Photographic employment in the 1970s – a hand-coloured, discriminatory domain

From 1973 to 1974 my first real photographic employment was with an aerial photography company (no I didn’t get to go in the planes) in Hertfordshire run by a handful of ex RAF chaps – the last cohort to do National Service and who couldn’t quite leave flying behind them. The business was to take (uninvited) black and white aerial photographs of people’s houses, generally in affluent areas, followed up by a visit to the owners from a charming salesman who would show a black and white photographic proof and invite them to purchase, at considerable cost, a hand tinted, 20″ x 16″ canvas mounted print. The customers only got to see this unsettling colouration when the completed picture was delivered to them – it was perceived as endowing the product with special value. I can find no examples of anything like it on the internet, you’ll have to imagine them.

Resin coated photographic paper (as opposed to fibre-based) had become widely available by then, quick to use, took the dyes well but it was too thick for mounting on canvas to show the texture. However, the company had found you could exploit an incidental feature of this material which allowed you to peel the top surface from the substrate and mount the resulting very thin, fragile, large and now floppy top layer onto canvas using a heated dry mounting press, then fix it onto a wooden stretcher. The peeling, canvas mounting and stretching were my jobs.

This task was made even more nerve-racking as it was done after a small group of arty women, who were paid rather modestly, (I was paid even more modestly) had spent an hour or two hand colouring the photographs with transparent dyes.  The painted film surface could tear easily and stretch or crease in the heat-mounting phase. If the photographs survived the process (surprisingly they usually did) it has to be said that the majority of the finished results were not especially attractive.

I did however, get an accidental promotion into the darkroom as the printing assistant went AWOL one day and I convinced them I could do the job. I’m 6ft tall and the chief darkroom man was considerably shorter. I have found since my teens that there are some short men who can behave in a rather belligerent manner with tall women – much fault was found with me despite producing superior prints in less time than my predecessor, and I never got paid as much as he did.

The company relocated making it difficult for me to get to and it didn’t seem full of enticing prospects anyway so I applied and got interviewed, twice, for the post of photographic assistant with a very large and well known aero-engineering company – it would involve darkroom work and photography of aero-engine bits, events etc. After a conventional enough interview with the head of the photography department and tour round the facility, a few days later I was unexpectedly invited for a second interview.

This, disconcertingly, took place with the same man during a slow tour of the country lanes surrounding the company’s site, in his car. However, nothing ‘untoward’ happened or was proposed and once we’d returned to HQ he offered me the job. I waited for some weeks for confirmation and a start date and lashed out on some new clothes for the job in anticipation of the increase in wages. But after a number of obfuscating phone calls I eventually learned that I’d been turned down on the grounds that it wasn’t really a suitable job for a woman. The Sex Discrimination Act didn’t come into existence until the following year. What happened next? Find out here.