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Focusing On The Picture

Every once in a while, I think I hear it. In one of those rare moments, when the newsroom is devoid of chatter or a screaming police scanner, there’s a sound that echoes in my head. For anyone younger than maybe 50, it would be a sound very foreign to them.

But for anyone who ever visited a dark room or took a course in film developing, you will recognize the sound. I always knew when one of the photographers was in the dark room because I could hear that sound — it was the sound of the metal paper safe door sliding up and down. Usually it came down with a bang as prints were needed in a hurry.

The paper safe was an important piece of the process of making a print from a negative. The paper safe kept the specially coated paper in a dark place until it was needed. The paper was not cheap and we were expected to respect its use.

Not long after I joined the newspaper staff 40 years ago, I was tapped to “help out” in the photography department. I had my own 35 mm Canon camera and flash and often chased the fire trucks all hours of the night. I was a rookie and learned plenty of tricks from various photogs on the staff.

I received a crash course in photography from some of the best in the business. From aperture settings to film speed, I took it all in. I learned the art of printing a picture from a still wet negative, dodging and burning in the shadows. There was truly an art to making black and white photos.

Since I was the new kid on the block, I was tasked with cleaning the deep metal sinks in the dark room where fresh water washed over the negatives, and the film reels and metal tanks were cleaned. It was a slimy, gross job but I made the sinks shine. I think I earned more kudos for cleaning the dark room than rolling film in the dark, but I was grateful to have learned another aspect of the news business.

There were other sounds, too. That of a city editor yelling through the closed dark room door, demanding we give him a photo NOW even though the print was still wet. Talk about sweating out deadlines!

When digital cameras and computers descended into modern news making, dark rooms became nothing more than a graveyard of obsolete photo equipment. Young students taking tours of the newsroom always ask ‘what’s a dark room?’

Now photos are magically and instantly at our fingertips via the invention of digital photography. With the touch of a few computer keys, the photos are downloaded into a computer for yet another editor to grab for a waiting page as deadline closes in.

No more wet prints slapped on the copy desk. No more chemical spills on my good slacks. Fingertips no longer shriveled and stinging from cleaning the sinks. But oh, how I miss those sounds that made news out of a room full of darkness.

Heather Ziegler can be reached via email at hziegler@theintelligencer.net.

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