Friday, October 29, 2010

Shedding Light on the Darkroom

I am, by nature, a solar powered creature of sun and light. Which makes the fact that I selected a fall hobby centered in a windowless room of pitch black darkness rather ironic. In truth, my enrollment in a black and white darkroom course was actually a mistake; I thought I signed up for digital photography, and even dropped the class during a period of indecisiveness early in the semester.

My decision to stay in the course was based on my assessment that it was an opportunity to have a rare encounter with a dying art. I got a taste of darkroom photography 8 years ago, and I wanted to have a chance to learn the process enough to do on my own, if I were to choose to pursue it one day. For the most part, I am glad I stayed with it, although the trade off of having less time to write is beginning to wear thin. I’ve invested all of the writing time I’ve had into work I’ve submitted to various publications, and I’m missing my blog.

Since my enrollment in the darkroom class has caused me to go, well, dark, on the blog, and since it occurred to me that a significant percentage of my readership may never have set foot in a darkroom, I thought I’d give a sneak peek at what I’ve been up to.

Darkroom work involves two separate chemical processes: developing film and making prints. Developing film—and, I should clarify that by “film” I mean professional T-Max Black and White 100 or 400 speed Kodak—involves everything you see pictured below:

It also involves five chemicals, an equal number of graduated measuring containers and a timer. But talking chemistry is a little premature because we haven’t even addressed getting the film out of the metal canister in which it’s rolled. That process requires a bottle opener, a pair of scissors, a reel, and a whole lot of patience. Anyone who has ever used film is aware of the fact that it is “erased” upon contact with light. Therefore, the film has to be transferred from its metal sheath and threaded onto the reel in complete darkness. The amount of time this takes can vary from a few minutes to infinity, depending on—but not limited to—factors varying from experience, luck, and type of reel.

Did I mention type of reel? Because it’s a pretty big factor. The reel on the right came free with the tank you see pictured above. It’s basically useless. The reel on the left? That beauty cost $20.00, and unless you find yourself in a situation where you’re being paid by the hour to roll film (in which case you’d find a secure daily wage in the right hand reel) this is one case where you don’t want to scrimp. See that wimpy wire clip across the middle of the right reel? Imagine having to pinch that clip with just the right amount of pressure in just the right spot to lift it just enough to catch and secure the tail of the film strip you’ve just pried from its canister. Keeping in mind, of course, that we’re in utter darkness. Lefty there is designed a bit differently, with two little pegs that hook into the notches that run along the side of the film. The goal is to thread the film along the ridges in the reel, without any part of the film touching itself. You either get it right or you don’t and you won’t really know until the chemical process is over and you have either a viable negative or a purple strip of crispy celluloid. So you just give it your best shot and then pop the reel in your light tight tank and hope for the best.

The chemical process is semi-stressful, partly because you know that if you didn’t thread your film properly, everything you’re about to do is a waste of time, and partly because you have to be watching the clock like a hawk. The lid of the tank is designed to allow fluids to be poured in and out without exposing the film, so the chemical processing can be done in the light. The first chemical is the developer, and depending on a number of factors, it’s in the tank between 9-12.5 minutes, during which you are agitating the tank in a slow hand-to-hand inversion for 5 seconds out of every 30. Four more chemicals will enter and depart the tank before the Big Reveal, each with their own time and agitation requirements, and each needing to be dumped out in its own vat, trough, or drain. You’re counting. You’re consulting your notes, repeating instructions to yourself. You’re focused.

Assuming the above process renders usable negatives, you’re ready to go back in the darkroom to make prints. There’s literally dozens of ways to print your negatives, and provided you have enough photo sensitive paper, chemicals, and knowledge, you could spend countless hours making varied prints from a single strip of negatives. Although this work is done in the darkroom, this time you are working beneath the dingy yellow glow of a filtered “safe light.” Your tools are a machine called an enlarger, which filters light through the negative and projects the image on photo paper, and three trays of chemicals.

The first 30 seconds of the chemical printing process is when the magic happens. This is the moment you’re in it for—the thrill of placing a white sheet of paper in a tray of fluid and witnessing a picture bloom before your very eyes. After a two minute thrill of seeing your work floating in the developer, you need to dip the image in a stop-bath solution to keep your picture from developing itself right out of visibility. Finally, it needs to soak in a fixer for 4 minutes, or else you’ll go back to look at your image in a few days and find a muddy brown mess in its place.

All this, and I haven’t even touched on dodging and burning techniques, spotting finished images, or the importance of studying your surroundings so you can safely crawl around on your hands and knees when groping for a key tool you sent sailing across the floor during the film rolling phase. It’s all pretty complicated, and, to be honest, I’ve barely been able to keep up with all of the assignments. I’ve also found that it’s hard to match my enthusiasm level from 8 years ago, primarily because back then, film was the standard—to know film was to know photography. Today, I know there’s faster and more efficient ways to get even better images. For me, the jury is still out on whether those ways are artistically equal or not. But for now? This creature of sun and light is just focused on getting the most out of a rare foray into the dark.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


Considering the record of deplorable banking history I have cataloged here in this forum, I feel it's only appropriate that I volunteer a financial report on the outcome of the auction I hosted in August.

Since my track record with mail only slightly rivals that of my banking acumen, I feel this report would have been stronger if I included a picture of the check all sealed in an addressed envelope, and perhaps one of the mailman carrying it away for good measure, but I didn't have the foresight. I promise, though, it was mailed!

