Sunday, 19 October 2008

Street of Shame

I started out in photography by doing an apprenticeship for my dad's news agency. This was in the days when apprenticeships still existed. Trouble was, no woman had ever lasted more than two weeks in 'the darkroom'. I was a girl, a punk and worse, the boss's daughter. 
Head of the darkroom was Scobie, a sarf London cockney and former militant union chapel leader. He was instantly hostile. There were a series of boys, wearing brown printing gowns, and the photographers who dropped in and out throughout the day. The darkroom was in the basement, naturally, and at the end of a long shift, I would emerge, squinting, into the daylight. But I liked the darkness, the plastic trays of chemicals glinting in the red safe lights, the sulphurous smells and the feeling of safety when in an enclosed black space. Perhaps I have an affinity with hell.
I knew it would be tough but underestimated the level of resistance to my presence. I didn't mind the posters of topless girls tacked to the walls, the swearing, the drinking and the teasing. In fact I enjoyed, and always have, the company of British men, their dry humour, their emotional currency of 'piss-taking'. But the men felt uncomfortable and gradually, as it became obvious that I wasn't going to leave, the posters came down. One day, I was dunked in the 'fix', another, my shoes were stolen, and I never had anybody with whom I could  go to lunch. The only time I went to my dad for help was when I discovered, during a spate of thefts, that I was, conveniently and of course falsely, regarded as the culprit. One of my hands turned green from repeated immersion in chemicals. I developed a skin allergy on my face, with sores that dripped pus all day. In some ways, however, I grew fitter and stronger. Part of my job was to deliver the photographic prints to Fleet Street.
Every day, I was walking, running if the pictures were urgent, miles. The first time I entered a newsroom, trying to locate the picture desk, the atmosphere was overwhelming. A huge room, a floor of a building, filled with hundreds of men tapping on typewriters, on phones, yelling to each other. So unlike the hushed muffled computer-driven offices of today; everybody in their own private Internet world. I'd find the picture editor and sling the brown envelope containing 10 x 8 black and white glossy prints onto the desk and scarper as quickly as possible.
The 1930's Daily Express building was the most impressive, with black and chrome curved exteriors, an exotic lobby and art deco lifts. The Daily Mail, the Evening Standard, The Sun, The News of the World, The Telegraph, The Express were all on Fleet St. The Financial Times was, appropriately, nearer to the City; The Mirror group were in High Holborn, and The Guardian and The Times were further towards Kings Cross. 
I was relieved during the Murdoch era, with The Times strikes and subsequent move to Wapping, because it meant one less paper to deliver to! 
Scobie's mentoring comments about my prints included such technical observations as "black as arseholes!" But mostly the rule of the day was "faster, faster" or even "print 'em wet". Sometimes, when pictures were really hot news, the photographer would develop and fix the film, not wash or dry it, and we would run the wet negs through the enlarger. I learnt to develop a hundred prints at a time, all identically, by hand, flipping through them rapidly in the 'dev'.The methods were unorthodox, nothing you'd be taught at college. Dusty negs? Wipe a finger down the side of your nose, collecting as much 'face grease' as you can, and clean the neg with that finger. Prints taking too long to develop? Add a jug of hot water to the dev
The photographers didn't know what to make of me. One said that I wasn't a normal woman.
"No normal woman would work down here." 
A Scottish photographer, Mac, was gentlemanly but disapproving. He was the racing photographer, having started out shooting finishes on glass plate 5 x 4". He still shot on medium format. I grew sick of printing racehorses. 
We were supposed to gradually work our way up to becoming photographers, after having learnt all the technical skills in the darkroom. There's nothing like looking at negatives all day to give you a good idea of what makes a good picture and what constitutes perfect exposure. The boys however got their chances much earlier than me. After 3 and a half years, the full length of the apprenticeship, I was still in the darkroom, the boys having surpassed me, rising to the newsroom on the upper floors, long ago.
One night, plucking up my courage, I asked my dad:
" When am I going to escape the darkroom and become a photographer?".
He dissembled. Then finally
" I can't see it happening for a long time."
Shocked, for I was already getting my own pictures printed in the music press (the earnings of which he took 50%), I realised I was never going to succeed there and resigned. Devastated, I went straight to my bedroom (for I still lived at home) without supper. In the restless and anguished night, I resolved to go travelling, to a place I'd fallen in love with during a holiday, the United States. In the morning, my mother knocked on the door and said:
"Did you hear the news? John Lennon has been shot." 
Despite this, I decided to go to America.


  1. After reading this I feel as if I were there .
    There, and helpless to change what happens.
    could we add a part where you pop into a phone booth and emerge as
    camera woman

  2. Memories are made of this ... unfortunately, few of those memories are recalled so atmospherically. Have you left us on a 'what happened next?' cliffhanger?

  3. More like this please! I feel like I was there :-D

    You really have a lot of hidden depths.


  4. Interesting autobiographical account there, ML. It's a shame you didn't get on with your darkroom colleagues, but if they can't see past a person's gender then it's their loss. Things have improved a lot nowadays (in fact it's sometimes us blokes who need to fight for OUR rights!) I work in a very male-dominated profession, but we've always had a small number of female porters and they get on fine. There's no hostility to wards them at all in my hospital.

  5. We did get on actually. They just couldn't handle a woman being there. By the time I left another couple of woman had joined the darkroom and had alot easier time of it. I do consider that I broke down a barrier.
    Scobie became a friend; beneath his gruff exterior was a kind man.

  6. Hey well good! Maybe you were the pioneer that raised the environment of the darkroom up to a new level of consciousness where a person's sex doesn't dictate how they should be treated. I know most photography is digital nowadays, but if that darkroom is still running today you might find that it's a very different place. Have you been back?

  7. Another lovely evocative piece of writing Ms ML and like all the best writers leaving the reader wanting more ... hope you are reserving some equally fascinating episodes for your book though... ML = the anti-Pooter


  8. Thank you so much. I must buy Diary of a Nobody in order to see what to avoid...I imagine it's full of 'Today I put the kettle on'
    The darkroom is part of the building which my parents now live in, when they are in London, having converted it to flats. So yes, I go back frequently in a sense.


I would love to hear what you think of this post! I try to reply to every comment (if there is a delay, I am probably away from an internet connection or abroad)