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.