Posted in Photography

Turn Out The Lights

For those who sat through them, and especially anyone who gave one, slide shows were memorable events.

The most basic were family-and-friends gatherings, where half the audience sat on the living room floor in the dark as a noisy projector (all projectors were noisy) chugged through the evening’s program. Unwritten photographic etiquette suggested a single tray (80 to 140 slides) would be sufficient to leave everyone begging for more (and awake). Intermission came when a slide was inserted upside-down, or jammed in the projector (frequently), or when the projector lamp burned out. If you didn’t have a spare the show was over. The worst-case scenario occurred when the presenting adult brought multiple trays, or their pictures weren’t very good—or both. I once sat literally mesmerized while five Carousel trays loaded with a trip-of-a-lifetime cycled s-l-o-w-l-y into the wee hours of the next morning, the trance only broken when someone accidentally knocked a drink over.

More complex presentations required a lot of extra equipment. Specially-designed stands cradled the projectors in stacks, two- or three-up, which in turn were tethered to dissolve units that received their instructions from an audio source, usually a 4-track reel-to-reel recorder. Everything except the dissolves had a cooling fan, so if you sat within fifteen feet of this mass of programmable mayhem you couldn’t hear the sound track.

Meanwhile, up on the wide screen—stunning effects! Fades, wipes, and…pyramids? Well, remember, this was well before digital effects were dreamt of so slide mounts came in a variety of shapes to impress viewers (including the pyramid, or teepee as we liked to call them). I attended a well-publicized show at our local university one evening that perfectly demonstrated the concept of tasteless excess. Twenty-four Kodak Ektagraphic projectors hummed and hawed in unison with an adoring crowd, who nearly rioted when a panoramic image spilled across the entire screen, twelve pyramids wide, to be completed by another twelve inverted pyramids that swept the other way and completed the picture. Oo! indeed. What was the photo of? I don’t remember, and I’ll bet half the people watching forgot ten minutes after they saw it, too, because they were distracted by the technology.

Digital shows mimic their analog ancestors in this. Freed from the limitations of their materials (no warped slide mounts—in fact, no slides at all), photographers package their work in countless new and unusual ways (the word breathtaking is making a comeback). When I see one of these I hope the pictures will be memorable.

Three obvious differences come to mind when I compare slide shows then-and-now. It’s become impossible to nod off and go unnoticed. Rooms aren’t always pitch dark to begin with, and hardly anyone sits on the floor to watch. How can you get comfortable in those conditions? Modern shows are also very quiet. Instead of cooling fans we hear coughs—and music.

What I miss, and I blame computers here, is the inherent suspense that was connected invisibly to the wires and plugs of yesteryear—the stressful sweating-out of small details. Now we know beforehand that everything is going to run perfectly. It’s on a disk and seems vaguely antiseptic anticlimactic. I recall vividly a three-projector show I presented to a large group who came with expectations. Everything was synced to the reel-to-reel tape, I’d double-checked all the INs and OUTs, and yet—when I reached to push the PLAY button and set it all in motion—I still prayed silently, tall drink in hand, that it all worked. That one of the projectors didn’t blow a lamp mid-way through the show, that nothing came on-screen upside-down or jammed.

The room was dark that night, and if anyone dozed I didn’t see them.

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