Philosophy & Reflections

The Wet Side – My Early Career in NYC Darkrooms – By Gerard Exupery

September 24, 2020

Working as a photographer’s assistant, especially for fashion photographers, got old fast. The first job I had was for a guy, let’s call him Tasso, who turned out to be a… well, the models would ask me not to leave them alone with him. Got it?

There was also the artifice of it. Fashion photography is a discipline, and one has to have a feel for it. I certainly did not. It has to be enough to satisfy you. It did nothing for me in reality. Arbus and Kudelka, they were about truth. A curved sort of truth but a truth nonetheless.

In the last stages of thinking, I wanted to be a fashion photographer and possibly be successful. The way I was leaning was towards the “art” of being a street photographer and living with my mom off and on for 50 years. Not really, we couldn’t stand each other. I definitely knew if I followed what everything internally was telling me, I would go the street photography & food stamp route.

Tasso was significant in making me see the truth of what I wanted to do. He’s dead now. The dead are defenseless. Anyway… Tasso might have been a Greek god when he was a young man, but he wasn’t young anymore or thin. The things he would say to young women coming and going through his studio made me cringe. Of course, he was very “handy” too.

The darkroom was at the end of a hallway. The model’s changing room was on the right, and hair and make-up on the left. The darkroom was a good size and shared a common wall with the other rooms. Tasso shot mostly TRI-X 2 ¼ black and white for a NY department store, and part of my job was doing the processing. On this particular day, while we were prepping for a shoot and the models were getting changed in a “stage whisper” he made a point out of telling me to go process film.

As soon as I got into the darkroom, I heard Tasso call out, “Hang on with that film, I need to tell you something about the exposure.” He entered the darkroom, shut the door, and locked it. He had a shoot in 30 minutes. WTF was he doing? I walked into the darkroom’s film processing side, the wet side, which was basically a light-proof closet with 8×10 deep tanks and a gaseous burst agitation system.

“Get out of my way.” He said to me and pushed past and into the small space. “Hey Malakas, come in here. I am going to show you something important. Shut the door.” Malakas was the nickname he had given me. He said it was a Greek term of endearment. It literally means “man who masturbates”.

So there we are standing in the dark in a tiny space. The smell of fixer in said space can be bad. Combined with the odor of a 300-pound sweating guy, it was nauseating… and the whole situation was just so weird. “Malakas, look at this,” he said. I turned towards the direction of his voice. “Just dark,” I said. It sounded like he was sliding his hands across the wall.

“You have to be quiet, he whispered” and removed the small panel he was looking for.

There we were behind an 8×10 cutout in the wallboard that was directly behind the 2 way glass of a big mirror in the changing room. In front of the mirror were 2 models in various stages of undress looking at themselves. There was a third model behind them who was naked.

I was standing there frozen, trying not to look. Not because I didn’t have a very real and growing appreciation for the scene before me. But because I was standing in a tiny space with a fat man who thought what he was doing was somehow charming. Just like grabbing asses and making lewd comments.  If someone came in at that very moment in their eyes we would be equally as skeevy.  Tasso put the black square of the wallboard back and opened the door. “See, “he said. “Don’t ever say I’m not a generous boss. That’s your raise, by the way.” He turned and went back out into the studio.

I was done. I grabbed my jacket and headed out. Tasso didn’t even notice that I was leaving. If I stayed, the way I felt, I was guilty by association. I needed to find a job that didn’t leave me feeling soiled at the end of the day.

One thing I had going for me was that I was an excellent B&W printer. In school, I found out that I had a preternatural talent for it. I knew instinctively that if there wasn’t a solid black and a 100% white in the image, those mid-tones were blocking up and hiding a lot. I would see what others were turning out in our vast shared darkroom at SVA and wonder how they couldn’t see what an awful print they had made.

When I was a kid, I didn’t have a darkroom or a camera. What I did have was hundreds and hundreds of old photography magazines that I was continually pouring through. I was taking pictures and processing film in my head before I ever did it in reality. Maybe it came from looking at prints by Ansel Adams or George Tice or reading The Zone VI Workshop. I just knew there was a flow to those tones as there was a flow to the whole process. Like so many things in photography (and life), you have to slow down and look. There is a path to making good images that extend right into the darkroom and now, of course, the computer and monitor. Digital or analog, it doesn’t matter.

