George Harrison Was Right, “All Things Must Pass“
At a time when many people are looking to find or change jobs, I am reflecting back on my past employment. I’m struck by how many vocations of my past no longer exist. Even so the memory of the people, places, and the work feels like yesterday.
One job, in particular, is often on my mind.
My first full-time professional job was at a multi-image slide production company, Cornerstone Associates in Waltham, MA. I was a lab technician processing Ektachrome slide film. Sometimes, I dream, I’m still there.
My dream dates back to 1979…
… and I’m 19. I punch the timecad in for the first time at Cornerstone, excited to start my new job.
The noisy little Ektachrome lab was cramped with just enough space to get by. The metal circular fire escape-style stairs in the corner of the room lead to more workspace above.
It is warm, humid, and the faint smell of formaldehyde and other chemicals fills the air.
I found a good description of the Ektachrome process – a PDF by Kodak – Click Here
Sounds of my Dream are Clear
The Hope Roller Transport machine with its many tanks of chemicals, gears, rollers, and pumps, provides a constant hum. Each piece of the undeveloped film travels through 1500 or more rollers and 6 different chemicals before it comes out of the dryer as a chrome slide.
Only the end of the machine is visible from the outside, the rest is in the dark, a mystery to most people but I would soon know every inch of it. It was to become my job to keep “Tinker” (our machine’s nickname) running. Tinker was the lifeblood of the business, without it, everything stopped.
Over the next few months, I learn to test and adjust the chemistry. I Measure the results with pre-exposed test strips we kept in a small refrigerator. I plot the results with a densitometer which is the only thing in the lab that didn’t make noise or have a smell. When I imagine the charts in my mind I can still make the necessary adjustments to the chemistry as if I’m still there.
The pumps are circulating the chemicals and ejecting wastewater from the processor and gurgling into a drain in the floor.
Ektachrome Slide Mounter
I hear the steady rhythm of the Byers slide mounter, powered by compressed air, slapping and breathing as it mounts 2 million slides a year, and the occasional crunch as it misfeeds a frame destroying a precious slide.
The air compressor periodically cycles, proclaiming its dominance over all other sounds.
The room is a constant hum nearly drowning out the radio playing Charles Laquidara’s Big Mattress Mishegas on WBCN. (I found a clip online: WBCN The Big Mattress)
Working in the Dark
Working in the Dark Forced my Imagination; Learning to use other senses to “see”
Ektachrome is a color film so you can’t have a safelight. A red light no matter how low would expose red onto the film. You had to visualize everything in the room and always maintain every object in its place. I can imagine where everything is even now 40 years later; where I placed my tools, my hands as I worked methodically in the dark.
Ektachrome Scent and Feel
The undeveloped film has a unique smell and feel. The Touch, sounds and smells of the darkened room is alI I have to work with. I’m blind.
I grab a bottle opener iand pop the end cap of the 35mm cartridge to gain access to the film. I feel the film curling in my hand as I trim and crimp it in the clunker, the heat of small machine melting grooves into the leader for the rollers to grip. The whirring of the tiny clunker machine dwarfs the other sounds making it sound much bigger than it is, the heat of its iron would burn my fingers if I am not careful. The smell of the melting film fills the air.
I place the crimped leader of the film between an empty spot against the feed rollers, letting the machine grip it. Guiding the film carefully for the first 20 seconds or so, then curling the film gently over a polished rod. I grab the next roll…
Exiting the darkroom
It is ironic that the lab was the only room with an outside window. It was directly across from the revolving light-tight door. Going from 20 minutes in the pitch black to the full-on sun is painful. The bright light hits my eyes, as I walk out of that light-tight door, grabbing the side rail and rotating the door around me. The door makes a low rattle as the plastic turntable vibrates against its outer shell. I close my eyes to avoid the sun streaming in, wincing as the painful light burns through my eyelids. I quickly adjust and move onto my next task.
Reception and Projection Rooms
Delivering the finished product to the reception area. In the next room I hear the sounds of 21
Kodak Ektagraphic projectors cycling, their fans whirring and the heat from the lamps warming the room. The sound of the projectors firing and clicking was only outdone by the warm Bose speakers filling the room with a soundtrack. Even the Teac reel-to-reel tape deck has a distinctive hum that is forever burned into my memory.
The time clock was in “Room 5”, the camera room. Inside were the two smaller rooms with Forox SS cameras, their tall column and 400-foot film magazines were impressive. I still hear the sound of the automated animation tables as they maneuver on servo motors. The compressed air firing from curled yellow hoses as the camera operators clean the dust from film and surfaces.
Bill and Lisa, are always generous, taking time to educate me on what they are working on. I watch as Lisa presses a button on the camera’s console to make an exposure. The film advances into place and I hear a metal pin drop into the sprocket to be sure the film is positioned perfectly as the shutter trips exposing the film with a defiant CLICK.
I envision a heavy film magazine handed to me, often full of a day’s work for an animation photographer with up to 400 feet of 35mm film. I turn back to the darkroom, spin into the darkness and load it for processing. Another 45-minute wait to see if everything came out okay.
My dream continues: One of my co-workers is talking to me about his band playing at the Rat this weekend and askes me if I want to crew. Of course, I say yes.
Another co-worker is talking in a silly foreign accent just to be funny, while running film through the mounting machine.
Customers come in and out all day from 7:30 AM to some days past midnight, curious about the workings in the lab or just anxious to see their film.
Lisa walks past the lab and hands me a can of film to process, feels like about 200 feet. She’s been working all night on a tight deadline. I ask her if she’s going home, “No, just to the car to get my toothbrush.”
I can hear Barbra’s thick Boston accent contrasting with Phil’s soft-spoken voice as they talk over the next job.
Even now when I hear a very deep voice I sometimes look for Alan, who was lost to the world over 40 years ago but somehow is still alive in me. I imagine I’ll turn and see his long beard, unkempt hair. His irreverent musings caused some tension among the crew but he quickly became like a brother to me. He’d be over 70 now.
My dream fades to some other thing then i stir and wake. Cornerstone is gone once more.
The machines that made Multi-Image possible are mostly scrapped or tucked away in storage somewhere. Video, websites, digital media, and PowerPoint made the Multi-Image business too expensive and time-consuming to be profitable. It is hard to imagine that something so vivid in my mind doesn’t exist in the physical world.
I met up with my former boss a few years ago, he owns a large-format print shop in Newton New Hampshire. He told confessed that he too has two jobs; his business and the job he has when he dreams of Cornerstone as he sleeps most nights. I thought I was the only one… I didn’t realize at the time, the impression the place made on me and how I would use the skills I developed there, in my future.
Advancing technology ended Cornerstone but the knowledge and lessons I learned there and in other situations, are not wasted on me. I can do what I do because I learned from past experiences, and from the many people who have guided me along the way.
Oh yes, I do own 9 Ektagraphic projectors, lenses, dissolves, and clear light programmers… two reel to reel tape decks. I still have my Nikon Nikkormat camera that I bought in a pawn shop when I was 16. I keep it so I can hold it and hear it click now and then. I have a roll of really old Ektachrome that I keep just so I can feel it in my hand, and smell the unprocessed film.