A story within a story… Does that mean it counts for two days?
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Photo booths are one of the greatest inventions since the wet plate collodion process brought photography to the “common man”. Before the mid-1800s, photography was difficult.
This miraculous invention called the photo booth gave us the best parts of a magic trick: mystery and fun. All it cost was 25 cents and a few minutes of your time. In return, you received your captured soul in four distinct poses, sometimes sealed within a metal frame.
The photo booth curtain was to be pulled for privacy, and for proper lighting of the sitting subject or subjects. In my case, it allowed kids to pretend to be The Great and Powerful Oz, commanding all others not to pay attention to the One Behind the Curtain, or for a Clark-Kent-to-Superman type transformation.
For me, the photo booth curtain gave me the privacy to say with conviction the line I always said before the camera flash. For as long as I remember, instead of saying “cheese,” I say, “I’m Batman!” It makes me smile. Plus, it’s a way to avoid thoughts of processed food products.
This is me in the pre-selfie, pre-social-media (basically pre-historic) era. It was back when the century started with a “1”. This image was taken just before I got in line to meet Burt Ward, the actor who played Robin in the original Batman television series in the United States. This is the face of a kid who had just told his first photo booth, “I’m Batman!”.
I had three main thoughts as my grandparents drove me to the fair that day:
I. Given the state of our country in the late 1960s, how could Robin have the time for a personal appearance?
II. Why was Robin appearing under the name of Burt Ward? Even casual fans of the comic characters and the show knew Robin’s real name was Dick Grayson.
III. Where’s Batman?
As I stood in line to meet and get Boy Wonder’s autograph, I mentally calculated the amount of time we would have to discuss my three issues. It was late afternoon. His appearance concluded at 5:00. I counted 23 kids in front of me. Never being a fan of lengthy personal interaction, even with a hero, I decided to go straight to number three. I mean, number eye-eye-eye.
Finally, the last kid in front of me was dragged away by an impatient parent as he babbled incoherently. I found myself standing at the autograph table two feet away from a grown man in a black felt mask, yellow cape, red and green spandex and flesh-colored tights.
The only weird part of that description was the grown man part. There was no boy in the boy wonder. He was a dang full-grown man wonder, just small in stature. He didn’t even look up at me.
Robin scribbled something across a glossy photo and slid it my way. “Next,” he said. As I suspected. Robin, aka Dick Grayson, aka Burt Ward was in a rush to get back to protecting and serving.
I whispered my question to not let the rest of the fair overhear. This was between Robin and me. For a split second, our eyes locked. I saw Robin’s eyes roll back behind that black felt racoon mask of his.
“Gee whiz,” he said.
“You can tell me,” I whispered. “It’s just between us.”
“Kid, for crying out loud how many times do I have to answer that question today? Batman’s busy solving crimes or something. Next!” He motioned with his head as people do when they want you to look and still not look in that direction.
After the autograph session was over, I tried to enjoy the fair as best I could, but I was puzzled at Robin’s response. Was it code? It must be. He was trying his hand at acting, and it had worked.
His subtle head nod was not for me to scram, as he pretended it was. It was his way of answering without answering. Batman must have been nearby, maybe next to the exit. Of course, Batman would be there. He always used the Boy Wonder as bait.
Batman would have been so well disguised as to be unrecognizable to everyone except for Robin and Police Commissioner Gordon, although they were known to leave Gordon in the dark from time to time.
Fast forward to a new century and a new life. It’s October 2001, not long after 911, and I’m living about 1.5 hours south of Washington D.C..
Three weeks before the 911 attacks, I was on a business trip. My flight number was the same flight number that would fly into the Pentagon less than a month later.
I thought about living with absurdity, so I did a self-portrait without help and with my eyes closed, but using the dangerous and potentially flammable photographic process of wet plate collodion. To me, this was the most absurd thing I could think of to do.
I was already in the middle of a wet plate project, so I had chemicals pre-mixed, glass cut, and supplies ready. I set up my wet plate collodion camera in the front yard, then closed my eyes for everything else. I felt my way through it, literally, and from memory of where things were relative to me.
Once the plate was poured, coated, and sealed in the back of the camera, I removed the lens cap (the shutter for wet plate collodion). I guessed at a seven-second exposure, and I mentally counted as I felt for a place to sit.
Throughout the blind portrait process, my mind flashed through a series of still images and still-thoughts, like security and false security, like meeting a childhood hero and finding out that it was all an act, like having dreams crushed, like not giving up because they were and will be again. Like still having dreams.
Just before I counted to seven, I heard myself say it without even thinking.
Some things should never change, even when everything else does, or maybe because everything else does.
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