Lily, By Sharon Jiang
As I close my eyes, I could still smell the aromatic chemical fumes from a typical photo development store. If you have ever walked pass one, think of it as a mixture of ammonia, noxious gases, and vinegar- like acid mixed together in a chemical lab. It is undeniable an unpleasant odor. But if you need to spend 8 hours in the store; the smell sort of becomes aromatic.
This is – The One Hour Photo, also known as my second home from the age of 11-14. As a child, growing up in Shanghai and Los Angeles, I would accompany my mom, a self-taught photographer, to her store on the weekends and spent my whole day there while completing my homework. I always looked forward to it because there was an El Pollo Loco next door, which means, my reward will be waiting for me once I have completed my homework.
The One Hour Photo did not survive the digital era, of course, It had changed owners several times and went on to be a DVD rental store, a Japanese restaurant, a Sichuan restaurant, and now, in the meantime, an All-You-Can-Eat hot pot restaurant. Every now and then as I pass by, I couldn’t help but reminisce and peek inside. Observing the tables and bar stools that were once occupied by film processing machines. And the corner that I used to hide behind to do homework have now become a stationed booth, surrounded by deep purple velvet cushions, which can comfortably sit four people.
One humid summer afternoon in July, a customer brought his camera to the store and said he was having trouble rewinding the film, the film was stuck and he didn’t want to force it, and most importantly not wanting to ruin all his memories.
“Let me see,” my mom said as she reached for the camera. I could see the frustration and lack of confidence on his face as he reluctantly handed my mom the camera. “These are photos from my vacation, if you don’t think you can do it, don’t try, I will take it to the camera shop where I bought it from, it’s under warranty,” he spoke fast with no emotion.
My mom did not say a word and happily took the camera with a big smile on her face. To this day, I’m still not certain whether my mom was being polite to the customer, or, if she simply did not process everything he said. I do believe it is the latter.
She inserted her arms, along with the camera into two black nylon sleeves aka “the changing bag”. A changing bag works similar to a portable dark room and is designed to be light proof. It is used to remove film from the canister, as well as loading and unloading film without exposing film to light – which would ruin the film. The customer and I were nervously staring at the changing bag, monitoring every movement of the nylon bag. We were extremely quiet; all I heard were flapping sound and clicks. I searched my mom’s face for any signs of accomplishment. Nothing.
“Okay!” She announced softly. Retrieving both of her arms from each sleeve. One hand clinging onto the camera while her other hand squeezing tightly onto a Kodak Color – a 36 exposure, 35mm Color Print Film Roll. I was so relieved and forgot that I was holding my breath.
“Come back in one hour!” she told the customer as she handed him a receipt for pick up.
That afternoon, I saw reward and accomplishment from my mom’s face. It’s the way that she handles her camera, a Nikon N4004, which she purchased when she was on vacation in Hong Kong in the 80’s. Her face lights up when she holds her camera with so much care and attention. It made me realized that my mom was not only a photographer, she was an image maker and she loves what she does. Most of all, she loves cameras, lenses, tripods, photo albums, and everything that has to do with photography. To her, photography is not simply taking pictures but about the memory created at that very moment.
“The One Hour Photo did not survive the digital era, of course, It had changed owners several times and went on to be a DVD rental store, a Japanese restaurant, a Sichuan restaurant, and now, in the meantime, an All-You-Can-Eat hot pot restaurant.”
As you are probably aware, it does not take one hour to develop the photos. It takes about 20 minutes. The name One Hour Photo is catchy, so we will stick with that. The part that takes the longest is to review each negative for color and exposure. My mom would study each negative and add or subtract different amount of yellow, magenta, cyan to ensure the accuracy for color quality. After each photo is printed, they are batched and carried on to trays as if they are ascending on an elevator. The white edges are always trimmed, then along with the negatives, placed in an envelope written with the customer’s name and phone number. As a curious child, I’ve been guilty of looking at people’s photos when I’m helping my mom sorting the photos and trimming the edges of the prints. Fortunately, all the photos I’ve come across are normal pictures of birthdays, graduations, dinner parties. Nothing that would alarm a 12 year old.
Little did I know just how much photography has touched on my life. My mom regularly carries her Nikon N4004 camera in her black rectangular camera bag embroidered on the cover with the letters NIKON, in yellow. On occasions where we ride bikes in the park or dine with our families; the camera hangs at her shoulders like a bad habit. As a child, I was a bit embarrassed when my mom asks me to stop what I’m doing and look straight at the lens. It feels like the whole world is watching me as she bends her back forward, takes a few steps back, holds her camera steady on her left palm, and finds me through the viewfinder, while manually adjusting the zoom for focus. A few clicks feels like forever to me and time ceases for a few moment while I’m being inspected by my surroundings, and then, in an instant, everyone resumes to what they are doing and go about their normal routine.
My mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer when I was 14, she did not overcome her battle and passed away after two years. During those two years, she was not able to continue working at the One Hour Photo, but it did not stop her passion from photo taking. We were not able to take vacations because she could not stay outdoors for a long period of time. But we did take every opportunity to go travel nearby, exploring Old Town Pasadena, hiking the Chantry Flat trails, and winding down at the Griffith Park Observatory. It was there that she took many photos of me and my dad, photos of us eating, chatting, and laughing. She later developed the photos and kept them in a photo album for me.
It is her mystical way of sharing her happy memories with me, even long after she’s gone. Our memories are now beautiful images captured at some of my happiest moments which I can now share with my own family. She wants me to see what she sees. Thru the viewfinder, she sees smiles and hears laughter. Thru the photos – is how I got to know her, my Mom, whose name is Lily. FP
ALL IMAGES © Sharon Jiang published here with permission 2019