The Boss of Mare Island

This piece was first published in the Sept/Oct 2015 issue of View Camera Magazine

It was without much enthusiasm that I developed the 3 sheets of 4×10 film from a recent night shoot. I needed the holders for something else, so I mixed up the pyro and played a game on my phone while the tank cycled back and forth, forth and back. Twice it fell off the base with an almighty crash; the second time it fell, part of the tank came off and I thought the film was done for. My hope was to get something printable, something I could use for alt processes–which require more density than usually available from a night shot–but since I had never accomplished that before, I didn’t expect much. At last I pulled the first sheet out. I stood looking at it for some time–in shock–before exclaiming, “Holy crap!” Sir was immediately on high alert, and I heard him get up from his chair in the living room and head toward the bathroom where I was stationed over the sink.

I’ve been shooting after dark for several years, and at one time fancied myself rather good at it. I knew some film times in my head and became conversant in the use of a few developers. In 2008, I took a class from Tim Baskerville of the Nocturnes, which entitled me to attend his “Alumnight” on Mare Island, which he hosts at least once a year. I’d participated in many of them, but I was beginning to question why since I hadn’t shot a thing at night for over a year. What could there possibly be to shoot or experience that I hadn’t already?

Mare Island Naval Shipyard, in Vallejo CA, was the site of many important operations during both World Wars, although its primary function was the manufacture of submarines. Parts of the atomic bomb headed for Japan were carefully packed and loaded on those docks. It was there too, that the victory ships were fitted before setting out on their voyage to Europe to bring soldiers home. It is a fascinating mix of industry and genteel living, with rows of beautiful white houses with wide verandahs just two streets away from towering furnaces, chimneys, and silos. Many of the workshops and warehouse are still in service, though the base itself has been decomissioned and new housing has sprung up, along with a University based in the old hospital, and a large nature preserve on the south side of the island.

That Saturday night, I walked past the gathering of alumni chatting outside the museum, past the concrete bunkers that cast deep shadows on the road, and past the recent fencing of some of my favorite silos–the ones my daughter once referred to as “ice cream cones” because of their pointed bottoms and rounded tops. No, tonight I was going to avoid the popular spots and try for something new, or at least something I hadn’t shot in awhile. I settled for building 592, a small transformer station whose doors were plastered with PCB warnings. It cast a long shadow along the gravel which underscored a partially lit building in the background. It was brightly lit and figured I could get away with f/16.

As I was selecting my tripod location, I had a visitor–a man with a pit bull pup. It’s unusual to see people out walking on the industrial side of Mare Island after work hours. I said hi, and assumed he would keep on walking, but instead he held out his hand and introduced himself as James. His skin was rough, his fingernails edged in black, and his short dark hair stood in spikes on top of his head. In the low light I couldn’t quite see his features or guess his age. He asked what I was doing and why and then expressed the hope that I would take a picture of him and his dog. I told him my camera was unsuitable for the job so he fiddled with his phone to see if it could be done with that instead. In the meantime, I moved my tripod up a little hill, locked the camera on it, and started to rifle through my backpack for the other bits and pieces. I was slightly alarmed that I would have company for awhile, and I am a little afraid of dogs.

The dog was called Little Girl, a name I thought might become slightly awkward when she reached adulthood. I joked, “What are you going to call her when she grows up?” He cocked his head, looked at me, and said, “Little Girl.” He handed me the phone and posed with the dog, but as I pointed the phone toward them I saw that the camera registered only the brightest lights, and nothing else. Here’s the streetlight! Here’s another one! Here’s…nothing. We gave up on the phone, but not before he asked if I was single. Apparently the dark is kind to me; I am certain such a question would not have occurred to the man were the sun shining. A phone call summoned him to meet his security guard brother and he took off. Oh, I thought, this is an interesting tidbit to relate to Sir.

Alone again, I started the shot of Building 592, which involved covering the lens every time headlights went by on the stretch of road that showed between the two buildings. There was a continuous stream of cars in the little visual gap and the darkslide I used to block the light might as well have been a fan with all that waving around. I started to take risks by opening the lens when the cars passed behind one building but before they exited the other side. Still, my 6 minute exposure took at least 15 minutes, and felt like 90. I was happy to pack up after that one.

I circled back toward my truck, remembering that there were some interesting shadows generated by the trees in the park between Officer’s Row and the industrial area. I was attracted to the selective light on the porch of one of the houses and I chose a spot under the trees that would take advantage of the panoramic view. Periodically the lights in a house behind the one I was shooting blinked on, filling a dark area in the composition, and I hoped they would register on the film. I used a 210 mm lens and shut it down to f/22. The shot was 35 minutes and I remembered how tedious it can be to shoot at night. I paced, I read on my phone, I counted cars, I investigated possible shots close by, and wished I’d brought a snack or hot beverage. I know Sir would have remembered, had he any interest in night photography, which he does not.

