The Auratone & The Odyssey by
(59 Stories)

Prompted By Chance Encounters

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June-ish, 2006. It isn’t the first time someone has approached me like this…at four and six respectively, my granddaughters, Hana and Leila, are traffic-stopping cute. Still, hands joined in a protective chain, we’re about to cross the street when a neighbor I’ve seen but never met is headed to her car, spots us, and trots on over.'s all very rushed and intense and exciting there by the curb, as if each of us is exactly who the other is meant to meet at that moment in time.

“Ohmigod, what adorable little girls!” she gushes, and they of course amp up their considerable charm. Smiling introductions ensue all ‘round. Veronica is a photographer and says she’d love to shoot them, I say oh wow, I’m a photographer, too, she says she’s actually a wedding photographer on her way to a gig, hence the camera gear waiting to be loaded into her car, and I’m like, well, I love to shoot but I’m not at that level, but she thinks hey, maybe I could assist her some time…it’s all very rushed and intense and exciting there by the curb, as if each of us is exactly who the other is meant to meet at that moment in time. And so it is that I become an assistant wedding photographer.

Edward S. Curtis Orotone

Coincidentally — is there really such a thing? — I had very recently stumbled onto a new passion. A friend’s husband collected vintage fine art photography, and in the entryway of their home, an Edward Curtis photograph caught my eye. Seemingly lit from within, it emanated a golden glow. I learned that it was known as an Orotone (c.1916), and the original process involved printing a positive image on a glass plate in the darkroom, then backing it with a layer of gold dust mixed with banana oil.

A nut for what’s known as alternative photography processes but not having any gold dust or banana oil on hand, the next thing I knew I was experimenting with this and that and after many false starts and dead ends, the proverbial light bulb went on, while in the shower no less. I’d come up with a method for creating a similar effect without the need for a darkroom! I’d dubbed my images “Auratones” as homage to Curtis, with ‘au’ being the chemical symbol for gold, and had begun using the process to create one-of-a-kind framable photographs of flowers, landscapes, and portraits of pregnant women.

After assisting Veronica on a handful of weddings, it hits me: I hate shooting weddings. But, I propose offering Auratones of the bride and groom as part of her wedding packages. I even figure out a way to incorporate engagement photos in upscale save-the-date cards and wedding invitations, photos from the wedding itself in thank-you notes, and bespoke jewelry to commemorate the big day. One thing leads to another as they tend to do, and the next thing I knew I’ve sent a proposal to a major publisher for a how-to book, am contracted to write not one but two books, do so over the course of the next two years, hit the road doing PR, man a booth at a wedding photography trade show in Las Vegas, and start a new business writing step-by-step magazine articles about the process, selling do-it-yourself kits, and teaching workshops. I am a woman possessed, a whirling blur of determination to succeed this time.

But three things didn’t happen. One, I set the wheels in motion to get a patent on the process but quickly realized I was in over my head as the legal fees began to mount. And, you need to have money to defend your patent should someone infringe upon it. I didn’t.

Secondly, wearing too many hats as usual, Sales & Marketing wasn’t a fit, and I just couldn’t seem to turn a profit. I was actually in the hole, and losing steam.

And here’s the other thing: I come this close to appearing on the Martha Stewart Show to demonstrate the process. I meet her, she adores it, her assistant is in touch, her assistant moves on to other things, and the wheels stop turning. Stalled en route, my high hopes eventually evaporate. I’m not going to be on Martha Stewart’s TV show, or in her magazine. I’m not going to become wealthy or even moderately comfortable on the strength of my invention. I think I’ve come to the end of the Auratone odyssey. Enough already; half a decade is enough. Oddly, it doesn’t feel like I’m giving up. Instead, something loosens within me, like a snarled traffic jam opening up on the highway. The road ahead looks clear, and I’m in no hurry to get wherever it is I’m going.

Postscript: At the time I wrote my books, not everyone knew how to combine a photograph with text to print even the most rudimentary birthday card, invitation, or flyer. Things have changed dramatically, and now my books are quaint at best and outdated at worst. Still, just the other day I received an email from someone hoping to buy an Auratone kit. I thanked her for her interest, and gave her step-by-step instructions for making one. 

Profile photo of Barbara Buckles Barbara Buckles
Artist, writer, storyteller, spy. Okay, not a spy…I was just going for the rhythm.

I call myself “an inveterate dabbler.” (And my husband calls me “an invertebrate babbler.”) I just love to create one way or another. My latest passion is telling true stories live, on stage. Because it scares the hell out of me.

As a memoirist, I focus on the undercurrents. Drawing from memory, diaries, notes, letters and photographs, I never ever lie, but I do claim creative license when fleshing out actual events in order to enhance the literary quality, i.e., what I might have been wearing, what might have been on the table, what season it might have been. By virtue of its genre, memoir also adds a patina of introspection and insight that most probably did not exist in real time.

