What got me hooked on chemistry

Chemistry . . . revealed

As a kid, I never cared much about science. Xylem and phloem weren’t flowing — in my mind, at least; continental drift left me drifting; I was the poster boy for density, if you know what I mean. I remember what my grade 10 science teacher told my father at a parent-teacher meeting in 1974: "Your son will never go to university." At the time, Mrs. Kishimoto wasn't wrong. In a previous life — grade three to be specific — I was “gifted” and skipped grade four. But as an immature 13-year-old boy with a tendency towards attention-getting, class-clown behaviour, my reputation in academic circles, or in the faculty lounge, wasn’t

As fate would have it, that same year I developed what turned out to be a life-long interest in photography. I acquired a camera — a manual camera that required me, the photographer, to load the film and to dial in the ASA. I had to select a lens aperture and a proper shutter speed; I had to focus the lens, all pretty much at the same time. While this is now the stuff of legend, it was standard operating procedure at the time.

The camera fascinated me: its engineering; how the lens could be removed and interchanged with another one; how the mirror moved while the shutter opened. The magical ka-chunk every time I pressed the shutter release of that Yashica was music to my ears. I was fascinated by the mathematical relationship between f-stop and shutter speed and ASA. It was everything a boy could want . . .

Until, finally I entered the school’s darkroom. How I ended up there remains a mystery. It was either a pull by my photography-geek buddies or a push from the vice-principal . . . I can’t remember. What I do remember was the first time I printed a picture. No pun intended — it was a revelation. Seeing an image slowly revealed as the photographic paper floated in a tray of solution was just about the most exciting thing I had ever seen.

The picture came to life — not all at once, but slowly. First the blacks, then the dark greys, then the rest. I was hooked. As with any good science, the experience left me with more questions than answers. How could this happen? Why was special paper required? What was in the developer? How did the developer work? Why were the other solutions required? When I found out that photography had been around since the 19th century, I was even more fascinated. How did these guys figure all that out? As I took more photographs and processed them, I realized that photography was as much about art as it was about chemistry. 

Fast forward almost 40 years: I’m a high school chemistry teacher and semi-professional photographer who still shoot film. I wonder what Mrs. Kishimoto would say about that?