In the basement of my childhood home, tucked under the steps, is an enchanted room. A room of possibility. The unfinished beams of the underbelly of the staircase, a cool cement floor. Always dark.
The silhouette of my dad glows in the soft light of the enlarger. He places a negative in the boxy black contraption and through a process that I still can’t comprehend, an image transfers to the special shiny paper. Invisible ink.
Heavy black plastic rectangles, filled with pungent chemicals, their odor sharp on the delicate cells of my nasal passages. I rock each pan gently, my face just above the level of the table, coaxing the image from the paper. The timer tells me when to take the plastic tongs, grasping a corner of the photo, letting the liquid slide off. Then into the next bath for another layer of color or shading.
We hang the pictures on a clothesline stretched across the space: Tommis Felinas (the female domestic shorthair) eating her angelfood birthday cake; close relatives seldom seen; me in my tissue paper + coat hanger angel wings before they melted in the rain.
Now we shoot bursts of images in a second. Each photo a miniature pointillist painting, tiny pixel dots coalescing, fooling our brains into imagined confluence.
My mind reaches for nostalgia. The dead relatives that turn up in our thrift store and go back out for a dollar. Is there implicit value, respect for the care taken in the production of an image? Or is the only true value in the memories of the descendants?
I’m certain that days, perhaps even weeks were shaved off my life by the intermittent inhalation of sodium thiosulfate, hydroquinone, and potassium chrome alum. If that’s the price of witnessing magic, my dad the sorcerer and I the apprentice – if that’s the price, then so be it.