In Other News:

My photography class is still pretty fun, but there are signs that I'm ready to move on. I'm missing the writing time, and bolstering my resolve to get some big projects off the ground. I'm also tossing around some ideas about a significant blog makeover, but nothing concrete yet. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Note-able Encounter

My husband spotted him first. “Is that guy playing a violin over there?” he asked, indicating a thin strip of median at the entrance of a busy Walmart parking lot.

I rolled down a window, hoping to catch a note or two as traffic paused at a red light. Faint strains of hauntingly beautiful music intermixed with the crisp evening air that wafted in the minivan.

The decision to turn around was unanimous. My daughter fished around in her pockets to find a couple bills for us to toss in the man’s violin case as we paused in a vacant lot for a moment to just listen. While the guy’s arms worked the violin, his foot powered a homemade percussion instrument fashioned from a rusty midsized tin can. The minstrel played on, pausing only to accept a steady stream of bills offered through the windows of passing cars and to shake the hand of a homeless man who emerged from the shadowy side of a fast food joint to offer thanks for the dinner music.

I exited the car and crossed the street to hand deliver my offering. As I approached, the man met my gaze. He was young, friendly, and stopped playing to greet me and thank me for stopping. I told him his music was beautiful, and to my surprise he extended his hand and slipped me a gift of his own—a CD in a blank white envelope. “My brother plays with me on this,” he explained. “He added a bit of guitar.”

I thanked the musician, clutched the CD to my chest and ran back to my van. “He gave me a CD!” I called excitedly. We opened the envelope and popped the disk into the sound system and listened in fascination as the van swelled with the sound of…speed metal.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Search and Rescue

If your life is anything like mine, then chances are you’ve seen your fair share of things go MIA--items that were ,mere moments ago, so tangibly there and then simply weren’t.

Occasionally, a good round of Deep Cleaning will unearth a fugitive bauble or two—at my house, a notable swipe beneath the stove recently brought several cat toys, an errant pay stub, and an old Christmas cookie to justice. But most of the time? There’s no turning back for that stuff that just seemed to hit the highway.

I’ve always had a hard time accepting that something could be here one minute and gone the next. In fact, I did an entire blog series back in ’07 exploring the mysteries of a missing egg salad sandwich, some stray lunch meat, and a blue striped sheet that failed to return from a living room deployment to a Flu Zone. These things just don’t disappear, I reasoned. And that garbage everyone always tosses around about how it “must have been thrown away” is just plain rubbish.

Which is probably why I’ve spent so much time recently trying to chase down some of my wayward dreams and ambitions. After all, any woman who logs time in search of a queen sized bed sheet isn’t likely to give up her own passions without a fight. So I’ve been making a concentrated effort to figure out what ever happened to this big writing dream of mine and to figure out what ever happened to some projects that somehow vaporized straight out of my here and now and into the unknown .

So I’ve been writing—just not here. I’ve submitted some pieces and dusted off an old manuscript. In the meantime, weeks have now passed and my blog--that was, so recently, part of my here and now—seems to have disappeared from the public eye. A handful of friends and a few family members have made inquiries into the dormant state of this forum, particularly in light of the fact that I instituted a Friday Photo School and went AWOL after a single lesson. (More about that in a moment.)

Outside of my close circle, I’m not really sure how many people have listed my blog on their personal roster of MIA mysteries. And in many ways that’s really the point. See, I’ve had this blog for more than five and a half years, but if anyone other than my real life friends, family, and acquaintances read it, I didn’t know about it until about a year ago. That’s because last fall I made a calculated decision to build the blog in hopes of having one of those elusive literary success stories wherein a blogger garners enough of a following to convince a publisher to take a chance on a book deal. I enjoyed the building process and the people I’ve met along the way--but came to realize several months ago that the blog-to-book route to publishing probably wasn’t the path destined for me. And with that being the case, I knew that I couldn’t invest all of my writing time in a pursuit that, though enjoyable, wasn’t bringing me closer to my writing dreams.

As far as Friday Photo School…that got foiled when I showed up for class clutching my digital camera only to discover that I was enrolled in a black and white darkroom course. I thought I could cull enough usable information on basic photography—composition, camera settings, etc—to make a go of the series anyway, but the truth is I spent the first two weeks of class trying to decide if I should drop it, and the next couple trying to catch up after I did drop the course and subsequently reenrolled. Staying in the class was a good call on several fronts, but the truth is I spend most of my class time fiddling with an enlarger and dabbling in various chemicals, which is a lot of fun but does not translate easily into useful information for my fellow photography enthusiasts who don’t have access to a darkroom.

I’ve decided that staying in the class was a good thing, even though it has compromised my focus and shortened my writing time. But even as tangible images are becoming visible through the magic of the darkroom, a more elusive picture has been developing as well. Like the visual stories emerging in fluids before my very eyes, an abandoned fictional outline from my past has come to life once again inside my mind. Even though I am still struggling to find regular stretches of writing time, I’ve made more progress on that project than I have in 8 years.

And as far as the blog? I’ll admit to having no real idea how or if it fits in with my search for new publishing venues, but I’ve missed it enough over recent weeks to know it’s still part of my story—even if it can’t be the whole story. But, as I mentioned earlier, I enjoy it. So I decided to stop for a bit to breathe some life into this little outlet of mine. I don’t really know how many readers will find me again, but if you do, I hope you’ll take a minute to say hi. Searching is tedious work and I’d find some friendly faces encouraging.


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