I was 16, hoping to become a photographer. I had a Sears branded Ricoh 35mm SLR camera and a job as a Fotomate at a Fotomat booth. In 1977, getting film developed (outside of having your own darkoom) meant taking it to the drugstore or market and leaving it in an envelope. You came back a week or so later (or every day for a month) and checked the bin to see if your prints were ready. With Fotomat, you could simply drive up to the booth, drop it off and know exactly what day the prints would return – if they were late, you received a free roll of film. This erased the hassle of going into the store. It was a brilliant idea! Fotomat placed a girl, all alone, inside a booth out in a parking lot. At night. What could go wrong? After the [inevitable – it was southeast Michigan] armed robber came and went, I turned 17, graduated high school early, and moved to Seattle where I [very briefly] worked as a Fotomate again. That is, until I got fired for leaving early. Twice. Coming home one day, I found that someone had climbed in the window of my 3rd floor shitty apartment and stolen my shitty Radio Shack stereo AND my camera. I needed money to replace that camera so a renewed job search ensued. When I was 17, I believed that every job that was available was available to ME. I would plop the newspaper down and let it fall open to the rear section. There it lay, agape and engorged with career opportunities! Hundreds … literally thousands of jobs were listed there! To me, E.O.E. meant something other than, well, something other than what it actually meant. These companies needed employees and I could have any job listed right here in alphabetical order. Today I think of some of the things I applied for and you know what? I wasn’t stupid. I think I was brave. Some of these jobs actually required experience. I learned that reasonably quickly. Then one day there it was. “NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY.” I could work in the seafood industry! [Read; free crab, right?] Not only that but they would send me to an exotic location to do it! Gazing up to the clouds, my eyes shining, I saw only adventure and intrigue. Sure, they charged room and board and you don’t get a free return flight until you work for them for six months but… here was my ticket to a new camera. Flash forward to Sand Point, Alaska. Aleutians East Borough. Where I took the photo I want to talk about today.
Old Russian Orthodox Chapel as seen from the boat basin. Sand Point, AK.
Naturally, shortly after starting my job (it was November and dismal), I had a hankering to photograph the place. Lacking a camera, I borrowed one from my fellow line worker, Lily. It was a 126 Instamatic. I don’t remember which model, but I took the above photo with it. It was taken from the boat basin, looking up the rise to the old church at Sand Point. Not too much later, I borrowed a 35mm SLR from Sovann Sek, a young guy from Cambodia. I took the photo, below using his camera and a 50mm lens.

Old Russian Orthodox Chapel. 35mm Sand Point, AK

This particular image I have used, resurrected and re-resurrected many times over the years. It was originally photographed on color negative film. In the 1990s I began printing it on black and white paper, sepia toning it and hand-tinting it with oils.
Fiber base, sepia toned, hand-tinted print.
The difference between the 126 photo and the 35mm photo could be a study in formats and focal lengths. Both were taken just a few feet apart. I’ve always liked the 126 image better, though I printed (and sold) the 35mm image multiple times. Maybe I thought 35mm was more professional? Let’s face it though. That square shot … I like it better and I think I boarded the Junk Store Cameras ship around that time. I spent that winter using borrowed cameras and partying with the rest of the cannery miscreants. When I returned to Seattle, having not socked away much cash, I bought a Fujica 35mm at a pawn shop. It had lens plate / film plane issues and I don’t remember whatever happened to it. I ran into Sovann a year or two later at a bus stop in Seattle. He was working with an agency that helped Cambodian refugees.
Sovann Sek. Popof Island, AK 1978.
Lily disappeared for a while but one time, I was crossing the street leaving work, there was this honking and yelling. It was Lily. She had been driving by and recognized me. It was the 1980s. We ended up setting a date for dinner. In a phone call, she mentioned bringing her husband so, at the last minute, I grabbed a date. Well, they neglected to tell me that they were setting me up with a guy they had brought along. We spent an awkward evening … me, my date, my blind date, and Lily & her husband René. I never heard from her again but I did once, a few years later, see her leaving the Costco Flagship store with a BABY. Here’s what’s happening: I just wanted to share a picture. Then I needed to add the other picture. And I wanted to write about it and maybe the experience surrounding it. I think I’m going to keep doing that every now and then. Pick a picture and write about it. I do have a few camera reviews in the works – very important and necessary information of course! But a detour into the story behind some photos is fun for me. Sorry. I’m tagging the photo talks “RE-PRINTS” for now. Unless I come up with something better. Thinking about my time on that island, I’m not sure why we weren’t more in tune with the native population? We were mostly just children without supervision, having a good time. I’m sure we were completely annoying (and worse) to the locals. More interested in party than culture. An opportunity missed, but at least I didn’t miss it altogether. The next winter I worked on a boat out of Dutch Harbor. I brought that junky Fujica I’d bought. Maybe I’ll find something worth writing about from that pile?

22 Responses

  1. OMG you are an artistic genius. I shouldn’t ever be surprised at your brilliant photos, captivating writing and etc etc BUT I always am. You made my day!

  2. Another great Marcy Merrill Idea…write about the photos you have taken…photos that “only you” could have. I love the fact that it gives your fans and friends a bit of a look into your life and how your photo career developed. And I love the “Re-Prints” tag too.

  3. You have lived an adventure-filled life. The times I’ve been with you have always become an adventure. Finding Buddy, etc.

  4. Great writing Marcy. The story is captivating, and I sure remember Fotomat – I was a constant customer. I agree, the first, square photo is the best, but they all have their positive features. Your story also reminded me of all the fun I had working when young.

  5. Marcy when I grow up I want to be on your team. Loved the photos and the down to earth story. I’ll wave to you next time I see a Fotomat. The blind date is just the best.

  6. What a wonderful story about your interest in cameras and photography. A great talent you have carried through your life. Truly the Silver Nitrate Queen.

  7. Marcy, the fivesome for dinner was truly hilarious. Furthermore, your literary style is delicious and nourishing. As for ‘Re Prints’, don’t stop now while you’re on a roll. (Yes, pun is intentional.) I agree with you: junky cameras forever !! Myself, I’m addicted to 110 format. Dream camera, Rollei A110 on its way from Japan to me in Halifax, N.S. Canada as I write. Best to you, Brian Purdy.

    1. Brian: I have not yet become a fan of the 110 format. I have quite a few 110 cameras – though the Rollei A110 isn’t among them – and some 110 film in the freezer. Ir’s probably about time I exercised a few of them! -MM

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *