Seeing red

Another routine visit to the weekend flea market in search of old photographic material.

One of the sellers had a small plastic box filled with old photographs. Most of them were vacation snapshots, group photographs at schools, a series with a Chinese master demonstrating some sort of martial arts movement, photographs of a plywood company etc. Picking my way through handful of prints, I saw a brown paper envelope. It had the familiar weight of sheet film. I pulled out the plastic sheet and immediately recognised the setting: a studio portrait of a father and son.

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The sitters were photographed against a clean background so please ignore the mysterious shapes as the negative was photographed against the potted plants in my study.

The photograph was made on 4×5″ Fuji film, at ‘Rex Air-conditioned Photo Studio, 27, Yau Tet Shin Street, Ipoh’. The old quarter of Ipoh has gone through some serious changes over the last decade with these shophouses either turning into hipster cafes, budget backpacker inns, or completely covered up with LED billboards promoting some type of specialty biscuit. A quick search on Google Maps shows a row of pre-war shophouses, with the photo studio most likely housed in the one with the green signboard.

27
27, Jalan Yau Tet Shin, Ipoh courtesy of Google Maps

Based on the style of the both the sitter and the photograph itself, it would be safe to assume that it was made sometime in the 60’s. By the time, cameras and roll films were relatively common, but a proper studio portrait was still left to the professionals. On special occasions such as birthdays, weddings, graduation etc, families would book a session at their favourite photo studio, and arrive looking their best. It took some time to develop, retouch and print the photo, which were then sent off in personal letters or stuck in family photo albums.

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Detail of the negative seen through a loupe

Competition was stiff between the studios, and they would go on to employ various methods to outdo one another; fancier studio decoration, new poses, photo manipulation (composite, tinting), and speeding up the workflow. Some studios had different persons handling the photography, processing and printing, while smaller ones was routinely a one-man operation.

The biggest change that would happen later is the introduction of cheap colour film and almost-instant processing. Going back to our negative at hand, it is really interesting to see a working negative that the photographer would have used to make a print of the sitter. The boy’s legs, the man’s forearm, neck and forehead are dyed with a light wash of red, which would have most likely been Crocein Scarlet dye or some variant of it.

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This thin layer of red brightens the painted area when printed by reducing the intensity of light falling onto the photographic paper. Think of it as a localised safelight. The dye is water soluble so if a mistake was made while painting on the emulsion, a simple wet wipe should be able to wash it off. I did not attempt cleaning it. Lightroom users might recognise this instantly as the red mask that shows up when painting with the brush tool. If you can’t see it, be sure to click ‘show mask’. This negative also has some wipe marks but it is unclear what chemical was used as it has visible effects on the image.

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I photographed the negative against a white screen and a simple inversion brought the image back to life. Note the lightening effect on the painted areas, as well as the rough brush strokes around the border. This looks very much like a working negative to me, which then begs the question of why it was stored in a sleeve. Regardless, I am really happy to add this negative to my collection.

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