The Photo Shop
A short story by Alex Hintermann
It was a splendid morning for Bernhard Boca. The sun lit up the exterior of his photography shop, an old blue-sided building next to railway tracks where trains rushed white and navy every hour. Everything was in order. Bird calls and fluttering leaves, the housewives out for an early jog, the businessmen’s footfall on cobblestone, their shaven faces immobile and content. Mr. Boca inhaled appreciatively as he propped his door open for business.
Sometimes he wondered how it all worked, how one day flowed into the next, how the money kept coming in, why the train station was always so clean, but resolved that it was best not to ask, and enjoy his life in the photo store on the golden shore of Lake Zürich. Should unrest buzz in, he would shoo it away, eat more fondue and rösti, and keep the great clock ticking.
While Mr. Boca was arranging lenses in the display window, a slender, hasty bird—if new mothers could be called birds—flew into the shop pushing a stroller. She was taller and darker than a typical woman of town. Thick black hair puffed up around her head, and her shoulders slumped as if she were falling forward and the stroller was the only thing holding her up. She caught her breath and scanned the shop with attentive eyes, alighting on the lenses before looking at Mr. Boca. She smiled.
“Hello. I went to print photos for passport by my daughter, please.”
Mr. Boca paused to make sense of her broken German.
“You want to print a passport photo? Which country is the passport for?” He faked a smile.
“Unite the states.”
With long talon-fingers, she handed him a USB stick and looked at him as if to say more, but desperation and the language barrier prevented it. Mr. Boca loaded the photos on his printer’s preview: large thumbnails of the woman’s ultrasounds, which he had no desire to see, and a forced-flash image of a dark-skinned baby.
“I follow parameters,” the woman said. “Two, no, five by five. Centimeter.”
Although cropped to size, the head loomed large in the frame.
“The head is too big, and the background’s not white enough. This needs to be redone,” he said.
The child is also not white enough, and needs to be redone, he thought.
“Not white enough? Then I make the picture again,” said the woman.
“Don’t trouble yourself. I’ll retake it for you. Ten francs. I can do it now, and it will be done properly.”
She scrunched her brows. “I do it myself.”
He exhaled. “I’ve taken hundreds of passport photos, and I assure you that anything I shoot will be accepted by the U.S. Consulate.”
Despite his experience with customers, he could not keep the disdain out of his voice.
Her eyes flashed angrily. “I do … first … myself. Thank you.”
She pivoted the stroller and fluttered out of the shop, striking the doorstop out of place. The glass door closed behind her.
She was one of those foreigners who had flown in, plopped her seeds on Swiss soil, and expected the Swiss to tend them. Mr. Boca felt a sudden chill in the room, and could have sworn he smelled budget fabric softener, just for an instant.
Unsettled, he went behind the storefront to the inventory room, where he had shoved over the shelves to accommodate a great black box built on wooden pallets. It was as long as a car and twice as tall, with a black revolving door.
Beside this little room, negatives as large as postcards sat on the glowing surface of Mr. Boca’s light table. They were from his latest trip into the high Alps: dark ghosts of snow-capped peaks with pale shadows of lakes at their feet.
Mr. Boca only shot film—black and white large format, which he developed and printed himself. He had built a darkroom behind that revolving door. Real photography was done in there, in the red-lit blackness, where images were developed with chemical baths and tongs, each print made by hand, fingers flicking in front of an enlarger’s lamp, to ‘burn’ and ‘dodge’ the image onto paper. Each print was as unique as the moment within it. How could one hope to do that on a computer? An image developed with a click, burning and dodging performed on a masking layer, as easily removed as retained. A non-committal product from a non-committal mind. A weed in the professional landscape.
He was selecting negatives to take into the darkroom when the phone rang.
“Boca’s Pro Photo. Bernhard Boca speaking.”
“Hello, Mr. Boca.” It was a grizzled voice speaking the local dialect. “Would you happen to have any 4×5 FP4?”
FP4. The very film stock glowing on his table.
“I do,” Mr. Boca replied in the same tongue.
“Good. How many exposures do you have?” The tone was urgent.
“Excellent. Set all the rolls aside for me. I’ll be there tomorrow when you open your doors.”
“With pleasure. May I have your name, sir?”
Mr. Boca froze. Daniel Duftstoff—the master of black and white landscape photography.
Mr. Duftstoff continued, “You’re a lifesaver, Mr. Boca. I’ve called every shop in Switzerland and no one has any FP4, except you. Would you believe that? The bleeding industry standard, nowhere to be found. Has the world really gone so digital?”
“I would certainly hope not.”
Mr. Duftstoff exhaled. “At least there’s still one place which caters to real photographers. I look forward to making your acquaintance, Mr. Boca.”
He hung up.
Mr. Boca’s hand shook.
