During the last couple of months I have gathered everything necessary to set up a small darkroom in my new house. Let me share my approach and thoughts about darkroom printing. What I will not tell you, though, is how many times you should shake your developing tank or how to make contact sheets, and there won’t be a guide to exposure test strips. There are dozens of websites and blogs that describe in detail how to develop film and enlarge prints in your own little home darkroom. You will find all that technical information and more there.
Back in Japan I had a darkroom I could use – but it was located inconveniently and equipped poorly. The best I could do was what I would optimistically describe as “experimental” prints. That is cool with me, though, and my Lifelines series is one of the results (e.g. the hand picture above). Same as with film photography (which, believe it or not, is dead), my approach to darkroom printing is a very private one. Unlike photographs I take on my digital camera or iPhone, which inevitably end up on my website, Ello, Instagram or facebook for everyone to be scrutinized (or worse: ignored), no-one sees my film photographs or my darkroom prints. That is, until much later – maybe. I don’t think about sharing the photos while taking or printing them. This way, it is like a personal journal in which you write without intention of showing it to anyone. It frees me up, and takes the pressure of being judged off my shoulders. Even if I don’t really feel the pressure, well, it is still kind of there.
Now, does this mean I won’t show the occasional print that I like? No. However, the many physical barriers from taking a photograph to developing the film to printing it in the darkroom to digitizing it and putting it out there automatically creates quite a comfortable distance between making my photos – and showing the photos. This distance also means time: time to physically spend with what I created. During this time I sometimes start getting bored with what I thought originally to be a good photograph. Or, on the contrary, something I had not noticed before becomes clear and interesting upon looking a second and third time. The accidents that happen when working freely in the darkroom, such as wrong exposures or screwed up dodging and burning play a big role in that. There is an inherent unpredictability which I embrace (and which technical perfectionists of course try to eliminate by keeping strict temperature and workflow protocols – the “correct” way of doing it, really).
In any case, this is a very different and much more messy experience than taking a photograph digitally, uploading it with a click of your mouse and being done with it.
Does darkroom work make you a better photographer?
No. Most photographs I shoot and print “the old way” are just as bad as my others. Shooting film does make me a lot poorer, but it does not make me become a better photographer. It is just a different medium. Just another medium to take the same old photos on. If anything, digital is the way to go if what you want is to improve as a photographer, because you can truly focus on the photograph itself. Film costs, developing costs, paper costs, time you have to invest to print – these all are no limitations in digital. I recommend getting an inkjet printer and printing your photographs: being able to do it with one click makes you look at the photograph itself, and no laborious process clouds your judgement (324626 hours spent in Photoshop not counting). We tend to attach more value to things that we have invested lots of time and money in, for that reason alone. Don’t forget that others will not see that time and money, only whether they are looking at a good photograph or not.
That being said, there is something about the way of working in the darkroom – the physicality of the process and the fact that you are forced to slow down – that beautifully balances out my way of working digitally. And it is just a lot more satisfying to print with light and chemicals.
If – on rare occasion – I do manage to pull a silver gelatin print that I like out of the chemistry, then I’m all the happier. Because I did not just have to press a button to get an inkjet print in endless copies, but actually had to use my hands. (And the shadow tones are just so beautiful).
Even if others don’t appreciate it, it makes me feel good. And don’t you agree that this is reason enough for me to continue locking myself into this crammed and tiny, dark room?
Finally, a few words about the set-up of my little darkroom.
This is what it looks like:
Basically, everything is crammed into my tiny bathroom, which luckily does not have any windows (and unfortunately no working ventilation either). I stack the chemical trays on a plastic shelf in the shower – can’t stress how great that setup is, because it does not matter if I spill anything and in the end I simply hose everything down.
The heart of my darkroom is a Durst M605 enlarger with Rodenstock Rodagon 80mm and one of Schneider-Kreuznach’s 50mm lenses (not the expensive one).
Lastly, developing black and white film looks like in this picture below. My developer of choice is HC-110 because of its shelf life, bang for the buck and because it is easier and healthier to dilute liquids than powders.
And that’s it. More than sufficient to be independent when it comes to black and white film photography and printing/enlarging. If you have any questions, feel free to write me a message or a comment right here.