Odd memories, part 23

I sit here this afternoon with a small (in size) project alongside me, waiting for the epoxy to dry. It isn’t exactly a christmas present, but it is a necessary part of one, and I just spent no small amount of time making it. This was nowhere near the amount of time I spent trying to find one already made, which should have been a lot easier than it was, and a lot more fruitful because, it wasn’t – I never found it. Well, let me correct that slightly: it’s possible that I had, but none of the sellers saw fit to give me the crucial measurement that I needed to know that it would work, and of those that did include the measurement, it was either a) distinctly inaccurate, or b) intended for something else. So I ended up making it, and it works, so all is well in Al Land at the moment, despite my gently simmering aggravation. Once the epoxy is set, I can continue.

In the meantime, we have some stories, but without any illustrating images, so it can’t be one of the (two remaining!) storytime posts. I was reminded of this by seeing recently the holiday card failures that people have posted, and remembered that I was borderline responsible for one. Kinda, only not really. Allow me to elucidate.

It was the mid-nineties and I was working in a photo lab, one of the many 1-hour chains that dotted the urban mall before they died out under their own incompetence, and I can certainly vouch for it personally in regards to the chain I worked for: CPI Photo, which was far more focused on marketing than on producing a quality product, and this was reflected constantly. Except, they weren’t terribly focused on marketing, either, because they relied on badly outdated gimmicks and those kind of non-promotions that people never fall for, like putting only the picture frames that nobody actually wants on sale, and of course, insisting on answering the phone with a fucking script. However, they had one aspect that actually worked, which was to produce christmas cards with a variety of templates and the ability to insert the image of your choice. Since this was before digital was readily available to the consumer market (cameras at that time were in the $10,000+ range,) naturally we worked with film and negatives.

Printing by negative was slightly tricky, because of course the image is inverted and overall orange, and at times it was extremely difficult to tell what you were actually seeing. You might think that this wouldn’t make any difference – just print the damn thing – but the print machines had their own exposure meters, and you had to keep an eye on them because they could be wrong just like the camera’s meter could, and it was up to the operator to correct the exposure as needed.

On this particular day, I was running off a batch of christmas cards showing the family’s two kids hanging out on the backyard playset, and had just finished the run and was removing the negative strip from the bracket when I saw the very next frame in the sequence, which was definitely not the two kids. I popped it back in and fired off another print, with the card mask and template still in place, just to see if my suspicions were correct. And then, as we were on deadlines with each order, went on to the next as the print run processed through the machine, which would take about seven minutes.

I was not at the output chute as it came through however – that was another employee, who was bagging and boxing the prints as necessary, and I was reminded about the test shot when I heard him exclaim, “What the hell?” I paused the run and went to have a look, confirming what I thought I’d seen: the very next frame on the negative strip was (I’m guessing) the wife and mother, sitting on the bed pulling up her stockings without a hell of a lot else on. She was posed so that there was no actual nudity, nothing to get censored in any way, but certainly suggestive and risqué enough – right there with “Merry Christmas!” alongside. And at that moment, I toyed with the idea of printing off just a couple more to put on the top of the stack of christmas cards, to give the parents a minor heart attack in thinking that they were all like that. I wisely dismissed this; some people could have seen the humor in it, might even have sent a couple of those cards to their friends, while others would have an absolute shit fit. There are way too many uptight people around, even when they take photos like that.

And there were plenty of people who took photos like that. Believe me, digital has produced this major advantage in that you don’t have to have a lab see your cheesecake (and beyond) photos now, but for decades, someone was going to have to process them, unless you had your own darkroom. And in the, what, six months that I wasted my time with that idiotic business, I saw my share of them. It might sound titillating (I am required by Writers’ Code to use that word here,) but the grim reality is, most people aren’t really in the best of shape, and most especially don’t have the grasp of posing and lighting, that it takes to make the kind of nude photos you’re imagining; one of the reasons that I refuse to shoot any kind of model sessions is my awareness of how little I know about making it work. Plus, I’ve spoken with numerous photographers who would rather perform various indelicate tortures on themselves than work with an amateur, because modeling is a skill and art form all its own.

Probably the most uncomfortable experience that I had there was when the subject of the photo session herself showed up to pick up the photos, and only 20 minutes earlier I’ve been seeing quite explicit details of her anatomy as she sprawled on her coffee table. Normally we took the prints out for the customer and invited them to look through and pick out any that they might have wanted reprints or enlargements of, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Hey, it was the nineties – it was a more innocent time then, with no Tinder accounts where you could tell total strangers about your prowess at eating ass…

We had college students that frequented the lab, with the typical party shots. One group of young women, very likely a bit inebriated, had chronicled their antics in abundant detail, and while nothing at all, again, required keeping from children, there was more than a few suggestive and explicit poses that would have presented some difficulty in explaining to them (“They’re, uh, doing charades for Basic Instinct, I think.”) I recognized the ladies when they came to collect their prints, and as I handed the packages over I remarked a bit impishly, “We’re not letting you guys have a camera ever again.” Their eyes went wide with shock, clearly not remembering much at all about the evening, and I declined to answer their frantic inquiries, simply handing over the rolls while I returned to my work. In moments, the lab was ringing with shrieks and exclamations of horror (albeit good-natured,) and after a minute or two of this I couldn’t resist asking, “So, how many reprints do you need?” For some reason they didn’t order any…

Another time, as I was covering the lab alone, a gorgeous young woman came in to see if I could help her, and produced an 8×10 print of herself done at one of the glamour photography studios that used to exist as well, this one just down the mall from us. The shot was extremely flattering, with a deep plunging neckline and a distinctly come-hither expression, and the woman pointed directly at her cleavage (well, in the photo) and asked if I could remove that. I managed not to blurt out, “Why?” and realized that she was indicating this small spot where her black lacy bra was peeking out – she really wanted nothing visible there but her own more-than-adequate self. Eventually, I determined that the studio refused to reshoot the photo without another fee and couldn’t/wouldn’t touch it up themselves. Now, we had retouching dyes, but they were intended for scratches and such, basically a white background and thus wouldn’t work on the black bra, and for copyright reasons we couldn’t reshoot the print itself. Nowadays with digital editing I would have had that fixed in seven-and-a-half seconds, and if we’d had opaque inks rather than dyes in the lab I might have been able to mask it back then (perfectly color-matching skin tones with dyes/inks is quite challenging in itself,) but I had to tell her that I couldn’t help her at all. A couple weeks later I got to see the photo again, this time an advertisement in an entertainment circular: she was the headlining act at the top-end strip club nearby. The photo in the ad had been cropped just above the intruding bra (and of course now it made even more sense, because the suggestion of undergarments, no matter how sexy, isn’t what you want to present in such cases.)

And a final memory, back to that same christmas. The Broadway musical Cats was doing one of its US tours at the time and played in Raleigh, and several castmembers had spent the day at the mall, having their photos taken with Santa (“I want a new crinkle-ball and some tinsel to barf up.”) A few of them came in the lab to get some christmas cards done up and decided to hang out for the print run – very friendly and chatty. The woman who played ‘Rumpleteazer’ left me an autographed christmas card – I hadn’t asked, because I don’t collect autographs (no, not even of strippers,) but another worker had and she felt she shouldn’t snub me, I guess. And perhaps it’s disturbing, but that pretty much sums up my celebrity encounters – it’s still central NC, you know, so it’s not like we get Clay Aiken or Michael Jordan around here.