie that we would go across the street to Walgreens and have them developed. We walked arm and arm to the drugstore and with every step our headaches beat in unison and we smiled the smiles young girls smile without ever thinking of wrinkles and we laughed and laughed.

 

And the following day when we returned the man behind the counter was so mean to us and he actually shooed us away with his hands and said to leave. Mind you it was small town USA and the photographs were risqué but something was scary about the moment and he was saying he did not process pornography and smut and he was very religious in his yelling at my girl and me so we just start to back up. We backed up and walked to the door so very quickly and ran into the street, bursting on the brick streets and finding a run. We ran across the street to our apartment and sat looking at each other in confusion. We were mouthy sassy brand new horny feminists and we just let that little man keep our beautiful rolls of film.

We let him chastise us and brand us Scarlet Sluts.

Yes. We did.

And sometimes I wonder if that man kept our photographs. Even if they were not very good at all. Even if they did not bounce light on beautiful places or see inside of eyes. Even if they were terrible. He could have kept them and his hands would be so very wrinkled now and what if he has them in a drawer someplace and he takes them out from time to time- missing the past.