an essay _ hwanhee kim


Taking out a Kodak Gold 200 24 exp. film cassette from an Olympus Mju compact camera, the customer asked me for one hour developing and printing service. I wrote down the customer’s name, time and date of order on the yellow envelope, then asked if he wants gloss or matt finish with white border or not. The order was made to be “regular”, a set of 6x4 prints on glossy paper with no border. Within less than an hour, the customer came back to collect his order. I reached to a warm set of rectangular prints that had just come out of the printing machine. As the negatives were already prepared and placed into five strips of transparent plastic sleeves, I put the prints and the negatives in the blue envelop and handed it over to the customer. After exchanging payment and a brief thank-you, I returned to the next order.

Inside the printing shop, the Fuji photo processing machine Frontier 330 was at its full operation of scanning and printing rolls of negatives onto a set of 6x4 glossy papers. The mini-lab facility behind the counter was filled with regular clicking and rotating sounds, and a distinct smell of chemicals. Standing in front of the monitor, a colleague was busy at checking up blank images. Promptly adjusting density levels of scanned images, he simultaneously pressed the green key to continue the printing.

Images after images of any life activity was continuously flowing through the mini-lab machine: a girl with a pale yellow hat in a blue dress on a pier, two mountain bikes leaning against a garage door, a few pints of beer each held by red eyed males with blushed cheeks, a mixed group of senior choirs standing in a row at a market square, three deers standing in a distant field, a giggling wet baby in a plastic tub, a row of big machines in a factory, a pink birthday cake and four lit candles, boys in school uniforms on a football field, and wedding guests gathered in front of a council were all accordingly scanned, printed and eventually tucked in a standard sized envelop.

Occasionally, unclaimed printing orders that exceeded several months were discarded. I placed a stack of photographs on a table at the back of the office. Like a deck of playing cards, they were all faced down. For a while, I gazed at the harmonious presence of the stack; very neatly arranged photographs that formed almost a block. Regardless of the content, name or sentimental value that each photograph may have carried, it seemed so alienated from my understanding of personal memory. Every sheet of those photographs unmistakably looked like a photograph, especially from its plastic quality. Although commercial photographic laboratories use various kinds of papers, chemicals and machines, these so-called snapshot photographs do not differ from one another: all have the same, distinctive, plastic character.

On the back of a photograph on the top of the stack, a line of code numbers was visible in a grey mechanical typesetting. Looking closely, I could see two layers of different letters: the brand logo of the photographic paper was lightly imprinted in a slanted and repeated manner and the line of code numbers was printed in a darker grey tone on the front of the brand logo. It looked like this:

One does not require a professional knowledge about how the photo print machine works in order to understand that the code number indicates a sort of serial number for each print, relating to a set of films or digital files. Depending on the printing machines and how a printer operator controls, there are different types of code, or even no code at all. To explain the meaning of code here briefly, I will take the particular code shown above as an example. indicates a frame number of a roll film, ‘001’ the print number. ‘22’ is a channel for the film brand and type, ‘+’ means it was darkened, and the next number ‘00’ indicates that there was no density correction. NNNNN means that no color correction was made and 11AU to signal how the scanner read the film. Lastly the last four digits 0364 generally stands for the sorting code of the order. In short, the number code is simply back printing of information that indicates how a photograph is scanned and printed under a printer program. It functions as a tracking number as well as a guide of information for any possible post-adjustment required by the operator.

I briefly flipped through the pile of photographs before pushing it into the waste bin next to the desk. Some substantial moments of strangers’ lives were fast-forwarded without any credits. In many ways, I thought, it resembled a way of watching TV. Something familiar, yet not critically interesting nor incredibly precious. In these familiar rectangular frames, everything seems to flow without a pause.

The customer came back a couple of days later with his previous order. He pointed at a photograph and asked for an enlargement and brightening of the face in the picture. I took his negative and the previous print, then wrote down the frame number alongside his request on a new yellow envelope. Enlargement options were 7x5, 10x8, 9x12, 11x5, according to the aspect ratio of 35 mm film format. He chose 10x8 because he had already bought a wooden picture frame for 10x8 photograph. After the customer left with a receipt, I handed over the yellow envelop to a lab operator. After changing a paper roll from the printing machine, he flipped the previous 6x4 print over to check the sort code for checking any prior adjustment. In a brief moment, the negative was inserted to a film scanner and the enlargement was printed.

By chance or scrutinized calculations, the customer captured an image that apparently caught him back. It probably described the specific ‘feeling’ at its best or suited his anticipation enough in comparison to other photographs. I put the enlarged photograph in a new blue envelop, then put it in a basket of completed orders. Whether I like it or not, the photograph will stick to my memory for a while. It does not matter what kind of photograph it is; if it is good or bad, interesting or boring. Whatever it may be, it became a pause in the endless flow of framed images.