Pictures were tangible once. Solid somethings as I recall. The developing process was messy and murky back in the darkroom for the black and whites shot by holdout artsy photogs. It was clean and antiseptic in the front of the shop where a machine whirred and clanged and spat out 5x10s and 4x6s in a never-ending chain of bright splashes of color. For some indeterminate season and for no particular reason except to be doing something, I once worked at a small photo shop in Durham.
The effort that it took to produce the photographs was tangible in that place. I only went back in the darkroom a few times to visit, but I marveled at the mystical chemical process that changed the drying vines of hanging negatives into pictures. Black and white photography was on the way out even then, blowing a long slow kiss on a summer’s day that lingers like a bittersweet memory on a breeze carrying a chemical scent.
In a way, I was frozen too. Like the pictures. Not moving forward or back. Just static and still in a small retail photo shop with a quick turnaround time. (We could actually develop photos faster than an hour if we really liked you. If you were impatient and unlovely about your order, unhappy glitches in the machine were known to develop. The technician had a way of delivering instant karma as he color-balanced snapshots).
I had the degree in English, but I could see no point in it at the moment. Jobs were easy to find. Almost disposable back then, like the cheapest disposable point-and-shoot cameras good for only one roll of film. You actually had to destroy the camera in order to get the roll of film out to develop it. Insidious, right? People commonly asked if there was any way to use the camera again. We would let them watch us retrieve the film so they understood that you had to crack open the camera like the shell of a walnut that can never be uncracked. It was a static environment for a place that took rush photos orders. There was only one time of the month when everyone in the photo shop sprang into furious motion – payday.
The business was perched forever on the verge of bankruptcy. This was due in large part to huge Research Triangle Park firms that had accounts at the store they didn’t pay for months at a time. Seasons would pass with no money coming back into the shop for hundreds or thousands of industrial slides we developed. I naively asked once why we kept letting the huge businesses get away with such delinquency. We couldn’t afford to lose their business, came the reply. But what kind of business were we getting when bills languished unpaid while we processed yet more film for them?
So, when payday rolled around we raced over to a nearby bank because we knew from sad experience that if you were not among the first few to cash the check at the bank where the shop’s account was held, you were probably holding a worthless check. Sometimes I was one of the lucky few. Sometimes I wasn’t. So, the huge computer and medical businesses held us all hostage.
One of my co-workers in the photo shop left to work in some new huge grocery store called a Costco. She explained it was a giant store with low prices that sold things in bulk. You paid an annual fee to shop there. Did I want to join Costco? she asked. I subsisted on frozen microwave meals and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when I wasn’t eating dirt cheap takeout food. Why would I pay to go shop somewhere? The idea sounded ludicrous. It just didn’t add up. She’s probably a vice president of Costco at this moment earning millions. What did I know?
The pictures rolled off the line in a never-ending stream. Family photos. Beach photos. People only took pictures of the good times. It was a little like living in an artificial reality, seeing so many smiling faces all day long, so much happiness being manufactured. And it was a little depressing because you thought about your own life in comparison to those people in those pictures who looked like they really knew how to live when all you knew how to do was process pictures in a machine and race to the bank for a check that might not even be worth the paper it was printed on.
It was a really good thing when the business stopped coughing and sputtering and finally just died. I didn’t know it then. Sometimes you are lucky without knowing the luck you are having. This was one of those times. You pick up and move on to better things because there is nothing else to do when the store is suddenly closed one day for good. Unfrozen by the magic of unpaid bills.
The good people who worked at the small photo shop scattered to the winds, hopefully finding jobs with more dependable paychecks.
I’ve taken many thousands of photos since I worked in the photo shop using smart phones. Since we moved to New York City a year and a half ago, I’ve snapped pictures of the Brooklyn Bridge at night, the sun going down on the Hudson and the Statue of Liberty as I rode by in a boat or a ferry. But they’re all just pixels sitting in storage on a hard drive like unrealized plans.
I still miss the feel of a photo in my hand, which feels very real and tangible. I even miss the rush of excitement of picking up a roll of film mystically turned into a stack of photos. Would anything develop at all? How many people in the photos would have their eyes shut? How many would have an odd, dazed expression on their faces and would beg me to give them the photo so they could burn it.
I must have been hungover that morning, you’d say. Just look at my hair. No, you were just startled, I’d reply. Not ready for your closeup.
This is you, I’d explain, in a natural light before the magic happens and you become that other you, super smooth and polished and bright for everyone to see. But I always let you have that photo so you could destroy it, perpetuating one more artificial reality.
Amid all these rich images we drown in daily, sometimes I wish I had kept just one photo of you in a morning fog stunned by the sudden flash of a camera. Something gritty and real and slightly off kilter in a natural light.
A picture of you as you actually were in one frozen moment and not as you intended to be. Everything askew and unkempt and beautiful beyond words. I probably do have such a picture, and it’s sitting undeveloped on a roll of film in a large box in storage like a present waiting to be opened one day.