So here I am, 9.00am Monday morning at Studiographic Park Row Bristol. I climb the stairs to the first floor reception area and I am greeted by my new boss Paul Smith. Paul has a good reputation as a portrait and wedding photographer and the display pictures on the wall are impressive. I am excited, what will be my first assignment? an outdoor shoot or maybe a studio shoot. I have not seen the studio yet and I can’t wait.
Paul shows me into another room, quite large and well lit, with windows at one end overlooking Park Street. There are work benches, a large print dryer, I had never seen one that big before, and a print washer. “This is where you will be working John, I will show you the darkrooms”. Well I suppose a ‘Trainee Photographer’ has got to start somewhere, But I am sure my first assignment will be soon. There were two darkrooms, one for printing, with two enlargers and a large rectangular sink for the processing dishes, and one for film processing that had three ‘deep tanks’, for developer, wash and fixer. They held about five gallons each and you could process up to twelve films at a time loaded onto spirals on racks. It suddenly became clear that this was ‘Commercial Photography’ a lot different to my one film at a time in my little Paterson tank.
I was shown a large cupboard where the Kodak Bromide Paper was kept, my eyes nearly popped out! I had always bought my paper in a pack of 25 sheets and I made do with one surface type and one contrast grade, normal grade 2. Here every box was 100 sheets in Glossy and Silk surface, double weight and single weight, three different sizes and contrast grades 1 to 4, soft, normal, hard and very hard. I had never seen so much photographic paper in one place.
Paul knew I had experience of printing, albeit as an amateur, so it was in at the deep end. “Start on these orders John and see how you get on”. I picked the top order from the tray, it was for wedding re-prints, the negatives were attached (120 6x6cm), black and white of course as color photography for weddings at this time was prohibitively expensive for most people. I glanced down the list, all neatly written out with the negative numbers, the quantity of prints from each negative and the sizes. I looked at the first negative on the list, there were usually 24 for each wedding, 2 rolls of 120 film. ’12 8×6, 1 10×8 and 7 half plate’. Twenty prints, and this was just the first negative! The most I had ever printed from one negative was two. “Oh John, just use small pieces for test strips, I don,t want to see any paper wastage” Paul said as he left the room.
So this is how it started, and continued for almost a year. I hardly ever came out of the dark. Friends were asking if I was OK because I looked so pale, “Are you anemic John?” I needed sunglasses even on a dull day!
I was so slow at first, I was used to processing one print at a time, which was no good in a ‘Commercial’ business. Paul taught me how to interleave prints and process them back to back. First expose all the prints and put them in a box. Then the first two prints back to back into the developer, then another two, then another two. Six prints at a time were developing and when the first two came out, another two went in, it was like working on a production line.
The only high point of the week was cleaning the sink. It had to be cleaned weekly because of chemical stains. Vim, Ajax, Brillo Pad? “No John, there is a bottle of Hydrochloric Acid on the shelf, the green bottle with the skull and crossbones, just spread that around” Wow! that used to work, Health & Safety, not on your life!
If there was one thing this job was teaching me, it was how to print and this would prove to be a definite bonus for my future career in photography, even if it would not make me rich, my current wage was ten shillings (50 pence) a week.
My initial excitement about my first assignment appeared just to be a pipe dream until one day Paul said “In a couple of weeks time you can come along with me to a wedding John, bring your own camera and you can take some candid shots”.
This indeed was an honor, it would be the nearest I had come to a camera in many months. I only caught an occasional glimpse of a camera if the studio door was open when I was passing.
The studio was out of bounds to me, I was not allowed to enter this hallowed ground!
At last! a chance to show off my camera skills, but wait…..I can’t turn up on a professional job with my Lubitel. Paul used a Rollieflex 2.8f, a camera I drooled over, when he would let me get close enough to have a look, yes look, not touch! At the time the ‘Rollei’ was the camera of choice for all professionals, only to fall out of favour when Hasselblads were launched, not that the results were better, but it was a single lens reflex with interchangeable lenses, more versatile.
I certainly could not afford anything in the Rollei range even it’s cheaper brother the Rolleicord , but at the time there was a much cheaper alternative, not a Rollei, but a camera that could produce comparable results for a lot less money.
I managed to scrape enough money together to buy a Yashica-Mat, a Japanese copy of the Rollei, and a jolly good camera, a camera that served me well for quite a few years.
I can’t remember much about my first assignment, probably because the results were unmemorable. At least I can remember that Paul never used any of them in the bride & grooms album!
I had only been working at Studiographic for just over a year, but it seemed like ten! The pressure of the work was affecting my health and it wasn’t helped when things went badly wrong.
I can recall one incident. I had finished processing a batch of wedding films and found one film had become detached from it’s processing spiral and had dropped to the bottom of the tank. The film when retrieved was quite badly damaged, Paul was livid and said I would have to retouch all the resulting prints from this film. The damage was such, that when prints were made there were black marks and scratches, which on a brides white dress were very obvious!
The only tools available for retouching prints then were a very fine brush and retouching dye for white marks and a very sharp scalpel for black marks. The technique for black marks was to gently scrape away at the surface of the print until the marks disappeared. A very time consuming and laborious task, which took me over a fortnight. Probably about ten minutes in Photoshop now – how times change!
It was certainly a time for me to change, I had only been a ‘Trainee Photographer’ for just over a year and although I did not want to abandon my photographic career, I was more than a little bit disillusioned. I wanted to do something connected with photography, but preferably in daylight!
Then it hit me. What about retail, a camera shop, a salesman maybe, or with my experience, even assistant manager… slow down… slow down! The wages were bound to be better, I would see the sun during the day, I might even get my color back – now there’s a thought!