An Ode to Dimly-Lit Rooms

01Nov12

I stumbled upon an interesting photo website the other day. A British photographer produced a series of documentary photographs of the last professional darkrooms operating in Britain. The photos are from a couple of years ago, so it’s highly likely that many of the places depicted are now gone, analog victims of photography’s rush to digital technology.

The pictures got me to thinking about my own darkroom, a relic of the days when imagery was created by manipulating materials and chemistry rather than by pushing pixels around in Photoshop. Except for a period of about a year and a half (after purchasing a house twelve years ago), I’ve had a darkroom of some kind since 1979.

For photographers working with black-and-white analog materials, the photographic darkroom is where the final steps in the creative process take place. It’s a peaceful place, where you work under the dim amber glow of safelights, hearing the sound of running water and having the light-tight door closed to the rest of the world. Each photographer sets up their darkroom to fit their needs and working methods, so they tend to look less like laboratories and more like cluttered personalized workspaces.

My first darkroom was nothing more than an appliance cart carrying an enlarger and various chemical bottles, trays, and the like. This was wheeled into the basement bathroom when it was time to work. A folding TV tray fitted over the toilet provided space for three small print trays; the sink became a print washer. The space was tiny, and I couldn’t make any prints bigger then 5×7 inches, but this makeshift setup worked fine for my high school newspaper photography needs.

In college I wanted something larger and more permanent, and my grandmother graciously allow me to commandeer an unused room in the upper floor of her nearby home. This older home had a bathtub in one of the upper bedrooms—when the home was built, portable tubs were the norm, so when permanent ones came around, they tended to put them wherever they would fit. This was perfect for me; I could tap into the tub’s plumbing for my water supply and use the tub’s drain without having to install any new pipes.

Bedroom of older home used as darkroom. Paper covers the window. Bathtub provides necessary plumbing.

It was luxuriously large, measuring about 10 by 12 feet. I built a proper darkroom sink, large enough to hold all my print processing trays and put the print washer in the tub. For the next seven years or so, this was my private retreat from the world.

For someone aspiring to photographic craftsmanship, darkroom work teaches valuable lessons. The first is what I would call procedural discipline. Darkroom procedures follow a sort of recipe; things need to be done in the proper order, at the proper chemical temperature and in a consistent fashion. Without discipline, consistent, repeatable results can’t be achieved.

Cleanliness is another virtue learned in the darkroom. A frame of 35mm film is enlarged by a factor of eight to create an 8×10 inch print. Any dust, scratches, or fingerprints on the negative will likewise be enlarged. The photographer wanting to make flawless prints soon learns to keep everything spotlessly clean, as well as how to handle and store negatives with care.

Darkroom work also teaches patience, something that our instant digital age seems short on. The chemistry used in photographic processing only works so fast—trying to rush things almost always results in substandard work. You spend hours at the sink, watching images slowly appear on submerged paper while the tray is gently rocked. It helps to have a large collection of good music to play.

After moving into my first commercial photography studio, I built another darkroom, this one a bit smaller (7×10 feet) but still perfectly adequate for general commercial use. I was able to re-use the fixtures I’d built earlier; everything fit, the space was just a bit more compact than before.

Darkroom built in commercial loft space. Even though it was adjacent to a woodworking shop (you had to go through the shop to get to it), I never had problems with dust or dirt with this lab.

By 2002, I had moved into a small house and was doing professional digital imaging, but I still wanted a darkroom for my personal black-and-white work. This time, space was tighter still. The only suitable space to create a darkroom was a small “root cellar” room in my basement. This space, measuring about 40 square feet, was terribly cold in the winter and needed lots of cleanup and painting before it could be a suitable workspace.

Root cellar room in my basement. This space had to be thoroughly cleaned, painted and insulated before it could become a workable darkroom.

Using lumber recycled from the room’s shelving, I built an enlarger stand and an L-shaped sink that made the best use of the room’s size and shape. Styrofoam insulation on the outside walls and an electric heater make the room pleasant to work in during the cold months. Electrical outlets are mounted near the ceiling so they’re never near water sources. The room is set up so that I can turn the lights on from anywhere by reaching up and pulling on strings. Generous amounts of shelving allow all supplies and gear to be neatly stored out of the way. In some ways, this “pocket” darkroom is the most efficient and pleasant one I’ve used.

Compact darkroom. This space, measuring only about 40 square feet, works perfectly well for making prints up to 11×14 inches in size.

Today, though, it doesn’t get much use. Processing large-format negatives is about all I use the space for. The finished negatives end up in the scanner, turned into digital images that are then worked over in Photoshop. This “hybrid” imaging approach suits me—I can get the look that a large-format camera provides with the image control that Photoshop gives me. And with the water running and the music playing, it’s still the most peaceful place around.

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2 Responses to “An Ode to Dimly-Lit Rooms”

  1. 1 Dean Severson

    Nice post. You mentioned discipline in the learning process. Did you keep a notebook of the procedures and various parameters you used on each print or each batch of film you ran?

    • Hi Dean:

      Most of the work I did was by the book (Kodak’s guidelines). I had a three-ring binder with every tech sheet that came with all the film and paper products of the day. It was over an inch thick and was my darkroom Bible.

      Wayne


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