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Camera Work: A Day In The Darkroom

 The Darkroom. Not quite extinct yet, but getting there! For many practicing photographers today, the darkroom is foreign; indeed, Adobe calls it’s second generation Photo editing software Lightroom, because processing happens with the room lights on. Or at least, can operate in full room light.

Last week, I took up the notion of Digital vs Analog photography, so a discussion of processing in one or the other, or both is appropriate. I won’t be including Lightroom; it’s decidedly different, and does not require a print as it’s goal. Analog photography does.

Analog photography requires a darkroom, no two ways about it. So what is it? For me, it was an 8’x10′ room, with a long sink on one wall and a long bench on the other, holding an enlarger, basically a camera in reverse. Projector is another way of thinking about it. Quite precise in it’s operation. You can see it in the photograph above, the author sitting on the darkroom stool, the darkroom framing the view.

The room serves two related functions, the first being the production of negatives from which the second function, the production of prints, derives. Now I insisted on doing both myself, even though processing the negative became routine and could be done by an automated lab. I insisted on doing both, because the final result, the print, is dependent on exactly what is on that negative. However, I’ll skip that element here for the time being anyway and go straight to printing.

Let’s get one, no two things out of the way immediately. First, the darkroom isn’t really dark, trying to print without actually seeing what’s going on would be vastly more difficult. So there is a light on. You can see the fixtures in the photo on the ceiling . Second, movies always show this process under a red light, which, in the early days, was red. By the time I began to print, about 1959, red went away in favor of a brownish yellow light, allowing vastly better visibility, yet dim enough to not to interfere with print quality. We refer to this as a safe light, safe for using around print materials.

Printing is related to cooking. It’s a time/temperature physical and chemical process, the principal ingredient being silver. Cooking with silver.

The sink is central. When one spends time in the darkroom, it is spent mostly bent over the sink, watching the process unfold. Your hands are wet. Water slowly and steadily runs in the sink, at a constant temperature of 68°f (20°C). The sound is not unlike being around running water in a garden fountain, rather soothing and conducive to zoning in on the print.

There is an odor about it as well, mostly a faint vinegar odor. Three chemicals minimum are needed to process a print, acetic acid being one of them. Vinegar, in other words.

The day starts out in evaluating the negatives chosen to print, usually in a light table, sometimes simply holding them up against the light. Evaluating negatives is a long learning process. The goal is to decide on the particular process procedure necessary to obtain adequate results without too much trial and error. In my case, the result being sought is what is referred to as a fine print, a term derived from the concept of fine art.

We could write a whole book over the concept of fine printing. Examining the details of individual photographer’s methodology and materials choices shows an almost bewildering range of opportunities to get there, both a blessing and a curse! Ansel Adams mastered it, and helped define it’s meaning, providing a tool to master it. It is the basis of my process.

Two fundamental quantities need to be established. In printmaking, the process being the same as taking a picture. One exposes the sensitive material to the image, this time being the negative to the paper. So one needs to know how long to expose the paper and how long to spend in the developer.

Expose, Develop, Fix. The three steps in printing. One spends nearly a lifetime mastering these simple steps; the self-mastery necessary to understand the nature of a fine print and the changing nature of the materials themselves.

The paper, the chemicals and you.

There is a large part of the time required in the finishing of the print. Once the print is in the fixer, the room lights are turned on. Decisions about the look, complicated by the fact that, in water, the print looks different than it will look when dried. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that, in the water, you will see the print in a way no one else will ever see it, and frankly, I loved it best then. I hated the thought of it’s look after the print is dried. We call it “drying down”, with the painful connotations of the phrase exact.

After the fix step, the paper needs to be washed and chemically neutralized so that maximum stability be achieved. If it isn’t finished correctly, darkening and staining will result.

One additional step is frequently employed which is toning. Sepia toning is common especially for portraits. It can also prolong the life of the print. I generally do that for the life extension. Finally, the prints are air dried, then collected and placed under weighted heavy cardboard to flatten, as the drying produces curls in the paper stock.

I’ve saved the part about developing last, even though it is first, because it actually is the most exciting time in the darkroom. The negative is placed in the enlarger, the size of the print determined, a piece of photo paper is exposed, then transferred to the developer. It is blank white, and for a few moment, doesn’t change. It’s still white. Tick-tock, tick-tock. Nothing’s happening. No wait! There it is! A slight change showing up. C’mon, let’s see more Yes! There it is! An image! The magic still works! Is it enough? Too much? Groan! Not good. Back to the enlarger, make a change. Try again. Yep, on the right track. Into the fixer. Turn on the lights. At that point, it’s either there or it’s not. You might even decide the image isn’t worth pursuing. Boring, really. But sometimes, the opposite happens. A revelation. There it is. Now all we have to do is repeat it over and over to generate a set of final images. Not all of them make it.

After 40 years, no longer have a darkroom. I sort of miss it, but then, digital has it’s own nature requiring mastery, again of the materials, processes and you. I have a vastly larger range of control which in the analog days, could only be imagined as possibilities. No regrets about the end of the darkroom. It’s lessons, still is part of me doing digital, still providing me my inner voice, prodding me along the way to a final result, this time in pixels.

What I do miss is the magic.

Photo by Jerome Hart

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Lawrence Hudetz

Lawrence Hudetz