Ansel Head has always liked pictures. Appreciating them required little intellect or psychic energy which befits his non-superior traits. Perhaps his interest came from having seen early on what have become iconic images: The sailor kissing a nurse in Time Square on V-J day, the Black accordion player with tears in his eyes as FDR’s body was passing, humbled Japanese officials lined up in front of MacArthur on the USS Missouri, or the blank stare of the wife of an Alabama sharecropper in front of her wooden shanty. He could never put his finger on the source of his interest but it had always been there.
Head’s mother loved pictures and pasted them religiously in dozens of scrap books. Searching for something, anything, at which her second son might excel, she sent him off to Camp Mondamin that first year with a brand new Brownie Hawkeye loaded with black and white film. “Take pictures about your experience at camp,” she instructed.
Two months later when he returned, she hurried excitedly to Dr. Davidson’s drug store to have the pictures developed. Head’s first undertaking had been a time lapse study; twelve pictures taken at momentary intervals from the rail in front of his cabin door of empty canoes and sailboats tied to the dock. Despite her love of photography, his mother failed to appreciate the subtle nuances in light and shadow that the black and white sequences depicted. None of this early study made it into her scrap books.
Thanks to his older brother’s efforts (as fully explained in his sister’s seminal psychological study, The Ansel Head Male Ego Interruptus Syndrome), the younger Head never developed a male ego to become mutilated by this rejection so he never knew he lacked the skills to become a photographer. His training however was stymied by his mother’s decision to no longer finance film for his Brownie.
Head’s father, however, still had hope in his son’s potential. Several summers later, he loaned him his 35 mm camera and light meter to use at a ranch in Colorado where Head and his cousin, Bart, would be attending. He patiently instructed his slower son on the inter-relationship of aperture, shutter speed, and ASA in producing a properly exposed picture. The light meter gave the settings and all one had to do was put its calculations into the camera. Surprisingly these things made sense to Head, and so off to the ranch he went with a full roll of Kodachrome slide film.
From the top of a nearby knoll, Head used the entire roll photographing the light and shadows on the several houses and cabins down below. He was confident the introduction of color would boost his work’s acceptance. When the slides were developed two months later, he thought the exposures were dead on and the subtle artistic differences interesting. But again his parents evidenced their judgment by never putting the slides into a carrousel where they would have been preserved for posterity in the back of a little used closet.
As Head grew older and wondered why the people closest to him showed no interest in his photographic talents, he came to believe it had everything to do with the quality of camera. His brother, reflecting his intellectual nature, assiduously studied cameras before making his decision on the brand and features. Voigtlander with a built in light meter and 50 mm prime lens was his choice. The carrousels in the back of that little used closet were filled with slides from this camera attesting to its potential.
If the non-superior Head could use this German engineered instrument, his work would also be accepted. He had wanted to test this hypothesis by using his brother’s camera, but the boy destined for Yale refused to share. There was no other recourse but to lobby for one himself. His parents were naturally reluctant since they feared the camera had too many switches and settings for their non-superior boy to master. If nothing though, the younger Head was persistent. After several hankering years, his parents relented and helped him purchase the camera. And off to yet a different summer camp he went, this one in mountains of North Carolina. Head was optimistic. His parents were silent on the matter.
The slides from his summer never made it into carrousels; but because Head was older when this work was undertaken, he knew better than to leave his artistic output to the whims of others. He himself stuffed the little yellow boxes with black tops containing these slides in the back of a desk drawer where they could remain undisturbed for fifty years.
At the time, Head knew that his photos lacked the punch of the ones he was seeing in magazines. Why, he thought to himself, do I need a magnifying glass to see the subject? Once again, he assumed his inadequacies had to do with inadequate equipment. A telephoto lens had to be the answer.
That the thought never occurred to him to actually move closer to his subject demonstrates something about his intellect. That his parents refused to finance any other equipment demonstrates their informed judgment of their younger son’s artistic potential.
For a brief period at McCallie, Head ventured down another photographic road, thinking at the time it might be an answer to his problems. The school had a dark room. If the subject of his pictures were lost in the frame and surrounded by clutter, perhaps the solution was to blow up the subject. The dark room had an enlarger that would make this possible. But alas, no adjustments to the knobs would make his now properly framed subject come into focus. It seemed that perspective was not his only problem.
Thus ended the early photographic career of Ansel Head. He would have to wait until the invention of digital photography to take it up again. Of course at the time, he did not know digital cameras would be invented. As with many other undertakings in his quest for an education, he had simply concluded that photography included too many moving parts for his intellectual capacity.