Creature from the Blog Lagoon 19: Amped Up

You have to love photojournalism to keep at it because it won’t make you rich. In fact, it might even cost you money.

My first newspaper job was with a really, mmm, let’s say “homespun” paper that published two editions once every two weeks. No color and no real photographer until I got there. (One could argue there were no real photographers while I worked there, although I did manage to squeak out a few decent photos.) This was such a low-budget operation that I got no mileage reimbursement, no overtime pay, and at first I even paid for my own film, chemicals and paper. And I loved it.

I didn’t just do photography, I handled all the darkroom work and helped out with paste-up. All this meant that once or twice I had 36-hour workdays. By the time I left, it had turned into a serious newspaper covering real news in San Diego, although one that still only published every two weeks. Not bad for a full-time staff of four.


You have to love photojournalism to keep at it because it won’t make you healthy. In fact, it might even kill you.

My second newspaper job was at a daily paper north of San Diego. (This paper and the one before are long-gone.) I was in the big leagues! It published six days a week, had a photo staff of three, and ran color - sort of.

Like my previous paper, this was a budget operation. We had no automated processing equipment in the darkroom (this matters, see below), and the back shop, where all the pages and photos are dealt with just before being printed, didn’t have the ability to create color separations. For those that don’t know, a color photo has to be converted to four separate black and white images, each of which will be for only one of the four ink colors, cyan, magenta, yellow and black.

So if the back shop couldn’t create separations, how did we run color?

The task of making separations fell to us, the photographers. This was not a pretty process. We’d take our color negative, put it into an enlarger equipped with filters for color printing, and then we’d make four black-and-white prints, each with a certain amount of color dialed in. That gave us four black and white photos, each looking a bit different, that could be treated like regular photos by the folks in the back shop.

Since we didn’t have any of the tools a decent newspaper would have for ensuring the color was good, we had bad color photos. REALLY bad. The registration was poor, the color balance was poor, the sharpness was poor, but… we had color.

Now about the “killing” part.

If you don’t have automated equipment for processing color negative film (the C-41 process), you do it manually. You typically have a rectangular stainless steel tank with a heating element in the bottom that keeps a water bath at 100 degrees F. Four round film tanks are placed in that water bath; the first has developer, the second has bleach, the third has fixer and the fourth has plain water. You load your film onto reels in the dark, immerse them into the developer, cap the tank and start a timer. Now that the tank is capped you can turn the lights on in the darkroom as you agitate the film (move the tank to keep fresh chemicals in contact with the film), keeping an eye on the timer. Near the end of that cycle you turn the lights off, remove the reels and immerse them into the next tank, cap it, start the timer again and turn on the lights. It’s all pretty easy and people do this at home all the time. When you’re processing color film like this you tend to slosh around a little of the water that’s in the rectangular tank. You get your hands wet, no big deal.

One night I was in the darkroom processing my film. I had my wet left hand on a film tank, ready to agitate it, and I reached for the timer with my wet right hand to start it. Everything had been hunky dory so far, except this time, somehow, somewhere, something developed a short circuit, either the timer or the heating element in the water bath. A good jolt of electricity entered one wet hand, passed across my chest (I felt it heat up, no kidding) and exited the other hand. I don’t know why I wasn’t killed; I guess the great spirit in the sky had plans for me. (I’m still waiting to find out what exactly those plans are.) I managed to finish my film, although I don’t remember how I managed to do it without a second jolt. (Or maybe there was a second jolt and I was too out of it to notice. That would explain a lot of things since then…) Apparently I suffered no adverse effects because I’ve had several EKGs since then and none of the techs have called for a hearse. But there is one lasting souvenir: I now have ʞɒdoʞ branded across my chest.

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