Dark Ages

Long ago and far away, there was a time and a place where I spent my youth – in the darkroom. My commercial career began in the darkroom doing what most of us can do today in our sleep using Photoshop.  They were complex layered images with many elements of varying sizes shot separately on film and combined in the darkroom, always incorporating a few photograms for extra interest. I didn’t have a lot of competition making these kinds of complicated photo illustrations. Nobody in their right mind would do all this work for one image. Most reasonable people had an attention span around a 1/125th of a second.  Some of these images became “drag it through the garden” shots where the client wanted a gazillion subjects – everything from the peppers to the pepperoni – in one picture. Many of them allowed for a delightful amount of creativity. It may have been the dark ages but I was in heaven.

It was a fun way to make pictures, and it was an opportunity to be creative and get paid. Usually the client would call with an idea. They had seen my work in a source book (look it up kids – they were the Black Book, the Workbook, and a few others where photographers advertised to show potential clients what we could do – this was the dark ages after all!)  They wanted something like what they had seen. For some reason most calls came on a Friday afternoon.

Monday morning a box of props was shipped either by Fedex or delivered by messenger – those intrepid and crazy guys on bicycles who roamed NYC, made pick ups and deliveries, and then went to a pay phone (look it up kids) to call the dispatcher for their next trip. Or I would have to go out and buy props. I would shoot some 4″x5″ transparencies of the props on a huge light table (sometimes 6 feet x 8 feet) that I constructed, or if they were appropriately translucent I would take the props into the darkroom and use them for photogramming.

For each of the transparencies I would shoot Polaroid to get the setup right and then 4 sheets of 4″x5″ transparency film – two “normal”, one plus 2/3 stop and one minus 2/3 stop and call the lab for a messenger pickup (every lab had their own team of messengers.) The lab was instructed to process one of the “normals” hold back the balance and messenger the developed sheet back to me ASAP. This gave me time to get back on the phone to call art directors arrange to drop off my portfolio – all part of the endless job of looking for more work. About 3 hours later the first sheet would show up at my door, I would quickly look at it and then call the lab with instructions for “the balance” – that would be the remaining 3 sheets. I could say “push a half stop” or “run it normal” or “pull it one stop” or whatever it needed depending on whether the first sheet was over or underexposed. This was transparency film after all, with a very limited dynamic range. If I missed the exposure the lab could help me rescue the balance. About 3 hours later the balance would be messengered to me.

Once all the film was back I went into the darkroom. Loud music was important here. Load up the CAP-40 Cibachrome processor, start arranging the transparencies in the enlarger and adding the photogram-able objects in the enlarger or on top of the paper. The size would vary 8″x10″, 11″x14″, 16″x20″ or even 20″x24″ in extraordinary circumstances.  The size was determined by the size of the objects to be photogrammed and how large they would appear in the final image. I started compositing the image, experimenting with placement of the photogrammed elements. The elements that were on film were not so flexible. I had to make multiple exposures, burn and dodge to get the varying elements right. I kept copious notes so I could come back and do it all again. Each exposure would go into the processor and I would hold my breath until it popped out 10 minutes later.

It was a rare day that I got it right on the first try. Usually it required a bunch of prints to get a good one, then I could move things around and make some variations for the art director. Occasionally I would have the art director camping out (bored to death) in my studio waiting for me to emerge from the darkroom to show them the latest attempt. Talk about pressure! It was usually late on the second or third day when I was sure that this crazy idea was never – NEVER –  going to work and I was a failure and everyone was going to hate me and soon I would be living under a bridge then all of a sudden I got a good one, then another, and suddenly I could breathe again and I remembered why I chose this as my life.

After the prints were washed and dried I liked to send my client several variations to choose from. They received color prints (by messenger) so that they could choose one to put into the layout and send to the printer to be separated (look it up kids) and be reproduced in the magazine or annual report or book cover or advertisement. This was the dark ages.

I have some stories to tell about these images, how they were made, and the thoughts behind them. This blog post is the introduction to a new series of blog posts which I call “Dark Ages.” Don’t touch that dial, stay tuned.