There are days when it's all black and white, in a good way.
When it's depth and shadow, the saturated corner, the flickering lifting of the vignetting in the darkroom.
Just me and the dark and the light, and the enlarger, and the trays, the dark brown bottles, the volatility of the fixer, the silken paper rocked in the tray like an emergent baby blooming magic.
I went into my repurposed pantry with its wooden door, situated in an old wooden house on Woodill Street in the North End of Halifax, Nova Scotia, a town I lived in and loved for more than ten years.
At this juncture in my life, I had a longtime boyfriend, and we were two couples living in our small old house on our hilly street in the black and working class area of the city.
Down the way, On Gottingen Street, the food co-op, the storefront legals, the dance club (the Misty Moon, oh yes), the material stores where the Russian sailors were regulars, docking in the harbour navy city, making their way up Gottingen, the Russian sailor parade marching back to the ship, holding bolts of cloth over their shoulders.
Down the way, too, the country music club, where women made small by age put their heads on the necks of tall younger men who stooped in the deeply dark courtesy of any place people are still dancing in the wee hours of three or four or five.
The gravity was low then, and I used an Olympus OM- camera. I liked it because it was light to carry, I liked it because it had superior optics, I liked it because the shutter was super quiet.
We worked jobs or studied in the day, and worked passion projects after wage work. (I did publicity for the regional theatre, Neptune.) I rode my bicycle back up the hills (those hills, them thighs!) and after dinner...well off I went into the pantry, my darkroom, where it was always dark night. Just me and the alchemical cabinet.
Like a cat with cat eyes, breathing fumes up into my asthma, I concentrated and danced the exposures with my big earmuff headphones on, the wire stretching out under the pantry door to the old-school wooden stereo. I set up longplay platters to drop down over the hours.
The privacy was tremendous, the personal intimacy with images enthralling. I could touch and I did touch, the faces of human beings I had known forever or met for an instant. I could re-know them, in a way, the way a cheekbone had more to say and asked for more shine. I was like a makeup artist with light.
Working in the darkroom wasn't a quick fix or a ditty fun and catchy, the way it feels, digital. Even snapped moments relived in the negative placed in the enlarger, the thick stout arrowed timer, the red light casting that surgeon's sense to it, the bopping blues surgeon making surgical light stitchings, even those quickly grabbed by the camera moments seemed like ballads in my intimate work on them, in the darkness. I was working, it seemed, in a song called Prisoner of Light.
I don't know why I have kept this particular photo close to me, all these years, but I have.
I met the grandfather and his granddaughter on the train. I love trains. They keep killing the trains. Every picture you take on a train may be archival soon, for more reasons than time.
I can't remember precisely which train in Nova Scotia we were on. But my forensics tell me it was the early 70s, and I believe it was the long train from Halifax to Upper Canada, meaning Toronto. That train has been historically filled with migrants from the no-jobs-at-the-moment Maritimes to the land-of-opportunities big city. The Ocean and the Scotian which I rode many times became mythic to me. Like a rolling stage play. Every seat had a story.
And so the grandfather was taking the granddaughter up to a better life, or a new life, or just away.
I spent several minutes with them. She fell asleep. He looked out into the train aisle and beyond.
Then later I spent several hours with them in the darkroom, stroking his bald head, his hands, her sleeping locks, her sleeping cheek, then immersing them in the magic potions, bringing them to a new life, where they are always, ever, forever, eternally, riding the train to the new beginning.
(Photo by Susan)