Commando Printing

Wire service photographer Andy Clark recalls how he and colleague Doug Ball made prints, in a hotel bathroom, without a functioning enlarger.


Many years ago, back in the last century when wire photographers had to carry portable darkrooms and analogue print transmitters, myself, at the time with United Press Canada, and Doug Ball, who was with The Canadian Press, set off to cover one of many foreign trips (then) Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau took each year. This particular trip was departing just after the New Year in 1982 and it began in Austria and continued on to Algeria, Nigeria, Brazil and finally home.

Trudeau had spent the Christmas holiday skiing in Austria. So the traveling media and the PM’s staff boarded a flight in Ottawa and flew to the birthplace of Mozart and Salzburg where we were to pick up the Prime Minister and begin the two-week trip.

Upon our arrival in Austria, it was announced that there had been a serious avalanche in the Alps, along with some poor weather, which trapped Trudeau in an alpine resort. We were forced to wait three or four days before the Austrian military could fly him out.

Following the Prime Minister’s rescue, he was flown to the local military airport where Doug and I were, of course, present and we made several pictures as he disembarked the helicopter and boarded his nearby plane.

For obvious reasons, the delay had messed up the itinerary and it was decided the plane would fly to the (then) Canadian Forces Base at Lahr, Germany, and stay overnight before continuing to our first stop in Africa. Since it was only an overnight stop, Doug and I decided we would share a darkroom to process our film, print and file our images back to Canada. So, we had the crew unload only my portable darkroom from the Canadian Forces 707.

Once in our very small hotel rooms, both of us proceeded to set up, hoping to get images back to Canada ASAP. We processed film in Doug’s bathroom and set up my bathroom to make prints. We flipped a coin and I won the toss to print first.

Placing the negative in the small Durst enlarger, I prepared to make a print and –snap, crackle, pop – the bulb blew out. Ohhh crap!!! I didn’t have any extras with me, (they were on the plane). It was 9pm at night, no shops were open and the hotel didn’t have any of the small 45-watt bulbs that the enlarger needed. Now what?

Now I can’t remember who came up with the idea, but it was suggested, why not use one of our Vivitar 283 flashes and fire it down through the enlarger head? Damn good thinking Watson. But would it work?

It was painfully obvious at this point that it was our only choice and, for that matter, our only hope if we were to get pictures back to Canada. All the papers were waiting to illustrate a fairly big story on the rescue of the Prime Minister from the snowbound Alps.

After making a cardboard cover, so that the light from the flash would funnel down into the enlarger and not all over bathroom fogging everything, the two of us took up our positions. Doug’s job was to stand over the enlarger holding the flash flush and then firing it on manual. Meanwhile, I crouched on my knees, set the enlarger lens to f/64, and was to place the paper in the easel and count down from three.

We practiced several times to make sure there were no light leaks and set the enlarger to its proper height for the best cropping of the image. With all systems go, I slipped the first sheet of paper into the easel.

You ready?


Three, two, one … Boooff!!!

Placing the print into the developing tray in the bathtub, the image came up way too dark. Next!!

This time, I placed my hand over the lens and tried to take it away as the flash fired, trying to reduce the exposure time that was already only milliseconds. But still a no go.

After several tries, it was decided I would try and bring my hand through the light as it flashed but timing was going to be critical.

First try, not bad! Print was almost acceptable but still too dark. This was then our final plan of action: finding the right speed to swipe my hand through the flash of light was the key.

Second try – nope.

Third try – nada.

And so on.

After what seemed like hours, and my knees were beginning to ache, eureka!!! We had a decent print, though it required some rubbing and a little warm water. But there it was. Perfect! And it only took about 15 sheets of paper.

That was the good news, now the bad news.

We had my print done but we still had to do Doug’s negative. That took at least another 15 or so tries – the same eternity. But about an hour later, we each had one good print to file. High fives and sighs of relief all around!

Commando Printing at its finest.

We should both get the Order of Canada for this one!

But wait! There’s more to the story folks. Our adventures on that wintry night in Lahr were not over by any means. But that’s for another time.



Andy Clark is a Reuters photographer based in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Read more from Andy Clark: Bob Carroll – Leader of the Pack


Category: News & Opinion

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