The gods of flight

May 19, 2006
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It was about 25 years ago, and I don’t remember why I was waiting in the almost deserted, dimly lit ticket hall at what was then called Washington National Airport.

Spotlights in the ceiling made pools of light on the deep red carpet. A young boy, waiting like me, was jumping from pool to pool, twisting his body, almost dancing. I had a camera with me, so to pass the time, I started to take pictures.

I shot frame after frame, trying to capture the boy’s joyful abandon, as he danced down the ticket hall and back again. Then suddenly he stopped and went down on one knee to tie his shoelace. It was as if he were performing an act of obeisance to the gods of flight. It was unexpected and not what I was trying for; nonetheless, it was the Cartier-Bresson “decisive moment.”

I was shooting Ilford HP5, no tripod, and judging by the grain in the negatives, I pushed the film to 800 ISO (which I think we still called ASA or DIN in those days), knowing the exposure would, even so, be too long for a crisp image. When I made the first print in the darkroom, I was disappointed. The image was, as I’d anticipated, too soft. But returning to it every so often over the years and printing it again, I grew to like its softness and dreamlike quality.

Sometimes the images we find most satisfying are not the images we intended to make.

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