I sat around watching daytime TV for a while, but then that pesky rent came due. So, deciding that I would rather come back as a cockroach then be an assistant any longer, I thought I would inquire about printing jobs.

Berkey K&L was a custom lab for developing and printing in New York City. They serviced a lot of professional photographers, magazines, and galleries. I might as well start searching at the top, I thought.

I called and was told that they weren’t hiring. I called the next week, talked to the same guy, and he said the same thing. When I called the third time, the same guy who was the department supervisor said he admired my persistence. “Why don’t you come in and take a test? I don’t need anyone right now, but you would have to take the test anyway.” We agreed that I would come in the following morning.

“So, you’re that guy.” Joe, the supervisor, said to me. We talked for a few minutes. He asked me some questions, told a joke, and that was that. He was one of those NY characters… like a cab driver but in a darkroom.

He handed me a glassine envelope with 6 35mm strips in it. The ones he wanted me to print had a sprocket hole cut out. “Give me your best print of each.” He said.

I walked over to one of the many light boxes around the huge prep area and started looking at those negatives. They were random shots of sunsets, a picnic, a football game, a portrait, some banquet stuff, etc. Each one of them had its own particular issue. One was overexposed; another way underexposed, one was scratched, etc.

Kind of what you learn how to handle if you’ve been processing film for a long time.

A young woman appeared and asked me to follow her. We entered the darkroom through a light maze. Once my eyes had adjusted, I saw a big steel sink in the center of the room. To the right was an Omega D5XL enlarger. There was a paper safe, poly contrast filters, a rack of lenses, and negative holders neatly laid out.

The woman explained to me that when I was satisfied with a print to put it in the last water tray, which was half in and outside of the darkroom. The water flow would take it out to the drying area where it was somebody’s job to dry the prints. I asked her what the developer was and what dilution. I told her I was a bit nervous. She told me about the chemistry, told me to take my time but not too much time, and she left.

About a half-hour into it, she came back and asked me how I was doing. I told her I was on the last print, and I would be done in about 5 minutes. She said that I was pretty fast and left. As I was heading out of the darkroom, I bumped into her coming in. “I had a little trouble with the last one because it was so scratched up,” I said. “Wow, you did great. That was the fastest anyone has ever done that test, and they all look excellent. I think you got this.” I told her Joe had said he wasn’t hiring. She laughed. Joe hired me on the spot.

I was given my own darkroom because I would be printing custom work for a couple of fashion photographers (craptastic!)  the NY Times, and the Museum of Modern Art.

 

The Wet Side of My Darkroom

So that’s me on the wet side of my darkroom. It got boring very quickly. Primarily because I would rather be printing my own work, but I never had the time or inclination after spending all day in someone else’s darkroom. The pay was shit… but I got away with murder.

Being in the dark so many hours and listening to music would put me into a kind of altered state. They didn’t seem to mind what state I was in as long as I was churning out the work, but eventually, a no smoking sign appeared.

And so it came to pass after a couple of months, while I was in the middle of a print order for the Museum of Modern Art, my boss’s boss came into my darkroom. He had with him two of the clients from the museum. They wanted to meet me.

The music was loud. I didn’t know anyone else was there. I turned around while simultaneously lighting a joint I had been nursing for the last two days. Imagine my surprise to suddenly discover that out of the darkness and into the safelight’s dim glow had come three fucking monsters/people, two with their mouths hanging open.

I screamed like a little girl, staggered backward yelling Holy Mother Fucking Shitballs!

It was not the impression corporate had been hoping for.

I have always startled easily, much to the dismay of my ex-wife, girlfriends, kids, and little animals. It is a survival reaction* that emanates from the solar plexus and causes a response before the brain engages. Some people are much more sensitive to it than others. Mine goes up to 11, I think, because I have PTSD too. You don’t ever want to creep up on me, especially in the dark.

My guests left in a hurry. I continued working while at the same time, packing up my personal gear. I knew I wasn’t coming back. I was right too.

