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October 2001

In the midst of the Halloween season, it seems fitting that we have spent a good deal of time this month in our darkroom printing up black and white historical photographs to be used in our documentary Villisca: Living With a Mystery.  Developing pictures at home is something I've been doing since I received a home darkroom kit for my 14th birthday.  My father was a professional photofinisher at that time and later I spent several years in the same profession.   My resume also reflects two separate stints as a professional photographer.


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I purchased this Vivitar E34 enlarger from a friend when I was 16 or 17 years-old.  We use Ilford filters and print on multigrade semi-gloss paper held by a Saunders Company easel.  Prints are processed using Kodak Dektol developer and fixer.  Since the process of shooting a photograph on motion picture film increases contrast, low-contrast (gray) prints are created.

With digital photography coming on strong, I wonder how long this almost magical process of film development and printing will survive.   There's still nothing quite like watching an image gradually appear on photographic paper under the dim red light.  Many turn-of-the-century photographs were shot on very large negatives, so they are very sharp and clear.  It's easy to feel as if you are travelling back in time for a moment.


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Hester Gourley Huganin (left) remembered how exciting it was to have reporters from as far away as New York covering the axe murder trials in 1916 and 1917.  Pauline Atwood Day (far right), standing with her sister, remembered viewing the closed coffins of the murder victims in Villisca's firehouse prior to attending the funeral in the city park on the square.

In some ways, watching our documentary project come together in the final stages reminds us of these photographs.  They start out dim and indistinct and gradually increase in intensity as they clarify to a crisp image.  We gathered several hundred period photographs, primarily private sources, to help us tell the axe murder story.  Sometimes the older people we spoke to were reluctant to share their memories of the events surrounding the murders.  For others, the discussions prompted a flood of memories, both good and bad, related and unrelated to the 1912 incident.  Their photographs are a window into the past and each one tells its own separate tale.


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A digital photograph of our 2001 Halloween jack-o-lantern.

While I enjoy the creative opportunities afforded by the ones and zeroes of digital imaging, I will miss the time-tested and almost-magical photographic process based on particles of silver and rays of light.

Happy Halloween!

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