The light was fading so I had to work fast. I was all alone in the old house. I knelt outside the locked wooden door and worked at the loose panel. The house was silent around me, not even a ticking clock. The noise I made as I eased the panel free sounded very loud, amplified by the almost empty room inside so that it echoed back at me. As I lifted the panel out a rush of stale air blew past me carrying a locked up smell and also something sharp and animal. I pushed my camera into the gap putting one foot of the tripod through the hole so the Nikon was suspended in the plane of the door that had not been opened for more than 60 years.
I took three very long exposures one after the other using a wide-angle lens to capture the scene of gloom and dusty shadows then the light was really gone and it felt suddenly cold. I withdrew the tripod and camera and carefully replaced the panel. It looked slightly loose, shrunken with age as it had when I first noticed it but there was no sign that it had been removed.
Peter had recounted the history of the house to me earlier in the day when we were looking round choosing locations for the architectural shoot I had come to do. He said his family had lived in the house for six generations and that his great grandmother had died in the room. The door had been locked and nailed shut after her death. He said that If anyone had had any clear idea why the old lady had stipulated this bizarre measure in her will it had long since been forgotten.
I had been left to lock the house up as Peter was due back in town for an evening appointment. That had left me free to indulge my guilty passion for snooping and photographing long undisturbed rooms. I’d already taken several other black and white pictures of the cellar and attic earlier in the day. I was using a long outdated roll of HP5 negative film which gave interesting results. The last three exposures on the roll were the pictures stolen through the door so I rewound the film.
When I got home I went straight into the darkroom and pulled out a developing tank. I took out the spool and put it next to the film cassette then switched off the light. Now, in complete darkness I took the cassette apart, found the end of the exposed film and pushed it into the spool. I carefully fed the film so that it wound itself between the spool’s wire spirals until it was fully loaded. I put the spool into the developing tank and screwed the light tight lid on. Then I pulled the light switch again, closing my eyes against the sudden burst of light.
I made up developer solution and warmed it to the right temperature. After checking the developing time for pushing the film from 400 to 1600 ASA , I poured the developer into the tank and started the timer. I agitated the spool in the tank for ten seconds every minute and poured the developer away down the sink when the timer rang. Quickly I poured the fixer in to stop any further development and when it was done I poured it back into its bottle. I washed the spool and film under the cold tap.
Now for the moment of truth. I excitedly pulled the film out of the spool, snapped a metal clip on each end and scanned the small oblong negative frames. I couldn’t wait to see those three long exposures at the end of the film. As I held the negatives up to the light I could see the last one was fogged but the previous two looked OK, maybe the second one was a bit fogged as well, old film is unpredictable. I needed to dry the film and then take a contact sheet to see what the pictures were like as positive images. I hung the film in a drying cabinet and went out into the studio for a glass of wine while I waited.
The red safe-light in the darkroom let me see what I was doing as I put a sheet of photographic paper into the contact maker. I cut the negatives into strips of six frames each and slid them into the retaining groves of the contact maker cover glass then closed the glass down on the paper. Next I exposed the negatives and paper under the enlarger. The paper went into a bath of developer and in less than half a minute the rows of minute photographs had started to appear. When the blacks were fully rich I transferred the paper into a bath of fixer and then into the sink to wash in cold water. I hung the wet paper on a thin line stretched across the darkroom, checked I had closed the box of unexposed paper and switched on the full light.
My hand shook as I used a lupe to magnify the images and got my first real look at the long sealed room. In the first picture I had taken I could make out a rocking chair next to a low table in the middle of the room. There appeared to be a cage made of strong metal bars on the table. The second picture showed the same scene but the centre of the frame where the cage was seemed slightly fogged. The fogging in the third frame completely obscured most of the picture with only the extreme edges showing any detail. Intriguing. I took the strip with these final three shots and fed it into the negative holder of the enlarger.
Click. I pulled the cord and the dim red safe-light replaced the brightness. I used the focus finder to get the first image sharp then put a piece of photographic paper in the masking frame under the enlarger and made a test exposure of the first frame on the strip. It was a picture of the attic, hung with cobwebs. I decided what the ideal exposure was and made a print of the first frame taken through the door into the sealed room.
Again I waited impatiently for the image to appear in the developing bath, fixed and washed it then hung it up to dry. I moved the negative strip along one frame and made the next print. When the image appeared in the developer it looked just the same as the first one. Odd but it’s sometimes it’s difficult to see properly in the safe light. I moved to the final negative and made the exposure. I could immediately see under the enlarger that the whole room was sharp in the picture. I developed and fixed the print and switched the light back on as the last print was washing.
The three prints were identical and when I looked at the negatives, three identical images of the dusty room. I went back to the contact sheet but again there were three clear pictures, no sign of the fogging I had seen when I viewed the negatives and the freshly made contact sheet.
I got the lupe and looked closely at the prints. Actually there was a slight difference between picture one and the subsequent two. In the first the cage on the table in the middle of the room had its metal door slightly ajar. In the other two it was wide open as if something had escaped. I was just wondering where the fogging in the negatives had gone when something with sharp claws started crawling up my leg and the light went out.