He had seen Mr. Duftstoff last year at the International Photography Expo. He was the grandfather of contemporary photography, and he looked like it—long white hair, a handlebar moustache and rounded beard, ivory with remnants of blond. His shirt and trousers were pale and stylish, and he spoke with a bass voice that could shake the mountains he photographed. When asked why he only shot film, he had answered, “Because without the darkroom, a photographer is no artist, just a copy machine.”
Going to an inventory shelf, Mr. Boca picked up a clear plastic bin filled with white cardboard boxes, each the size of a pack of gum—the last of the FP4 film. He set it on the light table beside his negatives.
This was the final call to arms, when all manner of black and white photographers clung to the silver halide colossus as it tipped toward the ground. And the great Daniel Duftstoff had just named him captain of the logistics corps.
When the church gave six chimes, Mr. Boca closed his shop and walked home. He took the underpass beneath the railway tracks and walked up a little hill, passing neat hedges and white houses with tall, peaked roofs. Testaments to generations of quiet wealth. There was the Stockers’ great gate and modern stucco siding, the Tännlers’ garden blooming with alpine flowers, the open-armed statues of the Mingers and Kägis standing over flower beds fit for an unassuming king.
As Mr. Boca turned the corner, a deciduous forest grew to his right, its narrow trunks laced with vines. Nestled among the trees was a new condo complex. While traditional houses had slanted shingle roofs, this building had a flat white top and sheer white sides which made it appear like a giant tooth sticking up in the middle of the forest. Where the architect had gotten this idea, Mr. Boca did not know, but he approved of it. His property was a corner unit on the top floor.
His apartment was clean, light grey carpet recently washed. A silver kitchenette and minibar bordered a living room fashioned like a gallery. Views of the Eiger, Matterhorn and a panorama of Silberhorn and Jungfrau adorned its white walls.
It was the perfect meeting place for the last of the old guard, Mr. Boca thought. General Duftstoff would sit at the solitary window, his white moustache and snowy hair glowing in its light. He would lift a wine glass to his lips and take a sip of red, catching a drip before it stained his beard.
“When all the exposures are shot, our prints will be all that is left of a groundbreaking art form.”
He would turn to Mr. Boca, resolve carving hard lines in his face.
“Are you satisfied with your work, Mr. Boca? Have you preserved your legacy for the ages?”
As Mr. Boca stood in the middle of his living room, with display lights illuminating the silvery ridges, snows and waters he had captured, he could not help but feel proud.
“Indeed I have, Mr. Duftstoff,” he whispered.
In the motionless gallery, he fancied Mr. Duftstoff smiling.
Mr. Boca smiled back, flipped off the lights and went to bed.
Mr. Boca awoke, surrounded by forest.
“Www … what is this?”
Vine-ridden trunks reached upward, fencing him within a broad clearing. Beyond the foot of his bed, he saw the closed shutters of his window suspended in midair.
Mr. Boca blinked a few times, but the walls were not restored.
He sat up. The light grey carpet fanned out beneath his bed and ended where the walls should have been. He tapped the floor with his toe. It was firm.
Brow beading with sweat, Mr. Boca rose and approached the window. Its angled slats remained solid, its sill and hinges steady, unlike typical dream objects which swim and warp as you approach. Mr. Boca swung open the glass. A predawn cold enveloped his face and he heard the rustle of leaves.
“What a strange dream,” Mr. Boca muttered. But as his fingers curled around the window’s edge, and his sweat chilled in the draft, he knew he was not dreaming.
Warily, he tapped the air beneath the floating window and struck something hard.
“Ahh!” he flinched.
When nothing jumped out to bite him, he touched it again. It was the dappled paint texture of his bedroom wall. He felt each bump and squiggle, but could see none of it.
“All right,” he stammered. “My wall is invisible. Well, it must be a hallucination. That new neighbor, Sanjeev, must have smoked weed and it got into the vents.”
Mr. Boca shivered and could not seem to stop.
“Yes, that’s it. Residual drugs. It … it’ll wear off.”
He carefully closed the window, turned and strode into the living room. It seemed much larger without the walls. On one side, the grey peaks of his panorama hovered in front of the trees. On the other, behind the Matterhorn and Eiger prints, Mr. Boca saw the carpets, lamps and couches of his neighbors, unfurled beneath the sky like a cluttered picnic blanket.
His pulse thudded in his ears as he crossed to the burnished metal fridge, plucked out a very visible tub of raspberry yogurt, dashed it with muesli and ate with an unquestionably extant silver spoon. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something move.
Just beyond the Matterhorn, his neighbor Sanjeev dismounted from a headstand. Now he circled his arms about his head, flowed into a lunge and, once settled, remained as still as a rock, with crisp focus in his eyes, of the sort Mr. Boca had seen on hunters’ faces in National Geographic. Could a man be so alert after drug use?
