In the past couple of weeks, I have be reconsidering some of my assumptions about working in the darkroom vs. working digitally. This sounds like a re-hash of the kinds of arguments that would appear on internet photography forums in 2006, but it’s not.
I am whatever the opposite of a luddite is. I made a commitment to using a computer with my work a very long time ago. I have invested more in digital camera equipment in the last six years than the current value of my car(s).
One of the reasons for going digital was believing that I didn’t have time, or energy, for being in the darkroom.
In the last month, though, I have been back in the darkroom. I am not sure that it is necessarily harder than working with a digital camera.
Maybe it’s the specific conditions under which I get to work. I am lucky to teach at a community college where we have a large gang darkroom. Crist Dahl, our department’s amazing technician, usually opens up the darkroom and puts out fresh chemistry each morning. I am not involved with setting up trays for my own work, they are blissfully waiting for me when i am ready to get motivated. Better yet, we are only running one section of darkroom photography lately. That is terrible news for our program, but it is great news for being an instructor who wants to use the space. There isn’t a lot of competition for enlarger space from students.
I am not making a huge number of images on film. A roll of film, or maybe two, a week. With a digital camera, I might burn through twice as many images in an afternoon. I can drop into the darkroom and have those two rolls developed in forty-five minutes or less. There is a little more time involved in cutting up the negatives and putting them away. Downloading a card full of images into Adobe Lightroom takes about as long. That includes taking the time to back up images on multiple drives and adding keywords and metadata to the images.
Making contact sheets is something that I put off for another day. It is something that one wouldn’t have to do with digital files. It also doesn’t take very long.
Now that I have a bunch of years of experience, I don’t make the same stupid mistakes that my students make. I’ve settled on a film and a developer, I’m pretty good at making exposures. Everything is really consistent. I am fairly certain I could walk down to my favorite enlarger with a new set of negatives, set the enlarger head to nineteen inches off the baseboard, set the aperture to f11.5 and expose the contact sheet for seven seconds, and have a contact sheet that is just fine. Contact sheets add, at most, twenty minutes to the process.
I also find that my standards are a little more realistic in the darkroom. I am pressed for time, and I am more interested in seeing the images that I am making than in making really fine prints. So I have been making really quick prints on RC paper. The prints are usually about a half stop off, and a little flat or contrasty. The mistakes are ok right now. Someday, there will be time to go back and make good prints in the darkroom. For now, crummy work prints are good enough.
However, I’d never put up with those mistakes working digitally. I’d overwork and overthink those images and they’d never make it out of the computer. No print would ever be good enough, when it should be so “easy” to make the prints perfect.
Most importantly, slowing down in the darkroom is really satisfying. I spend all day at the computer doing my job. When I’m not on the computer, I have a smart phone in my hand. It is killing me. Both in the sense that my health is suffering, and in the sense that my brain is completely scattered and I am losing the ability to concentrate.
Working in the darkroom means no screen time. At best, I can listen to music or a podcast. I can’t really answer emails or text messages without ruining the print I am developing. I stand. The whole time. My body is as engaged as my brain and fingers in creating images.
Beyond that physical engagement in the darkroom, I get the time to think about the work I am making. There is an opportunity to reflect, slowly, on what is working and what isn’t. Instead of berating myself, I think through new strategies and possibilities.
Best of all, on a really good day in the darkroom, it’s as if an older version of me shows up to help. I meet a version of me who, at 16 or 18 was really fascinated by images. I stop worrying whether or not a 35mm camera is good enough to use at this stage in my career, or feeling bad that I am making an 8x10 print on RC paper. I just re-connect with a joy in seeing images appear on a piece of paper floating in a tray of chemicals.