The kitchen at our flat in Macdonnell Road in Hong Kong backed on to a dank, rat-infested space, a convenient landing spot for rubbish hurled from the windows above.
Mr Chan, the building manager, was a regular visitor and would organise workers to come and clean up the waste, set traps and write letters to the residents reminding them to use the bins.
On one of his visits, he called it a courtyard, which made it sound like something you could visit or stroll through, but we only ever called it ‘Out the Back’. I only ever went through it at a run and would have avoided the place altogether except for one very tantalising attraction. That’s where my father Jack Spackman had set up his darkroom.
Out the Back, at the furthest reach from the kitchen door, was a cell-like room – the servants’ quarters. It had a tiny cubicle cut into it with a sink and a squat toilet. I always assumed that it was for one amah, or maid, but thinking about it now, it’s quite conceivable that it would have housed two or even three servants.
Space was not an urgent consideration for domestic staff nor, in the case of our flat, was it felt necessary to waste any daylight on them. There was a large window opening on to the courtyard, but the sunlight had to struggle down 12 storeys to reach it, so it was a gloomy place even before my father blacked out the glass.
It would have been horrible to live in.
It was horrible to visit but, once there, it was my favourite place. I was four years old and the only thing I didn’t like was sitting in the dark while Dad exposed the negatives and rinsed them through the developer and the stop bath.
But I could watch from the next stage, the fixer, bathed in a red glow from a bulb swinging overhead. Ribbons of negatives pegged on lines above my head threw crazy shadows on the walls.
After the fixer came my first job, to wash the negatives before Dad pegged them up to dry. Then he would bring down one of the dry contact strips we had made earlier and we would go through it together, choosing the pictures we liked best.
A contact print was a quick image taken of the roll of film, at exactly the same size as the negatives. They were usually produced in sheets, but we used scraps of paper, trimmed from previous photographs and carefully saved.
“This one,” I’d say. “Are you sure? Look at the way the man’s holding his pipe in this next one – do you think it’s a better angle?” And I would look at the two carefully and agree. It was a big day for both of us when I didn’t, and he went with my choice, marking it with a red pencil.
Dad fed the negative strip in to the enlarger, clamping the chosen image in to place with two rows of tiny teeth which went through the square holes at top and bottom.
I would take over for the first phase – searching for the image with the focusing knob and, once it hove into view, getting it as sharp as I could.
Next he would refine my efforts, moving the head of the enlarger up and down and refocusing the image projected on to the plate below, cropping unnecessary clutter at the sides perhaps, or cutting in close on a face.
I would fetch the photographic paper – scraps for the test strips and good sheets for the finished work, making sure to close the boxes up carefully so as not to ruin their precious contents.
Because this paper was magical. Something happened when he switched off the light and turned on the timer as I counted along breathlessly in the dark. Sometimes he would curl his hand in to a soft fist and brush the air above a corner to bring up a shadow, dodging and burning until he was satisfied that the exposure was just as he wanted.
The paper was blank when it went in to the tray of developer. This was Dad’s turn on the tongs. He would press the paper at the edges to make sure it was evenly submerged and rock the tray gently back and forth while the shadows of the picture slowly and mysteriously emerged.
He slid it in to a tray of clean water and I took over, pressing it around with my tongs as he had done to give it a good rinse, marvelling at the picture in all its glorious details.
Then it was Dad’s turn to move it in to the stop bath while I got into position for the next rinse. We moved down the trays in turn, from rinse to fixer to rinse until the job was done and the photograph was made.
If he slipped off to the darkroom without me I would have to make the short but terrifying journey Out the Back alone, hammering on the door to make sure it was safe to come in. If it wasn’t, I would have to wait, quivering in the gloom and listening for the rats, until he could turn on the safe light and let me in.
One Christmas I received a toy telephone set – two red phones connected by a long wire which actually worked. I played with them for a little while and then thought of a better use. One telephone went into the darkroom and Dad put a longer cable on it so that it weaved through the kitchen and out to the living room and the other toy phone.
Now I could ring him up if I wanted to visit and he could ring me back when it was safe to open the door. Later, as a newspaper Girl Reporter, I was always up for an excuse to visit the photographers, just on the off-chance they’d be in the darkroom so that I would have to wait, patiently, until the door opened and that familiar chemical whiff of old burst out of the gloom.
I was never going to be a photographer. I’m one of those people who finds the view through a lens constricting rather than clarifying. When I should be taking pictures I find myself too busy simply looking. And when I do take pictures I feel I’m missing the whole of what’s going on.
But those darkroom days gave me an appreciation of the art and skill involved in making a great picture. It starts with the view through a lens and an eye that can clarify the whole into a single defining moment. The chemical whiff is gone and with it, as usual, a lot of the fun. Great pictures, however, will always be with us.
Not a setup:
Pictured right: An example of my red telephones, spotted in a junk shop – sorry, antiques shop – weeks after posting. Note the picture in the background!
Woo! See what I did there…
© Sally Baxter 2017
How to print black and white photographs in a darkroom – a pretty good description of the process, including the science!
Hong Kong 1967: Snapshots of my grandmother – more from Your young Girl Reporter, with pictures by Jack Spackman