Two days later, I applied for a job at Modernage, another custom processing place down the street from K&L. They hired me.

Modernage was a little different, though. The darkroom was large, with 20 people were working in it.  It was like an open-plan office in the dark. There was plenty of space too. It wasn’t crowded.  But I was not used to having to share my space. I did not like it. The rent, however, needed to be paid.

My “station” was set up just like the one at K&L. It was located in an alcove, off the more extensive darkroom. There were 3 other stations in there with three other guys. They were all Indian and had been working together for quite a while. If I had to work with other people around, these were the most excellent guys I could have hoped for.

There were introductions all around and plenty of work to do.  Later that afternoon came a voice out of the dark, “Hey new guy! How you like it so far?”  “It’s not bad,”  I called back to no one in particular. “I think I’m going to like it here.” Then there was another voice in the dark “Let’s see how you feel when Hassan comes back from vacation next week.”

It was the laughing I heard afterward that gave me pause. I asked my new mates who this guy was, and quite uncharacteristically, they told me exactly who Hassan was. Aditya, who I worked back to back with, said, “He is a big nasty mouth who never shuts up. He is a bully”.

I couldn’t wait for next Monday.

Hassan looked like the porn actor Ron Jeremy AKA “The Hedgehog.” or so I’ve been told. He was swarthy looking and covered in hair. He spoke his own language, whatever it was which to me sounded like fighting dogs.

Mid-morning, he yells into the dark, “Hey, New Guy! New Guy, are you a Jew?” I was surprised at his opening salvo, but I thought it was pretty funny too. Without turning around, Aditya said, “See?” I didn’t bother to respond. I knew there was going to be more.

“Hey, New Guy, did you hear me”? “Yeah I did, but I can’t really understand what you are saying. I’ve got some work to do.” To the point, I thought.

He left me alone for the rest of the afternoon, but he was relentless with the guys he shared space with. I heard him telling someone they were stupid. A few times, whatever he was saying was punctuated with “Fucking America.” He had quite a few opinions about the US. Like it was turning into a shithole mostly because of the Jews, he would have you believe.

Days passed with the same noise emanating out of the dark, and I was getting used to it. I met my girlfriend for lunch one day, and it didn’t go so well. When I came back, I was not in a good mood. I was looking forward to being even more ticked off. The Fat Swarthy guy was still going at it. It’s like he never shut up. He was really leaning on how fucked up the US was. He started in on Vietnam, where my brother served and was wounded, and I had lost two friends.

Fat Mouth was going on about how superior Russian weapons were to anything the US had. “Those guys got their asses kicked by Soviet weapons,” he said about the US Army in  Vietnam. “American soldiers are all drug addicts I think.” came next and then “Heroin of course.”

I was a bit sensitive about the subject of Vietnam, as I said before. He continued with “Americans are such…” when someone interrupted him. Oh, wow, it was me who interrupted Swarthy Jackass by yelling, “Would you please shut your fucking mouth.” I had surprised myself.

That’s a Forox/Oxberry animation camera.

The response was, “Hey, New Guy, did I hurt your feelings?” That was followed by a big fake belly laugh.

I slammed down my grain focuser, which got the attention of Aditya and his buddies. You never treat a grain focuser rough, It’s a big no-no.

I walked over to Fat Swarthy Pig’s side of the darkroom. When he saw me emerge from the dark moving in his direction, he came around from the sink’s far side. He started advancing towards me. I had been going under the assumption / hoping that he was also going to be a coward since he was a bully. They usually are. Apparently, he wasn’t.

There we stood in the warm glow of the orange light, face to face with his big fat stomach almost touching my own. I could definitely smell cabbage, and I was sure scotch. “You have a problem with me, Jew Guy?” he barked at me. I was thinking of a comeback when he started laughing at me. Aside from sneaking up on me, don’t ever laugh in my face… especially derisively. And why the hell did he think I was Jewish?

Slowly I began to move to my right in an arc to the side of his sink. He turned with me and only stepped back when I told him to get away from me. I think that made him laugh even harder like he had won something.

