At the risk of sounding like an aging curmudgeon yearning for a yesteryear I was never actually a part of, the darkroom stood at the center of photographic life from the art form’s inception until sometime in the past ten years, or sometime thereabout. For as long as negatives were made on photosenstive materials, a darkroom of some sort was needed to turn that negative into a real photograph.
The digital revolution has relegated the darkrooom to the background. Public darkrooms, once so prominent in cities across the world both large and small, have shuttered (no pun intended) their doors at a depressing rate. Even in film friendly cities like Portland, Oregon great photographic institutions like uDevelop–and its historic darkroom, which was used by countless artists and photojournalists of the past–has shut down.
Even in film shooting circles the hybrid workflow is king, something which confuses me to no end. With that said, darkroom printing remains a viable option for all film shooters. This is first post in a short series on the darkroom, which I hope will
What is a darkroom?
Simply put, a darkroom is a dark space used for the development of photosensitive materials. In practice, this means that just about any room that can be made adequately dark can serve as a darkroom; a bathroom, a large closet, a pantry, the trunk of a car, a bus, or even a Land Rover.
Ok, so what do I need to get started in the darkroom?
Ideally, a darkroom is a space where a photographer and printer can take his or her exposed film, develop it and enlarge or contact print it onto photographic paper. This means a room with electricity and plumbing, for starters. It also means adequate space for the main tools needed to make prints:
- An enlarger
- A lens
- An easel
- A grain focuser
- A timer
- At least three trays
- Silver Gelatin paper
Darkrooms also have at least one safelight, a magical light source that helps you see what you’re doing without damaging the photo they’re working on. These lights are usually amber or red, because photographic paper, being orthochromatic, does not see certain wavelengths of light. That’s a really boring way of saying that a safelight will not expose (or fog) the paper when used correctly. If you’re having a hard time imagining what I’m talking about, watch any movie from the 80s or 90s where a photo was printed, that’s the safelight.
That seems like a lot of stuff, however–and I want to underscore this again– you don’t have to have tons of space to set up a darkroom. Your darkroom doesn’t even need to be a dedicated darkroom. And even if you do have a dedicated darkroom, it doesn’t have to have everything going for it right away. My previous home darkroom was a very small space I converted on the side of my house. It didn’t have plumbing, so I rigged my shower to run a print washer and washed prints in the tub after they’d been fixed.
Was it ideal? no Did it work? Of course it did. It worked great.
You can also keep things like paper and chemistry in whatever space is availble to you if your darkroom isn’t dedicated. You just need to find a place that won’t get too hot (paper and chemistry don’t like extreme heat) and isn’t exposed to a lot of direct sunlight.
What matters is that you can expose silver gelatin paper in a light tight space and process it with photographic chemicals.
Breathing in a room full of chemicals
Finally–and this is really, really important–you must have a way to ventilate your darkroom. The open trays you’ve just filled up with chemistry are going to put off some fumes while you’re printing and it’s a very bad idea to trap yourself in a room with them for hours on end, unless of course you’re a fan of neurological and breathing disorders.
Okay, that’s a bit melodramatic. The chemistry used to make prints isn’t that toxic but it’s still not great for you, especially if you’re printing on a regular basis. And I hope by the end of this series you will want to print on a regular basis.
The basic idea here is to fully replace the air in your room over the course of a printing session. That means getting fresh air in and having a fan take air out. Something like this:
This is one reason bathrooms make such a great makeshift darkrooms; they almost always have a ventilation fan installed. In the past, there were companies that made really nice, light tight darkroom fans. You can still find these on craigslist and ebay, or from your favorite online photo retailer, but the truth is a higher powered bathroom fan will do the job.
In the next few posts of this series, I’ll dig a little deeper into choosing an enlarger, choosing chemistry, and talk a little more about why I think the print is so damn important in photography. If you have any other topics you want covered in this series, drop me a line and I’ll be happy to oblige.