Mr. Boca felt muesli creep back up his throat.
Just go to work, Bernhard, he thought. Everything will be better once you’ve had some fresh air.
Thankfully, the carpeted stairs were intact, just like the asphalt and preened hedges. But the houses behind them were a problem.
Instead of the occasional shadowed head through lace curtains, Mr. Boca saw complete rooms and people. Mrs. Minger, while carrying a plate of rösti to her waiting husband, stumbled over a stray potato and fed it to the dog instead. The elderly Mrs. Bündler, startled by a knock at her door, nudged a knitted doily beneath the sofa as she rushed to welcome her visitor. In Mr. Tännler’s study, the little Tännler boy, with a serene and practical face, stomped earthworms into the carpet.
Mr. Boca kept walking, trying to ignore them, nearing the train tracks, the underpass, the safety of his shop.
In the house beyond the Stockers’ gate, Mr. Stocker stared blankly at his rack of suit coats, all of them grey, biting his lip as if the fate of the world depended on which one he picked. Further ahead, on the tile floor of a bathroom, Mrs. Stocker leaned over a jade green bathtub, turning on the water. A purple satin nightgown drooped off her slender shoulders. As she poised her hand on the tap, the gown slipped further.
“This is absolutely absurd. Horrible! What a violation of privacy, of dignity!” Mr. Boca said aloud, but kept his eyes on Mrs. Stocker. He had seen her in town when she visited the coiffeur, wearing a long skirt and baggy blouse. He had seen her smile at the Quartierfest while Mr. Stocker made conversation, but he had never known she was beautiful. With a graceful motion she stopped the water, untied the knot in her robe and massaged her breasts free of their trappings.
“Terrible, isn’t it?” Mr. Stocker’s voice.
Mr. Boca whirled around. The banker stood beside him, wearing a grey suit coat, his eyes squinting.
“Well, I … wouldn’t say it’s awful.”
“You’re too kind, Bernhard. It’s the work of that new pigeon on our block. She likes to roost on our window sill.”
“The cleaners are coming this afternoon. By the time you close up shop, there shouldn’t be a trace of anything offensive. Unless that pigeon comes back. Damn bird.” Mr. Stocker thumbed his nose absentmindedly. “Anyhow, I’d best be getting to the train. Have yourself a good day, Bernhard.”
“Yyy … you too.”
The banker nodded and was off, hurrying through the underpass to the platform on the opposite side of the tracks. He joined other blank-faced suits who waited there. There came a buzzing sound and a red train engine approached, pulling a long line of people contained by nothing but blue stripes. It was like a moving walkway going seventy kilometers per hour, with people standing, sitting, thumbing their phones, reading Krimis, with no idea they were one tilt or stumble away from death. The motor whirred down. The line slowed and stopped in front of the platform. Mr. Stocker and the others packed into the line. The motor spun to life and they were off again.
Mr. Boca ran through the underpass, turned and almost cried with joy at the sight of his shop: glass door closed, windows sealed, blue sides completely present. He fumbled the lock open and dashed inside. His vision was speckled. He sat in the middle of the floor.
“Damn you, Sanjeev. I’ll find out what mystical grass you’ve smuggled in, and nail you for it. You and all your kind. Mein Gott, if the world’s going to go to pot, it sure as hell shouldn’t be your pot, if this is what it’s going to do to us. Strip Helvetia of her vestments? How dare you!”
Through the glass door, Mr. Boca saw housewives jogging topless, youths loitering by the kiosk barefoot in jeans, the train ticket machines with their motors, belts and mechanical innards laid bare. The work of the weed. The work of a foreigner.
“They ought to roast and flay anyone who smuggles grass into this country. That would stop it. Medieval force, and force alone.”
It seemed that no substance, mortal or material, was safe from its effects. What about Mr. Duftstoff’s film?
Mr. Boca sprang up and ran to the back of the shop, to his light table. The FP4 sat on the counter, every roll naked to the light.
“No!” Mr. Boca grabbed the plastic bin, dashed for the revolving door, pulled it around himself and was shrouded in darkness.
“No good, no good, it’s lost. My film, our film, is lost!” he gasped.
The air was cooler inside and smelled of photo fixative. He felt against the wall for a light switch. He found it, and dim red safelights shone from the walls like torches. Next to his photo enlarger, four processing tubs lay ready: prewash, developer, water rinse and fixer.
In the red safelight, he pulled out one roll of film. The roll seemed to float between his fingers, with something hard around it, keeping his skin off of the emulsion.
The box. It had to be. The film was still in the box. He opened what indeed felt like the flap of a box and tipped the roll of film into his palm. It made a crunching sound. It was shrink wrapped, perfectly sealed, light-tight around the exposure. He had no cause to worry.
