Friday, November 2, 2012

Halos in the Darkroom

This is the story that I will tell if I am selected to tell at the Secretly Y'all Story Slam tonight. The theme is Behind the Scenes: Unauthorized Transgressions and Expressions.

Halos in the Darkroom
©Linda Goodman 11/2/2012
                I was newly separated with a child to raise. The ad in the Help Wanted section said “Staff needed for Virginia Studio, a new photography venture at Triangle Shopping Center, Portsmouth, Virginia.”
                I needed a job. If the place was new and needed to hire an entire staff, there must be something I could do. I called and made an appointment for an interview.
                The owner’s name was Gerald. “I have only a sixth grade education and I make $100,000 a year,” he told me, adding "and I can make money off of anything. A friend of mine bet me $1,000 me I couldn’t make money on a photography studio. That’s why I’m opening this place. I’m planning to win that money. I only have to stay in business three months to do it.”
                Gerald decided to hire me for the front desk because I was well-spoken and looked cute. Men might see me through the front window, he said, and come in to get their picture taken just to get to know me. He hired a friend of his, Bill Henry, someone with experience, to be the photographer. He then hired two other “girls” to work the phones (telephone solicitors) and his staff was complete.
                We got a few walk-ins the first couple of days, but the serious business started coming in after we ran a newspaper ad offering a free 8 X 10 portrait to anyone who walked through the door. The ad ran on Saturday and, since the Blue Laws had just been rescinded, announced that we would be open on Sunday so that folks could get photographed in their “Sunday go to meeting clothes. “ That’s when the business starting pouring in.
                A few weeks passed and the studio was succeeding beyond Gerald’s wildest dreams. The great majority of our clients bought packages that cost $35 or more (a small fortune for photos in those days), and the money was piling up.
                While Bill and I were having lunch one day, I mentioned to him that I wished that I had more marketable skills so that I could earn a better paycheck (I had seen Bill’s paycheck stub, which he had left on his desk – WOW!).
                “There’s no reason for you not to have marketing skills,” he advised me. “Tell you what – I’ll teach you to shoot portraits.”
                “Really?” I asked.
                “Sure,” he replied. “Just don’t let anyone know. No one is supposed to get near that camera but me. Gerald paid a lot of money for it.”
                The next afternoon, when business was slow, Bill started teaching me his craft. I, who had never held a camera before in my life, learned to focus the camera, pose the subject, set the lights, and put folks at ease so that their smiles would look natural. Thanks to the tripod, my shaking hands were not an issue.
                The next day, Bill did not come to work. I called and left a message for Gerald.  When Clients began arriving for their appointments, and the lobby was filled to capacity, I decided to shoot some portraits myself. Bill could always offer retakes later, if necessary.
                Gerald showed up the next morning. “I got your message about Bill. I checked around and found out he was arrested. He’s in jail.” Bill, it seems, had broken into the appliance store next door , one of Gerald’s competitors, and stolen two televisions. 
                Gerald was a nervous wreck. “I’m gonna lose that bet for sure!” he complained.
                I thought for a moment. “Maybe not,” I said hesitantly. “I shot the portraits for our clients yesterday.”
                “Are you kidding me?  Bill let a rank amateur use that expensive equipment! He was NOT authorized to dot that!” Gerald was about to explode.
                “Don’t get mad at Bill,” I protested. “He was just trying to help me learn some new skills.”
                “Well, Miss Know-It-All, we’ll just see if those portraits you took sell. Who the hell learns to be a photographer in one afternoon?” he scolded.
                That afternoon the proofs of the portraits that I had taken the day before came in. I must have forgotten to check the light meter. My first session had been with a handsome African American family. They were all wearing dark clothes and I had used a black background for them. I had forgotten to set the lights. All you could see in the proofs was their eyeballs. Other portraits that I had taken had similar issues.
                To my surprise, however, the clients were thrilled! “Highlighting our eyes like that!” they exclaimed. “What a brilliant idea! We have never seen anything like it! It’s art!”  Gerald was both surprised and delighted. “A star is born!” he proclaimed. “I knew the minute I hired you that I had struck a goldmine.”
                The next day, knowing that eyeball pictures would eventually grow old, I remembered to check the lights and set them properly. I centered each of my subjects’ heads in the center of the lights behind them.  When I received the proofs the next day, all the family photos were fine, but the individual photos caused a near riot. Every one of them showed a halo around the head of the subject.
                “You’ve made my baby look like the angel that she is!” one mother gleefully shouted.
                “Now I know what I will look like in heaven,” sighed another happy client.
                “You have a gift, young lady,” said another.
                I started getting appointments specifically for halo photos. They were so popular, I had a waiting list.
               All good things come to an end, however. An elderly lung cancer patient died shortly after purchasing his halo photo. Two weeks after that, a little girl that I had photographed was struck and killed by a car. My once satisfied customers were now making frantic phone calls, wanting to know if I could remove the halos from their photos. The local newspaper even ran a story about these “pictures of death.”  Once that happened, business came to a complete standstill. People were afraid to walk past our shop, much less come inside and, God forbid, have their portraits taken.
                Gerald could not be consoled.  “I can’t believe I’m gonna lose that bet!” he moaned. “I have to stay in business at least 3 months to win. We still have a month and a half to go. I can’t believe I trusted you to be my photographer.”
                We were bringing in no income. The only thing we could do was lower expenses.  From the middle of July until the end of August, the air conditioner was shut down. Our telephone solicitors were let go. The lights we used for atmosphere were turned off. Office supplies were not ordered when inventory became low. No more ads were placed and no flyers were created or mailed.
                At the end of August we closed shop. I subtracted our expenses from our income, and we ended up with a net profit of $245.94.
                Gerald slapped me on the back. “Well, kid,” he said, “we didn’t make a killing, but I won the bet. For a while there, I thought you were going to make me a millionaire.”
                He locked the door for the last time and handed me an envelope. “Just my way of saying thanks,” he grinned before walking away.
                I opened the envelope. Inside was a button that had “Gerald’s Little Helper” stamped over top of a photo of a voluptuous woman dressed as an elf. There was also a coupon for 10% off of a new refrigerator at his appliance store. I threw them both in trash barrel and went to look for a real job.


  1. Love the story. I was a professional photographer and know there are some more great stories to be had there! Did you tell? How did it go?

  2. I did tell, Simon. In fact, I was the last teller for the evening. It went great. They laughed at lines that I did not even know were funny. I have found the slams to be a great place to test drive potential stories. If the story flies at a slam, I started working on it in earnest. Thanks for reading, and especially for commenting.