It’s not unusual in some darkrooms to save a print by applying hot developer to the section not coming up fast enough. You then need to use cold water to slow it back down again. There was a hose with cold water for that in his sink.

He continued to laugh, I picked up the hose, put my finger over the end of it, and shot him in the face, and then the crotch with it. Then I quickly exited stage left. It’s what happens when one is educated about life by Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.

In my defense…Nah, I really don’t have one. I can’t stand people who complain always. STFU or GTFO, and leave in peace. I’m just not good with some people. And, if you are a guest, behave yourself in your host’s home.

The following week while I was standing on the unemployment line, I got the idea that I could start my own custom printing business. I would make more money, and I wouldn’t have to be annoyed by other humans. So I did.

I continued to do that for a few more years on my own schedule and was able to go out shooting whenever I wanted.

There is a part of me that believes I have always had a guardian angel looking out for me… she is kind of lazy with teaching me lessons. She has never given me true happiness, but she has stopped me from getting maimed.

So there’s that.


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32 Comments

  • Reply
    Mark Azavedo
    September 24, 2020 at 10:34 am

    Way, way the best thing I’ve ever read on 35mmc. Back in the day photography really did have characters. It’s great to hear about them, the good, the bad and the ugly, but all interesting people. Which is more than can be said about much of the equipment which was bad and ugly and produced results to match!

  • Reply
    Mark Azavedo
    September 24, 2020 at 10:43 am

    Absolutely adored that article. Back in the day the industry had real characters, be they good, bad or ugly. Let’s hear more about them and simply agree that most of the equipment was bad or ugly and produced results to match!

  • Reply
    Aivaras
    September 24, 2020 at 11:54 am

    man, your stories are helluva entertainment! 🙂

  • Reply
    Matt
    September 24, 2020 at 4:06 pm

    I also 2nd that comment about being one of the best articles I’ve read on this site! 🥰

  • Reply
    Peter
    September 24, 2020 at 4:49 pm

    Great read!

    ” It’s what happens when one is educated about life by Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.”

    I see we had the same teachers.

    • Reply
      Gerard Exupery
      September 25, 2020 at 3:15 pm

      It’s a very real thing. I owe my sense of humor to my mother, Bugs and Daffy.
      I can find humor in the crappiest situations and somehow it makes them easier to deal with.

  • Reply
    Billy Sanford
    September 24, 2020 at 9:11 pm

    Well done once again!

    • Reply
      Gerard Exupery
      September 25, 2020 at 3:14 pm

      Thanks Mate. Got another coming in a few days.

  • Reply
    Tom Perry
    September 24, 2020 at 10:13 pm

    Really great piece. Good luck with the book.

  • Reply
    David Hume
    September 25, 2020 at 9:07 am

    Bravo Gerard! It’s always a delight to read your pieces, and a further delight that now we can support your work and get your book(s) I viewed the video/podcast thing on your Indiegogo page and it’s great too. Any 35mmc readers who see this comment should check it out too.

    One thing I can’t let you get away with is saying that David Hemmings drove an XKE. Any good Blow-Up nerd will tell you it’s a Roll Royce Silver Cloud III “Chinese Eyes” Drophead. But we’ll let that pass because your story is so good. Best of luck with the project.

    • Reply
      Gerard Exupery
      September 25, 2020 at 3:07 pm

      Arrrg! I’ve been found out! I just watched it again last week and realized my mistake. I would prefer a Jag for myself but I wouldn’t be able to fit hippies in the back. I will correct it today.

      You wouldn’t happen to be the photographer that covered President Ford’s time in office would you?

    • Reply
      Gerard Exupery
      October 9, 2020 at 9:05 am

      You have a great website.

  • Reply
    Vincent
    September 25, 2020 at 9:58 am

    What a great read! I agree this is one of the best articles on this site, please post more stories! Also, not surprised to hear about this macho culture in photography, hopefully things are now changing but I’m sure there’s still many creeps out there.

    • Reply
      Gerard Exupery
      September 25, 2020 at 3:12 pm

      Having grown up in that era before we were all made aware of what pigs we can be, even then I knew that to make someone that uncomfortable was wrong.