Packing up, I mentally toured the island and thought perhaps a shot of some of the buildings near the dry dock would look good on 4×10 so I set out to look. I scouted some overhead structures, and the conning tower of a submarine, along with corrugated iron buildings and quonset huts, each of which had the potential for a great shot. But then, near the water, I saw a magnificent shadow, cast by a crane, crawling up the brick of a warehouse. Setting up the camera, I watched a young boy walking about in the company of a man with a wonderful long grey beard. I briefly wondered why they were there; they seemed so very out of place. Getting the focus was a delicate and frustrating dance between the subject, the lens, and the ground glass. How about a little tilt? Perhaps a tad of rise? Surely a pinch of shift? That long rectangle is an unusual proportion sometimes difficult to satisfy: the film area can be too long for the focal point so that the ends become superfluous, or it can be too short and the picture lacks appropriate context. In the dark it’s hard to tell which end of the spectrum you’re exploring. At last I was satisfied–or in any case, the shot was in focus. I stopped down the lens to f/32, opened the shutter, and got ready to amuse myself for the next 30 minutes.

The boy was back–alone, chattering to himself, his jacket wrapped around his shoulders, his bare arms free, his hands adjusting the black ball cap that shrouded his eyes. He looked through the chainlink fence to the dry dock–empty–and then turned to me. pushed up his cap, and said he had been on the last battleship that was repaired there, but it had sunk soon after. “But my uncle and I were canceled off it so we didn’t die.” Then he pointed to one of the cranes and said, “I climbed up there with my dad one time and he let me drive.” His dad knew where he was, he told me, but he wasn’t allowed to climb the fence–though one time he had and he helped the men there repair a battleship. He fingered the American flag pin attached to his t-shirt. “See this? I was in 1000 battles and I got this. And I’ll get a different one and a ribbon when I am in 10,000 battles.” He gave me details about torpedoes, guns, blasting holes in ships, but it always came back to battleships battleships battleships, and his exploits with his uncle. They were a team.

My new friend was 7 years old. I explained how impressed I was by his exploits at such a young age, and I wasn’t joking. The breadth of his imagination was boggling and he reminded me of one of my son’s friends growing up whose stories are still a source of wonder to me. But then he told me, “You know, I’m the boss of Mare Island.” “Oh?” I said. “And what do you do as boss?” “I have an office in that building over there and I tell the workers what to do. I have my own Jeep. In 50 years there will be a new battleship built here and I will get to see it.” Being nosey I asked about where he lived–Clear Lake–and why he was here–visiting friends–and did he have to go to school–yes. But all that factual stuff was clearly much less interesting than weaponry, targets, construction, ships. I wondered what I would do when the shot finished and he was still there. But I didn’t need to worry because soon someone was calling “Robert? Robert!” He said to me, “I guess you know now my name is Robert.” With a little nod, he walked off to join his dad, who was busy admonishing him about his whereabouts. I smiled–his wanderlust had helped delightfully pass a full half hour.

I was sad to see him go, but I finished up my shot and decided to call it a night. It was late. Three large format shots had taken me over 3 hours and I was certain none of the exposures had been any good–it had been too long since I had shot at night and in all likelihood my times were faulty. As I drove home I thought I wouldn’t bother to come out at night again, the appeal having faded. I used to relish the cool air, the solitude, the emptiness, the odd light sources and unpredictable shadows. The dark used to echo something I felt inside with which I identified; it held a kinship for me that seemed to be slipping away, the resonance fading. But not completely, it seems, as I was soon to find out when I pulled the negatives from the drum.

Sir looked over my shoulder.
“What is it?” he asked. “Have you poisoned us with developer?”
“No,” I replied, “Just look at this.”
“Um, what am I looking at? It looks pretty negative to me.”
“Ha ha. Very not funny. This is one of the best night shots I’ve ever taken.”
“Congratulations. I’m going to go back to watching the news.”

The negative I held in my hand–carefully!–was the crane shadow. The building was sharp, the shadow defined. Hell, most of my verticals were even parallel. And best of all, enough density for a ziatype, platinum, or carbon print. Then I pulled the second negative from the drum–the officer’s house. The porch was there, and the light from the house behind it had indeed registered on the film between trees, counterbalancing the brightly lit house and the dark foreground. I tried to contain my excitement. The final sheet, building 592, showed a glowing little building with shadow detail and a large building in the darkened background. One car had made it through, creating a not-unpleasing line of light.

Three sheets. Three keepers. Wow. I have never been that lucky before. Maybe the secret is to stop caring about the outcome.

Or be blessed by the Boss of Mare Island.

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