I owned my own graphic arts business for 25 years. The printing business is not for everybody. The technology changes daily, the deadlines are ridiculously short and the people who work in it are crazy. You pretty much have to be if you want to survive. I grew up working for my Dad, which means I pushed a broom for several years as a kid. That’s what he called an apprenticeship. In those days, the 60’s, it was pretty primitive technology and a lot of handwork. We basically did the prepress part of printing, which involved process photography, hand stripping, dot etching, plate making and proofing for the printers who were our clients. It was about equal parts art, science and alchemy.
Everything we did centered around lithography which is derived from Greek for writing with light. This technology required very precise cameras with large lenses and high intensity lights. The cameras used carbon arcs to produce an incredible amount of light to keep the exposures short. Carbon arcs were nothing more than 2 long round shafts of carbon that were pushed together and electrified to produce an “arc”, basically intense sparks and the resulting bright light. This thing made sounds like Frankenstein’s lab and it would scorch your eyes if you looked right at it. The real trick and one of my first chores was to replace the carbon shafts when they were used up. As busy as we always were, we didn’t have a lot of time to let these cool off, so the trick was to take them out while they were still sizzling and throw them on the floor or in a bucket and get 2 new ones in as quick as possible. In those days, apprentices were yelled at constantly to move faster, get out of the way and do it right. That was called “training”. If you burned yourself doing this, you just bit your lip and kept going no matter what. We didn’t have a first aid station, just cold water and band aids. I guess the fear factor made “training” much more effective.
After we photographed the artwork, we had to tray develop the films in a sink made for this purpose. All of this was done in the darkroom under dim red lights. There were even times we worked in complete darkness for certain types of film. In that case you had to set everything out and remember its position and count your steps back and forth till the process was over. It took me years to become even adequate working in the dark. That probably explains some of the failings in my love life. The other danger of working in the darkroom was the never-ending practical joke of scaring each other. Considering that we all carried chemicals and sharp tools it’s a miracle we didn’t kill each other. I’m not a chemist but photographic chemicals are pretty nasty things to have your hands in all day and the smell stayed with you forever. Later on, we bought film processors and that took away the worst part of the job. Of course, as the apprentice, I had the honor of cleaning up the sinks and processors every day. We used lots of bleach and water and scrubbed everything in sight. Industrial chemicals were just beginning to be scrutinized in those days and we used some that were caustic enough to take the tarnish off pennies. Alcohol, formaldehyde, potassium ferrocyanide and chlorine were all handled daily and without much protection. It’s a wonder I don’t have brain damage, brain damage, brain damage.
When we weren’t using harmful chemicals, we were using the sharpest tools imaginable like single edge razor blades, exacto knives, foot long scissors and huge guillotine paper cutters. The scary part was how fast we all worked. When you have deadlines that are just a few hours from start to finish you better move quick or else. And of course there was a constant chant of faster, faster, faster to keep you motivated and on edge. I have never seen any other industry that works with such precision and at such a high level of intensity. Mistakes were killers to profitability and deadlines. It was literally get it right the first time or don’t bother to show up tomorrow. Employees weren’t fired, they just gave up and stopped coming to work.
In retrospect, it was the greatest experience of my life. I learned to think faster than anyone I know. My Dad taught me to look at the end result and work backwards to figure out all the necessary steps to get it right the first time. I was never great at math but being forced to do dozens of calculations involving measurements and fractions every day gave me the ability to do simple arithmetic in my head with incredible speed. I have actually surprised retail clerks by giving them exact change including tax before they have it on the register. It’s even better when I show them where they went wrong. I think the value of working in a skilled trade at a young age is just the wealth of knowledge that is thrown at you relentlessly. My Dad always said the most important thing in life was to “learn how to learn” and growing up in the family business was the best place ever to experience that first hand.
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