that's me, a short time before I started working in the photo lab; photo: Timo Kerßenfischer

I think I was 16 years old – maybe I was already 17- when I started at the best job I ever had: For one or two days a week I would be running the B&W photo laboratory of the small newspaper near my hometown. Thinking back, I can almost feel the tingle of sharp chemicals in my nose.

On the days I was working, I went there directly after school. The first thing to do was to check in the lab if everything was all right, making sure that I had enough paper for the day, enough developer and stopper fluid. Sometimes a film would already be waiting there for me, but usually I was the first up in the office floors, getting there before the reporters came back. After a quick check, I sat in the conference room, reading a book, and waiting for them to come. I seldom had to wait for long. They came back from lunch after their visits to the surrounding villages in the morning, climbed the narrow stairs to the second floor where the low-ceilinged offices and the lab were, on top of the shiny and spacious looking customer’s reception. Before they sat down at their desks, they would drop by in the conference room, say hello, and hand me one or several films. I put a number on each cartridge, and  jotted down which number corresponded to whom. It was important to keep this straight, because often the photos they brought looked almost the same, and were hard to tell apart. — For example in the Carnival season, on all films would be photos of parades and people in costumes. Still it was important to attribute them all to their correct villages!

When I got all the films the editors were expecting, I lined them up on the working table along with clamps to hang them in the tanks, each with a matching number on them.
Then a last glance, making sure I remembered where everything was, and then I turned off the light. In complete darkness I cracked open the film cartridges, one after the other, using the edge of the working table as a lever. Took out the film, attached the clip and a weight, and hung them in a vertical container.

If I had placed the cartridges too close to each other on the table, it might happen that I accidentally tip over one or several of the waiting cartridges when gripping the next one. But if they stood too far apart, a searching hand could also brush a film off the table. Both was bad, bad, bad. Because then I either would have to wait until I can turn on the lights, check the numbers, and then start over to develop the rest of the films, or – and this is what I had to do most of the time – I had to risk mixing them up, hoping it won’t be too hard to recover which film is which; but at least I would get them done in time. Time was always pressing – this was a newspaper lab, after all.

But mostly it all went well, and I would get out of the darkness after just a few minutes, and back into the light of the offices through a double door with heavy curtains. Only to be called back into the dark a few minutes later by the alarm I had set to 12-20 minutes, based on an estimate taking the room temperature into account and how old the chemicals in the tank were. When I got into the lab this second time, there was no turning off of the light. This time I entered directly into the darkness, felt wrapped up and swallowed by it, while I passed through the curtains.  One film after the other first got dipped it into the water basin, and then hung into the stop bath. Only after they were finished in the stop bath, I could turn on the light again and hang the films into the hot air dryer after another and last bath in water. A strange moment this always was, when the lights came back on, as if walls were erected where there were none before. Somehow the lab felt larger when it was dark.

Up until this point the work was defined by patience, calm, and precision. You cannot afford to do something in a rush or unplanned in the dark-darkroom. Once the films were done, it would get hectic sure enough. Time was always pressing. – The newspaper had to be ready for the next day! I would bring each editor the films they and his or her reporters had given me. They chose their prints from the film. I jotted down which numbers they wanted, and how urgent they would need it, set up a sequence in which to work, and gave them an estimate when they can expect their prints to be done. Then I am back in the dark room; working as fast as I can by an eerie green safety light; always having prints in the baths and under the enlarger at the same time.

After the bustle of making prints, handing them out, and making more, the workday ended quietly again. With letting some air into the lab, putting the films in an archive folder, adding dates and photographer’s names, and a final clean-up of the lab.

There were so many things I liked about that job: I was still a teenager, and the editors were grown man (with the exception of one woman, who was old in my eyes, and for reasons unknown to me always in a bad mood), but I could do something they couldn’t do. And they treated me with according respect. They would ask politely whether and when something could be done, instead of giving out an order. And in return I would try to fulfill their wishes as best as I could. I took pride in working fast and effectively.
Many of the editors and reporters were not good photographers, they were writers, and they knew it. They were grateful for someone who took pride in making the best of their photos, dodging and burning the over- or underexposed takes. Good contrast is a necessity if the photos still are to be clear in a printed newspaper.

It felt good to be treated like an equal there, and to be taken serious. And it felt good to be completely responsible for what I did. But there was something else about the job that only occurred to me yesterday when I was writing to a friend about it. There’s another reason why I loved working there: I really liked the darkness!

After I got the films into the tanks, sometimes I would not leave the room immediately, but stand there in the absolute darkness. It was amazing, how it stayed dark, even when the eyes “adjusted” to the darkness. Sometimes while the films were developing I sat the whole time in a corner on the floor, staring into the nothingness. Even when the safety light was on, I was truly alone in the lab, and for once I could drop my self consciousness that almost always accompanied me these days. No-one would enter “my room” while I was working there. And staying in there was expected; no-one rather wanted me outside to participate in some activity or other. Even though we had the light lock with double doors and curtains that made it safe to enter and leave the room while making prints, they would knock, and patiently wait until I got out, not risking damaged photos.
I felt safe and truly myself in there.

