Friday, March 9, 2012

The Color of Flesh

by Kristina Wright

Half my lifetime ago, I worked in photo finishing. I worked my way up in the retail world of one hour photo labs from an hourly employee to a salaried manager. Which basically translated to working 40 hours on a good week and 75 on a bad week, all for the same money. Retail sucks. But I learned a lot working in photo labs. More than you might think.

I learned everything there is to know about color in photo finishing. How to take a negative and print a perfect replica of the original scene. How to add or subtract magenta, yellow and cyan to balance the tones of a photo. How to darken or lighten an image to take the edge off a bright flash or bring a face out of the shadows. I could hold a strip of negatives up to the fluorescent lights and tell you if it was going to be a bitch to print. Outdoor scenes-- bright, sunny days with a clear blue sky-- were the hardest to print. A cloudless blue sky rarely looks the same in a picture as it does in real life. And dust specks-- tiny little things that you hardly notice when they're on the tip of your fingers-- look like giant snakes on a picture of sky.

I loathed summer because the beach parties and air shows would drive me around the bend, trying to get all the dust off every negative, trying to make the sky look the same as it did that sunny day. We always added cyan to sky pictures, making them bluer than they were in real life. People like their memories enhanced and no one never complained. If there were trees or sand (or people) in those pictures, they would sometimes take on a blue hue as well, and we'd have to go back and reprint the photo, subtracting some of the cyan. +3, -1, wasting time and paper on a picture someone was going to shove in a drawer and never look at again. You become a perfectionist in photo finishing-- or you find a new job.

I worked at three labs in South Florida over the four or so years I worked in photo finishing and I saw a lot of pictures. A lot. Personal pictures, things I had never seen before then. Some things I haven't seen since and would have to search for on the internet, if I were so inclined. The photo lab in the upper middle class neighborhood in South Florida was different than the photo lab near Fort Lauderdale beach. The neighborhood customers took pictures of birthday parties and bar mitzvahs, graduations and retirements. The beach customers were usually on vacation and their pictures reflected all of their vacation activities. And I do mean all. People on vacation get... wild. Luckily, I worked in the neighborhood lab before I worked at the beach location, so I had already had my eyes opened by people's photographic proclivities.

With the neighborhood customers, there would occasionally be a few nude shots in between a baby christening and a pool party-- the wife in the shower or wearing lingerie, looking embarrassed and flushed, smiling if she was posing for the shot, eyes wide if she's been caught by surprise. There were fewer photos of solo nude men, but they were there. Or at least their penises were. For some reason, the cock shots were often the last two or three pictures on a roll. I guess they didn't want to waste the film? The men would come from work in their suit or scrubs (there was a hospital nearby) to pick up their pictures, apparently oblivious that I had seen them in all their naked glory, assuming (I guess) that the machines did all the work. Or maybe they liked the idea of the young women behind the counter seeing their pictures, and those of their wives/girlfriends. I don't know. I never asked. These were men with money who drove BMWs and Mercedes and took two-week Hawaiian vacations. I was just the photo girl thumbing through pictures of their golf tournament to make sure the green was enough to impress a leprechaun and catching a glimpse of a green-tinted penis waving goodbye.

Generally speaking, people on a beach vacation take wilder pictures than those who live in the 'burbs. The beach customers would have entire rolls-- 24 or 36 shots-- of nude photos, with and without sex acts. I once counted five different bodies in a series of photos taken in a cheap motel on the Fort Lauderdale strip. The negatives were a jumble of limbs and creases and shadows and the final prints were a blur of pink and beige and brown. Close ups of sex acts are intriguing rather than erotic-- impressionistic images that highlight every flaw, every stray hair, every tan line or ashy patch, every dimple of cellulite and shiny puckered scar, every mole, wrinkle and freckle. I saw natural breasts and enhanced breasts and reduced breasts and breastfeeding breasts. I printed pictures of wild pubic hair and shaved pubic hair and--once-- pubic hair dyed hot pink. I discovered vulvas come in as many shapes and sizes as breasts and penises.

I hadn't even had sex when I started working in photo finishing, but I saw a lot of penises in photos before I saw one up close and personal. All sizes and shapes and colors and angles. I was fascinated and slightly repulsed by them, mostly because they were often disembodied appendages floating in a sea of pubic hair. Once I got used to the shock of seeing some guy's junk hanging out from the leg of his shorts, I was less disturbed. They'd still catch me off guard once in awhile-- those runaway penises are wily creatures-- but six months into my photo finishing job I was as jaded as a porn star saying, "If you've seen one, you've seen them all" when a wide-eyed new employee would show me what had just come out of the processor. And I still hadn't even had sex.

We weren't supposed to print nude pictures, but we did. I took over managing a lab where one of my employees kept a copy of every naked picture he printed. "Just in case," he said. In case of what, I never asked. He was older than me and resented working for a younger woman (or just a woman, period), and was-- do I even need to say it?-- a little bit creepy. He kept those naked pictures tucked in his lab coat pocket. I finally told him he couldn't keep a customer's picture even if it was an extra copy. He just grinned at me and went back to printing pictures. That was his only response. (So if you had nude photos of yourself developed in the late 80s in South Florida, there's a good chance a guy named Reid has your picture.) There was only one picture I was ever tempted to make a copy of and it was a stunning image of a bright yellow canary... that just happened to be perched on an erect penis. It was so weird and bizarre that I still laugh to think about it.