But Mr. Duftstoff was depending on Mr. Boca, and he was not about to provide faulty ammunition.
There was only one way to know if the film was unexposed, and that was to develop it.
Mr. Boca skipped the prewash, opened the wrapper and smelled a whiff of emulsion before he tossed the film into the developer. It curled when it hit the liquid. Mr. Boca rocked the bin, making the negative turn and tumble like a boat in a storm.
“Set the timer,” he reminded himself, and turned a dial on the wall to six minutes. It seemed like a century before the bell went off.
He tonged the negative out of the developer and held it up to the safelight. The emulsion was an opaque dark brown. It had not been exposed. One roll was sacrificed. Forty-four remained, perfectly usable. But how would he explain the invisible packaging to Mr. Duftstoff?
“Hello?” Mr. Duftstoff’s muffled voice came through the walls.
Mr Boca winced. He had not locked the door before running to the darkroom. Lord knew what time it was.
“Mr. Boca?” the master sounded annoyed.
Mr. Boca had no time to think but muttered, “Sanjeev, you stupid, black, baby-killing, transvestite Ausländer!”
He rushed out of the darkroom with the box full of film, and trounced into the storefront with a jubilant “Good morning!”
He saw the master and almost screamed.
In front of the display cases stood the serene Daniel Duftstoff, completely naked except for his belt. His head was bald, whiskers and eyebrows gone. He looked like a hairless cat with a beer gut.
“You got that FP4 for me?”
Mr. Boca stumbled forward. The naked man’s questioning eyes followed.
“You all right?”
With shaking hands, Mr. Boca set the FP4 next to the cash register.
As he approached the counter, Mr. Duftstoff’s manhood swayed freely. He picked up a roll of film. His eyebrowless forehead scrunched upward.
“It can all be explained,” Mr. Boca blathered. “The film might appear to be out of the package, but I can assure you that the smooth glossy rectangles you feel in fact belong to a cardboard box, and beneath a light-tight foil wrapper surrounds the film. These negatives have not been exposed. I can testify to that, as I have just developed one of them. So rather than forty-five, we have forty-four, but I bet you my life they are usable.”
The naked man scratched his bottom absentmindedly. Mr. Boca saw something dark crumble off it.
The master asked. “How much do you want for the film?”
Mr. Boca’s mouth refused to move.
Mr. Duftstoff exhaled. “Your website says seven francs for one roll, so I’ll give you two hundred and fifty francs. Will that do?”
“Yes,” said Mr. Boca, without calculating the sum.
Mr. Duftstoff pulled a wallet out of an invisible back pocket.
“Here.” He handed the money to Mr. Boca and tucked the bin of film under his arm. “Take it easy.”
The general walked out of the shop, leaving Mr. Boca in the shrapnel.
Mr. Boca could only watch as the naked man sauntered down the cobblestones, his pudgy back and rump swaying in the sun. The dark woman with the stroller happened to be approaching. Mr. Duftsoff waved a hand and got her attention. They drew together casually. The woman shook her head with disdain as Mr. Duftstoff waved his arm animatedly. When he was done, she touched his arm and pointed down the street, toward the next town, perhaps to another photo shop. Mr. Duftstoff nodded to thank her, then continued to the kiosk where he went straight to the beer rack.
The dark woman opened the door to Mr. Boca’s shop and backed the stroller inside.
“Good morning,” she said in German.
When he spoke his voice was a whisper, and in English as he wanted her to understand.
“That, that man you see now, is he …”
“Not that I could see.” The woman smiled. “Missing your #FFFFFF value?”
“White. Turn on your masking layer. Everything will look right again.”
“What are you talking about?”
“A masking layer with feathered edges. If it’s built into your image and you turn the layer off, everything will look strange. You just need to turn it on again.”
She snapped her fingers. Mr. Boca smelled fabric softener, and a moment later the housewives’ athletic shirts, the youths’ stark white sneakers, the simple casing of the railway ticket machines blossomed back into being. Daniel Duftstoff stepped out of the kiosk wearing a stylish white suit and matching shoes. He walked off down the street, taking a swig of beer, long snowy hair streaming behind him.
The woman handed Mr. Boca her USB stick and spoke in German.
“American passports look bad. Sometimes, professionals know not what to do. So the first time, I make a bad photo. This time, good photo.”
Mr. Boca loaded the images. There was a soft-lit picture of the baby, as might be seen in a magazine.
“Can you print?” she asked.
Alex Hintermann writes fantastical fiction because she thinks life is most interesting with dragons, magic, and beautiful men. Her short story “The Photo Shop” appeared in White Bianco Weiss: a Swiss WriMos Anthology. Look out for her debut novel Of Gallantry and Magic, coming in Winter 2017.