And I still like the darkness. Sometimes, when I feel down, I lock myself in the toilet which has no window. I leave the light turned off, and sit in the dark. The darkness is soothing when the world seems overwhelming, too loud, too bright, and too demanding. And I like to see how, after a while, I can see the light creeping in from under the door.  – I have never again experienced a darkness as complete as it was there in the lab at the tiny editor’s floor, in the upper story of the newspaper building in Warendorf directly at the old market place.
Praktica super TL 2
The above is the reason why I thought of my lab-time. Click on the image to read more in the conversation section on Flickr. – If you still feel like reading. Thank you for making it through until here!

Sorry, keine Übersetzung diesmal – das nächste Mal wieder!

13 replies on “Darkroom”

  1. I really loved to read this story! (I like the writing style, and the content, of course). Need some nicer words, but my head is a little off right now 🙂

  2. Nice specs btw! 🙂 (had the same but in a light colour at 12, + imagine the same haircut but with straight hair – I actually have a proof – a horrible photo 🙂

  3. What a lovely post! You have brought old memories to mind…
    More than 40 years ago I worked for a dentist and one of my tasks was to develop the Xray films.
    And before that, I was a junior member of a camera club.I should write this on my own blog. 😉

  4. What a fascinating bit of your history. I find it surprising how much responsibility they gave you at such a young age. I don’t think a 16 or 17 year old would be given such a job here in the US. What an amazing experience.

  5. Thanks for your comments, I am glad you liked reading it!

    @Daria: The glasses were totally in fashion that time. And they were clever: I had several frames in different colors; it was possible to pop out the glasses with a gentle push, and then settle into another frame that you maybe like better that. All plastic, but kind of neat.

    @Dinahmow: I am happy to have managed to stir memories – good ones, I hope! Developing X-rays; sounds interesting, too. I never spend much thought on this branch of photography… Looking forward to reading your corresponding post 😉

    @Paper Chipmunk: I saw a lot of young people working in the US, admittedly mainly in supermarkets. But I guess it is the same everywhere: If you need to get something done cheap, get young people to do the job. The other lab workers were hardly older than I was, and some of the freelance reporters were in my school, too. There was a permanent staff of editors there, who were grown-ups feeding their families with the job, the rest of the staff was fairly young. – It was a small rural newspaper.

    It is my opinion generally that we should give teenagers more responsibilities, give them the chance to proof themselves outside the boundaries of school, trusting them with work that really needs to be done and not only serves to let them prove themselves. Maybe that would make them happier, let them feel that they are needed.
    There is really nothing about the kind of work I did in that lab that a teenager couldn’t do. Same is true for many tasks. Just because there are adults who earn money doing it, doesn’t mean a young person cannot be trusted with it. Once through childhood, a task may require training, but seldom a certain age, I would think.

  6. Completely agree with you! I worked summers from age 13-18, many different jobs, and it made me more confident, proud and happy! (I was not an exception, most of the teenagers worked during the summer in my city).

    As for the glasses – I had the same type of frame, but I didn’t know your changeable type of glasses existed!!! Oh, how would I loved to have them!

  7. Na hallo, bin auf der Suche nach Buchbindeinspiration hier mal gelandet und mir kam das Foto schon etwas bekannt vor…. Aber nach der Sache mit dem Fotolabor, war’s dann klar woher. Ich war mal in Warendorf mit in jenem Fotolabor … zum Gucken…. meine Güte ist das lange her 🙂
    Sonja. Falls Dir das noch was sagt; war zu dieser Zeit gerade am Lau. 🙂
    Also, einen lieben Gruss – und was für ein lustiger Zufall.

  8. Das ist ja wirklich lustig, dass du mich dann gerade in dem Moment wiederfindest, in dem ich mal was über die ferne Vergangenheit und nicht über Bücher schreibe!
    Du warst auf der Suche nach Buchbindeinspiration? – Was machst du denn mit Büchern?

  9. I completely agree–I think young people should have opportunities to prove themselves, especially for pay. Many (most?) teenagers work here, most often at something like food service or retail. I just thought it was neat that you’d had a more interesting job while you were still in school.

  10. It definitely was neat! And reading your comment I became aware that it indeed may seem a lot of responsibility for a school girl. I started to think about what kind of work we trust teenagers with, and what seems too much. I am not done thinking, but I have come up with surprising examples. For example we trust them with small children. Baby sitting is a typical job for teenage girls, at least here. They may be even trusted with several, even small children. But although we trust them with our babies we might not trust them with our business. – Strange, isn’t it?

  11. Hike…my post on x-rays will be in a few days. The current post will stay to allow more friends to join the party for our friend, Kaz, who is very ill.

  12. Hilke, this is a fascinating story, so well written and evocative of the time. I’m working my way backwards through your posts – a lot to go, and I’m having a great read.

  13. Thanks, Carol! Also for you comments on the other posts. – It is always a pleasure to see you visiting! I am glad that you liked my story, which was indeed also a piece of an writing exercise. I used to write a lot, mainly in German, and don’t find much time to do that these days.

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