Despite my virgin status, I'd been exploring my sexuality from a young age and had read about plenty of sex, from Judy Blume to the trashy drugstore novels of the late 70s and early 80s with their foil-embossed covers and elaborately scripted titles. Harold Robbins, Jackie Collins, Judith Krantz-- they taught me about sex. Penises were referred to as phalluses and female characters were called bitch and whore a lot, as I recall. (Thought that might have only been Harold Robbins.) Working at the photo labs was my introduction to amateur porn. Hell, it was my introduction to porn, period. The only sex I'd seen at that point were the simulated sex acts in glossy magazines-- the airbrushed bodies of beautiful women contorted in pretend ecstasy while men with large but flaccid penises loomed over them-- and I hadn't even seen all that many of those.

The pictures I developed were of real people having real sex. It was more than a job, it was an education. I'd never realized how many different colors of flesh existed until I saw those varied colors entwined on glossy paper. It was ugly, it was weird, it was embarrassing, it was interesting. And it was exciting. This was the visual to go along with the words I'd been reading for years. This was the proof that all kinds of people have sex. Not just perfect looking people, but fat people and old people and pregnant women and hairy men and men who wore suits and talked in clipped, condescending tones because I worked in retail and women who were perfectly coiffed and manicured and made up. I learned to appreciate the aesthetics of the human body in all of its variations. I learned that penises and vulvas come in colors from alabaster to eggplant. That's not news in the age of internet porn, but it was news to me, the girl who had only read about sex up until that point.

I could hold a strip of negatives up and tell whether I was looking at a naked person just by how much of the negative was the same dark tone. Flesh in a negative isn't sexy or erotic, it just is. I learned to gauge by the negative just how much color I'd need to add or subtract. We had our own formulas for this stuff, based on the machine and the chemistry, though that knowledge is long gone from my mind. Perfectly colored sex acts of every kind cruised down the conveyer belts of those photo processors I operated. I saw everything I had ever read about, and then some. And my imagination ran wild.

We didn't those kinds of pictures every day (except at the beach location-- I swear, people are freaks on vacation), but Mondays were popular sex photo days (people get wild on the weekends) and summertime brought in a larger than usual number of naked photos and al fresco sex. A glimpse of nipple in a bikini top or an erection peeking out over the top of a pair of swim trunks would turn into full on doggy style sex by the pool. I slid curled rolls of negatives through the photo processor, watching the progression with a catch in my breath, debating which photos to refuse to give to customers. There weren't many. The few times I didn't print certain photos (or shredded them once I did print them), customers would argue with me. "Those are my pictures!" ""How do I know you didn't keep them for yourself?" "Is it illegal?" It wasn't illegal, it was just against company policy. And so, more often than not, I'd go against policy and print the pictures and hand them over to the customer at 33¢ a print. I wanted to avoid a confrontation, yes, but I also thought it was a ridiculous rule myself. If it wasn't illegal to do, it shouldn't be illegal to make a photo of it. Corporate would not have approved.

Not surprisingly, I became something of a voyeur during my time working in photo labs. Recognizing naked flesh on a strip of negatives held up to the light would make my pulse jump. Finally, the words I'd read in dozens of books were brought to life in color on 4 by 6 prints. For a few years, everything about my job was about color. Getting it right, duplicating reality. Printing art, printing memories. By the time I quit working for the photo finishing company I was 23 and getting ready to move to Virginia and get married. I'd had a few lovers and done some of the things I had only seen in the pictures I had developed. I would never have even contemplated photographing myself naked if not for all those anonymous strangers who bared their bodies, but I found myself wondering what I would look like with my far-from-model-perfect body.

Eventually, when I was brave enough, I found out. I was beautiful in the flesh.


  1. This is a wonderful post, outstanding. You need to hang onto this and pass it around. There's definately a story idea in there if you haven;t written it already. This was fun.

    I used to print photos too, back when I was a photographer. Our photos were of contract cutomer organizations, people at banquets, people posing in front of banners and so on. It was nice, but your job sounds like fun. I wonder if people do this anymore in the age of digital photography? If not it makes me kind of sad.


  2. Kristina - wonderful. Funny. And touching.

  3. Thanks, Garce! Your kind words mean so much. I haven't really explored this idea, but I think you're right and I should. I learned so much from that experience and it has colored (ha!) the way I view people, bodies and even sex. Something to think on.

    And I know there are still photo labs around that develop digital pictures as well as 35mm, but I don't know if people are getting those kinds of pictures printed when they can just as easily look at them on their computer. Plus, I was in Florida where things were a lot more relaxed-- I don't know how many labs would print them at all now.

  4. I agree with Garce - this is a sensational post, and most definitely story fodder.

    I'm a bit jealous. I think your introduction to sex via other people's photos was probably a good deal healthier, gentler and more informative than most women's. I had sex pretty early on, but was incredibly ignorant until a long time later.

    I really like the intro photo, too!

  5. Thanks so much, Lisabet. I really had fun writing this one, though I apologize for straying so far from the topic. :-)

  6. This is really interesting, Kristina, and you've tied it in with the topic of colors.

  7. Thanks so much, Jean. I'm always upset with myself for straying so far from what I think I'm supposed to be writing about. This started out as something else entirely. Ha!


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