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.
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.
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.
Help Me Print “Women Hold Up Half The Sky” my Second Book.
My book ‘Subway New York City ‘1975-1985’ is available on Etsy.
Gerard Exupery has been a New York City Street Photographer for 40 years, He attended the School of Visual Arts and studied with Lisette Model at The New School. He has also worked as an oil rig roustabout, a photographer’s assistant, custom printer, motorcycle mechanic, audio engineer, video engineer, producer, and Mr. Mom. Exupery also drove a New York City taxi which he considers his post-graduate work.