Friday, August 03, 2012

Darkroom Goodbye

No photo to offer my readers today, just thoughts. I spent the day clearing out the bathroom/darkroom in our old house. I haven't actually made any prints in it for probably 7 or 8 years. It had become more of  a store room during that time gathering all sorts of non-photographic "stuff". All the same it was a bit depressing to pack up the enlarger along with all the other paraphernalia. My darkrooms have always been makeshift affairs. In college I covered all the windows of our apartment with black plastic and worked at night to produce news photos for a local chain of papers. I finally quit when after 2½ years I figured out that I was netting all of 40¢ per hour between travel, shooting and printing minus expenses.

This latest darkroom was in a former (and now renewed) bathroom in an upstairs apartment that we chose not to rent out. I had at last acquired some decent equipment (a couple of pieces were better than decent) just about the time digital came on the scene. Although I still occasionally shoot B&W medium format film, I scan it and print digitally these days. In my estimation there is no reason whatever to shoot color film any more except perhaps to burn through any you have stashed in your freezer. The best color film scan can't match a good RAW file, it's not even close.

In spite of that, shutting down the darkroom formally was a bit of a downer for me. I have a lot of pleasant memories of working late into the night in my make-do darkrooms. For those who have never done it (and there seem to be a lot of you now) darkroom work has a very different quality than editing photos in the computer. Lest anyone feel ire at that, I'm using the word "quality" to mean a difference in kind rather than implying that one or the other is of greater value. I spent most my time in darkroom work doing it alone or in the company of my wife who assisted me with it in college. Printing in the darkroom was a withdrawal from the world to a darkened space, almost like retreating to a cave to meditate on and perfect the images. And once your got it right for any given photo, your job was to repeat it as many times as you needed to make the required number of prints, each exposed, dodged and burned to match the others as closely as possible.

No typing a number into a dialog and clicking the "Print" button to run off a batch while you grab a cola. Instead we had a direct and visceral communion with each print, handling each sheet of paper, pulling it from its light tight box and wrapper, placing it in the easel, making the exposure, watching it appear in the developer, following it through the wash and drying process. I was doing a lot of split filter printing on multi-contrast paper with separate dodging and burning to each of the two exposures for each print.

Perhaps those years in the darkroom are why I am sometimes uncomfortable with the relative ease of editing and printing digitally, a nagging feeling that I am relying too much on the software, the keyboard/mouse/stylus creating a barrier to the tactile relationship with each print that was intrinsic to the wet darkroom. Those of you who began photography after the digital revolution or who never printed your own work will never be thus troubled but for those with a past of chemical stained clothes and fingers there is a  lingering sense that we are somehow cheating when we print digitally, a sense that it isn't really us and our skill producing the final image.

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