My computer is down now, going through an upgrade. So for the next week or so, I am without a darkroom. I’m wondering how many of you remember the days when a darkroom was actually a dark room and not a computer? Or perhaps you are one of the few, the lonely, who still use a wet darkroom. I imagine there are very many, probably even the majority, photographers who have never even seen a real darkroom, let alone processed film or prints in one.
I do have nostalgia for my wet darkroom days. Back then, I shot with black and white film, usually Kodak TMax, and color slide film (Velvia or various versions of Kodak Extachrome). I don’t really miss shooting with film – I like being able to bracket and experiment with digital without having to worry about the cost of film and processing (though I’ve probably replaced those costs with camera and computer upgrade costs); I like being able to see instantly if a shot works on the back of the camera. But I do sometimes miss working in the darkroom, watching a print magically change from a blank sheet of paper to a photograph, or pulling a roll of film out of its developing can and seeing the negatives for the first time.
Processing film and producing prints in a wet darkroom was a much more sensory experience than working on a computer. And working in the dark, either in complete darkness or in the glow of a dim red safelight, enhanced.the sensory experience. With limited sight, the smells, feels, and sounds of the darkroom came alive. There was the unique smell of the developer or the vinegary smell of stop bath; the smooth feel of the paper and film, both wet and dry; the sound of the enlarger humming, the timer ticking, or the water running. And though the light was dim, there was plenty to see – the negative image (or color slide) projected by the enlarger, the neon green glow of the moving hands on the timer, and, as mentioned above, images slowly appearing from nothingness in the developer tray.
There was so much more activity too. Today, with computers, processing an image physically involves using a keyboard and mouse. But in the wet darkroom days, you loaded film into a development canister (in complete darkness) by breaking open the film canister, cutting the tapered end of the film off with scissors, threading the film onto a development reel (trying hard to make sure it’s threaded properly so each wrap of film doesn’t touch its neighbors – and never knowing for sure if you did it right or not until the development was complete!), placing the reel into the development tank, and piecing the tank back together (hopefully correctly) so that it was light tight. There was the pouring of chemicals in and out of the development tank, rolling the tank back and forth on a table top to slosh the film and agitate the chemicals. There was the washing of the film, and pulling it out of the tank for your first look to see if it was developed properly and if you messed up on your exposure settings. And finally, hanging the film to dry, using a hook on top and a small weight on the bottom to keep it from curling.
Similarly, printing was much more of an activity than sticking a piece of paper in a printer and pressing a button on a computer. There was loading the film or slide into a negative holder and placing that in the enlarger, moving the enlarger head up and down to get the right size for the print, focusing the enlarger (peering through a special little scope gadget to make sure the film grain was in focus), adjusting the print easel, calculating exposure times, setting the f-stop on the enlarger and setting the timer, practicing the printing prior to putting paper in the easel, placing the paper on the easel, turning on the enlarger, conducting dodging and burning with wands or holes cut out of cardboard, and slipping the paper into its chemical baths.
Before the days of digital, it was impossible to create totally identical prints when printing from the same negative. Small differences in timing of dodging and burning, timing in the developer bath, the age of the chemicals, etc. all conspired to make each print unique.
Those days are gone for me now. All that equipment was sold for pennies on the dollar or given or thrown away. Today, I process and print many more images in much less time, without dumping gallons of toxic chemicals down the drain. That’s progress I guess. But on these days when my computer is down, thinking back on those hours in the darkness does bring back some fond memories.