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Characterizations: funny, moving, well written


  1. Laurie Levy says:

    Your work is amazing, Barb. You are such a creative soul. I wish your Auratones had become famous! Like you, so many twists in my life have resulted from chance meeting or opportunities I never sought out. I think life just happens, and you have to go with what’s in front of you.

    • Thanks so much, Laurie! I don’t know about you, but my tendency is to follow those twists in the road, those new interests and ideas, instead of staying put and digging in. Every life is different…some people find one thing that resonates for them and spend their life honing and perfecting it. Some of us go from one thing to another for whatever reason. The important thing is to honor your own path, not beat yourself up for what you haven’t done, a lesson I have finally learned.

  2. Marian says:

    The photos are lovely, Barbara. It’s all about timing, isn’t it? Curious how Martha Stewart’s assistant derailed everything by moving on. (See my story for how something got cut short for me in a different way.) However, you have done something of great value, and I hope you can still use the process for your beautiful work. Last year I saw an exhibit of Curtis’ photos at the Cantor Art Museum at Stanford with an artist friend. We were blown away.

    • Mare, I’m so happy to know you saw some of Curtis’ photos, so you know what I’m talking about. I think even he may have lost interest in the process at some point. After all, there’s a lot to be said for black-and-white photography. I do have a beautiful collection of my own, and have taught a lot of people. As to whether I’ll actually use the process again, for the right occasion I just might.

  3. Great BB, for your next venture, how about combining some of what I’m learning are your very many and varied skills – wedding photos and wedding cheese cake?
    Maybe this time Martha Stewart will come thru!

    • I shortened my story quite a bit to spare everyone all the details — the Martha Stewart chapter is a story in itself, and there’s also an Oprah Winfrey chapter. I actually had someone ask me, “Are you ready to become a household name?” Dee, I’m done chasing the carrot, thank you very much!

  4. What an interesting idea for photos! My first reaction at the end of your story was, “But you can’t give up!” And I hope you don’t. Having no ability to experiment or work with chemicals, I am in awe that you came up with your own process then created kits and published books on it. Did you ever consider making YouTube videos about it? I looked up “Auratone,” but all I found were videos about a speaker system.

    • Thanks so much, Joan…I like to think I’ve just moved on. I gave it the best I had to give…but I couldn’t afford to take off work and go on tour to promote it, and the books. I could (and might) write a story about why some people achieve their goals and others just don’t, and it has nothing to do with talent, hard work, or good ideas. I don’t have the answer but lots of questions. As I mentioned in another comment, there are other chapters…and they include more chance encounters that made me feel this was truly meant to be. But it wasn’t — or it is what it is, and I’m okay with that now. I just love that my granddaughters will remember me as a woman who invented something beautiful. I’m touched that you looked it up…there is a video but those speakers you mentioned always come up first in search engines. You have to add my name at the time, which was Barbara Smith.

  5. Suzy says:

    Barb, this is a fabulous story! We already knew what a talented artist you are, but this process you invented is beyond amazing! You definitely should have become famous for it, and shame on Martha Stewart’s assistant for moving on to other things! On the other hand, if you had become famous, you probably wouldn’t have joined Retrospect, and I don’t know what we would do without you! Still, I would love to have some of your Auratone photographs.

    • Thanks, Suzy…you are SO sweet!! The bottom line is I’m here and so happy to be here — and I don’t know what I’d do without you, either! I was just talking to Garth about how I walk down the street and always wonder about all the stories going on behind the walls of all the houses, stories we’ll almost undoubtedly never hear. That’s what I love about Retrospect — getting to know people, bit by bit, through the many personal stories they find interesting and want to share, learning new things that lead me to do a little research (like about the Red Bean Experiment in Mare’s story!), and getting positive feedback on my own stories. That feeling of community…there’s just nothing like it!

  6. Betsy Pfau says:

    You are always ahead of your time, both in creativity and style, Barb. Love your naming convention and that you thought of it in the shower (I do some of best thinking there too…I get it). I agree with the others: a true artist in your soul. An amazingly creative person. Wish it had all come to fruition for you, but thanks for sharing it with us.

  7. Yeah, Barbara, that little trip definitely qualifies as an odyssey! And, after that cute meet with the grand kids, it’s only a madcap hop, step, and a jump from assistant wedding photographer to Martha Stewart. I also am beginning to think this kind of trip might be the way of your world. You certainly give that impression in your story telling!

    I’ve done my share of weddings as a musician, some crazy, some lavish, some sad, but always a view into another world. Congrats on your Auratone adventure! Would that make a good name for a band? The Auratones? Thanks for the great story, the present tense works beautifully.

    • Well, it is the name for some speakers, as Joan discovered. Glad you enjoyed the story, Charles, and you’re right about this kind of trip being the way of my world. I’m not sure why…whether it’s a short attention span, lack of common sense, fearlessness. Whatever the source, I have no trouble changing course on a dime. It’s made for an interesting albeit chaotic life, but I’ve finally settled down.

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