Our teachers and mentors hold a bizarre place in our lives that transcends reality and occupies the same sort of mental space as those inescapable recurring dreams that can take decades or a lifetime to shake off. I still find myself having repetitive, one-sided conversations with men or women I haven't met for 30, 40, 50 years, and of which they themselves have been utterly oblivious. Not least because most of them are now dead. Typical! What is more frustrating than a teacher who goes and dies before one has had a chance to set them straight? Or, more rarely but even more frustrating, one who dies before you have had a chance to thank them? Do teachers know about this endless esprit de l'escalier? I think they probably do, as they themselves were taught in their turn.
I have mentioned the name Mike Skipper a couple of times in this blog, in the posts "I'd Like To Thank..." and "Tears in the Stop Bath". For reasons I can't recall, I googled his name today, and discovered to my astonishment that he was dead. In fact, had I but known it, there was a memorial for Mike at Oxford Brookes University just a few weeks ago, the week before my friend John Wilson's memorial in Oxford.
Insofar as I have ever had one, Mike was my photography teacher. When I first moved from Bristol to a new job in Southampton in 1984, I decided to take a photography course run at the recently-opened Southampton branch of the Oxford Darkroom, which would teach the basics of developing film and making prints in a hands-on manner, and would culminate in an exhibition of participants' work.
We were a very mixed bunch that included a policeman, a teacher, a builder, and the various species of misfits that are familiar from any evening class environment. Mike would come down from Oxford to take our weekly classes, and he seemed very exotic to us, as he had only recently arrived from the USA. He was a small, dapper man, with cropped hair and a moustache and the sort of distinctive dress sense that led us stolid Brits to assume he was gay, which as far as I know he wasn't. He always wore highly-polished black leather lace-up shoes.
He was a very good, patient teacher. Our sessions in the darkroom were a revelation to me. He kept his own El-Nikkor enlarging lens in a pocket of his voluminous herringbone tweed overcoat, and would polish negatives vigorously between finger and thumb with a cloth before sliding the carrier into the enlarger, which made us gasp. I remember him showing us how to use our hands to paint with light to darken edges, and how to cup the light away from areas that would otherwise print too dark. Standard stuff, of course, but then so is learning to read.
I remember that year with great fondness. I set up my first darkroom in trays on the floor of an easily-darkened corridor of my flat between my bedroom and the living room, and hung my developed strips of film over the bath. Many nights I would print until the small hours. Going for a pee in the night could be hazardous, though, if I had been too tired to empty and wash the trays that evening. Looking at an old box of prints now, I find it hard to believe quite how bad they really are. Learning how to improve is a wonderful thing.
Mike and I got on well during the course -- our backgrounds and aspirations were not dissimilar, and I like to think it must have been clear that this was not a temporary enthusiasm on my part. At the exhibition that was the culmination of the course Mike took me aside and said some very kind things that convinced me I had started on a lifetime journey. After it was over, however, Mike went the way of all teachers (or perhaps I went the way of all students) and I never saw him again.
I knew he had started working as a technician at Oxford Brookes, and it appears he eventually made it onto the teaching staff. I get the feeling his career as a photographer never quite took off -- but then, whose does? -- but I do like the idea of Mike as a technician turning on successive generations of students to the skills and mysteries of the darkroom, and making them gasp as he burnished their precious negatives with a cloth from his pocket.