      To accept it and do nothing… I was young enough to walk away from it and not care what anyone thought.

  • Reply
    Babak Farshchian
    September 25, 2020 at 11:52 am

    Lovely article Gerard! I enjoyed it a lot. Thanks for writing and sharing!

  • Reply
    Phil
    September 25, 2020 at 1:53 pm

    You going to do a book on darkroom printing?

    • Reply
      Gerard Exupery
      September 25, 2020 at 2:54 pm

      Now that’s an idea. Frankly, the art of exposing and processing paper is more organic and difficult to quantify. The only real advice I have is to settle on a developer and dilution and temp. Develop no less than 1 minute. Pick an exposure time and vary the f-stop. That isn’t rocket science. The consistency I mean. I think the Nuance comes from really looking at what you have in front of you and how the tones compare. Obviously if you have 100: white some gray and everything else is black there is some blocking up going on there. Adjust your exposure try again. And that’s about it. It really does come down to just looking and thinking about what you’re looking at.

      Other than that the only advice I have is just keep doing it eventually you’ll get good at it.

  • Reply
    Yair Fireberg
    September 25, 2020 at 6:23 pm

    Great read! I really enjoyed it.

  • Reply
    Alexander Seidler
    September 25, 2020 at 8:06 pm

    Thanks for that story and wonderful images in my head !

  • Reply
    Jesse Holland
    September 26, 2020 at 4:41 am

    Always a pleasure to read your writings and see your photos. Somehow you always seem to transport me back to that moment either visually, through words, or in the best of cases a combination of both. You’ve got an insanely sharp eye for imagery and quite the knack for prose and I appreciate you sharing these moments with the world. Please keep them coming! Also, love the Subway book and I’m extremely excited about the new one as well!

    • Reply
      Gerard Exupery
      September 26, 2020 at 2:17 pm

      Thanks Mate! I’m blessed that people like you want to read my stories. I never thought of myself as a writer but it stands to reason when one is unable to use the medium one is used to we find some other way. It makes me incredibly happy to read the comments because almost every single one is filled with encouragement and expressing appreciation for the stories. I will keep writing them as long as people keep reading them.

  • Reply
    U
    September 28, 2020 at 1:41 am

    Oh crap!
    You sucked me into the way-back machine!
    I worked in a print shop at the same time you were in your darkroom. I worked a process camera & was a stripper. We would shoot 20×26 sheets of kodalith and then strip them up onto goldenrod. The press room guys would burn plates and lock them up on magnificent Heidelberg presses. Ah, the smell, the noise, the on-sight ahole!
    One in every workspace. I was stripping a meg, and this guy would come by and hit your hand, knock over the red opaque, etc. one day, he kept putting his hand in your face as you cut out the windows. Well, I had a #2 x-acto knife and just started a cut. He put his hand down so quickly I didn’t have time to react or stop. Yup, over his four fingers. Lots of 🩸; he had to go to the ER and get stitched up. Tried to get me arrested for assault; the cops just shook their heads, told him it was his fault. But, I lost my job b/cause he was related to the owner. Oh well, they couldn’t take back my skills or experience; got hired at another shop. That was 50 years ago. But, your article made me feel like it was yesterday. As the song goes: ‘Those were the days!’
    Thanks man!

    • Reply
      Gerard Exupery
      October 9, 2020 at 9:09 am

      That is a great story. You can be in my club.

  • Reply
    Mark V.
    September 28, 2020 at 11:50 am

    I liked your story, it reminds me a bit when I worked- 35 years ago- in NYC as a free-lance photo assistant. I recently set up a Omega D2V enlarger, but haven’t made any prints yet. I hope to soon.

    • Reply
      Gerard Exupery
      September 28, 2020 at 12:29 pm

      I swore that I would never go back to analog photography. I swore up and down. I got rid of every bit of dark room equipment and I had a lot. Then I bought an old Leica. Glad you liked the story.

    • Reply
      Gerard Exupery
      September 30, 2020 at 4:36 pm

      I was grateful for the job but honestly, given the choice, I’d rather come back as a cockroach then ever work in a shop like that again. I did have lots of fun though. Thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed the story.

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