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.
This is an excerpt taken from my last LETTER – my monthly newsletter about visual arts, photography and Japan. If you’ve already subscribed to it you’ll know this, but still feel free to discuss in the comments 🙂
Did you ever think about what the difference between Art and Craft is? Can craft be art? Does art require craft? And where does photography fit into this? I’ve been thinking about that after listening to a conversation on On Taking Pictures that contained more thoughts than fit easily into my brain. I’m rather slow at “getting” things.
Emotion – one key element?
Photography arguably is a craft, as in you have to use the camera’s settings skilfully to get a decent picture. But then, it also isn’t because many cameras allow you to merely press a button to get a picture, and I don’t see any craft in that. One can carefully craft a picture by taking all the settings in their own hands, and by crafting the composition etc. – or, on the other hand, one can come up with a wonderful photograph with a point and shoot camera, without crafting anything. And we’re not even including printing in the discussion here.
So, what is the difference between craft and art? Both, a well-crafted as well as a point-and-shoot’ed photograph, can be art, and both can not be art. A well crafted photograph, tack-sharp, perfectly exposed and composed, maybe using the latest gear, but that I still would never consider “art” is what I see more as a rule than an exception these days. It satisfies gear affectionados, but doesn’t really stir any emotions. “Emotion” – one key element of art?
Another element I thought important for some time might be “intent,” “vision,” or some kind of concept: “What do you want to say?”
But then, I know many renowned art photographers – especially Japanese – just shoot and do that thinking/intentional part much later. And many others come up with meticulously planned concepts for a photograph and go through greatest efforts to produce an image that often seems way too planned out, way too conceptional, and rather tedious.
And then there are big artists like Magnum photographer Antoine d’Agata, who is very conscious about wanting to eliminate every single bit of consciousness when creating his photographs, numbs all thinking with drugs, gives his middle finger to all technical aspects of photography and acts from a very primal, unconscious place.
Antoine’s exhibition is on in Tokyo right now, by the way, and I admit that if I hadn’t kind of “befriended” him over the course of the last year, and as a consequence hadn’t learnt about his backstory as well as hear him talk about his work, I would have easily disregarded his photography as artsy-fartsy merely controversial “stuff” without much to it. I still don’t get my head around his photographs, but I know now that I don’t have to – and that they aren’t digested easily, but instead encapsulate something rooted very deeply.
Being called an “artist”
So, you see, I still can’t get my head around this whole arts thingy, and that is probably also the reason why I feel very uncomfortable with people calling me an artist – which sometimes happens – God knows why – and which always makes me feel pretty phoney.
Being called a craftsman is nice, because it implies you do something very well. What does being called an artist imply?
Tell me, will I ever have to understand all that artsy stuff to be able to create something that can be called “art” by someone some time and NOT make me feel pretentious? I guess you’ll only know after the act. Or what do you think?
Addition (July 3rd): Beautiful follow-up/write-up on this ongoing conversation by Kristopher Matheson. Well, I think we arrived more or less at the conclusion that it does not matter what is art when making your works, but that conclusion comes with a big chunk of content hiding under the surface, iceberg like.
The year 2013 comes to an end – a good time to look back and reflect, and also to look forward to what 2014 will bring. You are probably doing some kind of reflection for yourself, as well. If not, I encourage you to do so: Sometimes you’ll discover something quite surprising.
Personally, this year has been a very exciting one for me, and I’m very satisfied.
Most recently – as you have noticed for sure – I launched my monthly-or-so newsletter, THE LETTER. It is one step towards a more direct and human connection to all the great people out there who care, and I already love the fact that so many of my subscribers wrote me an email after I sent out the first LETTER a week ago. It’s exactly the kind of personal contact I cherish and it is what I feel is sometimes missing in the fast-paced social media world. The more the merrier, so if you’re interested just sign up unconditionally at holgerferoudj.com/newsletter – I’ll send you the latest issue and – only if you want – a handwritten postcard until end of January (I have about 25 left so be quick, haha).
Other than the newsletter, a lot has happened, like the launch of this website itself, which was only this year. Seems much longer ago, I agree. Now that I’ve had some time settling in I got to know the weak spots and strong spots of this website, but what do you think? If there’s something about the website that confuses you or that you don’t like, don’t hesitate to let me know.
Then, there was the Tokyo exhibition in collaboration with rina song in the beginning of 2013. A combination of her wonderful painting and my photography, and thanks to her talent the result was quite stunning. I’ll upload some photos soon, or send them out through THE LETTER, so you can see for herself.
And then I started working part-time for the Magnum Photos Tokyo office and won’t even start to tell how many amazing encounters and experiences I have made there so far. Super grateful. A dream come true.
The last big change I want to mention is my effectively complete switch to the Fujifilm X-Series and more specifically the Fujifilm X-Pro1. It’s no exaggeration to say I fell in love with this camera. Sure, we have a fight every once in a while, especially when it takes its time focusing in dark situations, but overall I’m still head over heels months after laying my hands on it for the first time. And the reason I love it so much is not even the stunning image quality so much as how it changed the way I approach photography. More raw, more straight out of camera, closer connection to my sujet (and also to the camera, I used to be an aperture priority guy, but am shooting now almost exclusively manual). My friends are rolling their eyes whenever I talk about Fujifilm again, “Dude, stop it already!” – I know I know, sorry, but it’s so good.
2014, what bringest thee?
I asked the stars, and they told me that next year is going to rock big time. Right now I’m taking advantage of being out of Japan in blissful isolation and am in the shooting process for a new small, slow and quiet project, that I hope to finish editing and publishing by February.
The book I’m working on is making good progress, as well, and I’m grateful to learn a lot about the craft from Germans who know what they are doing. Germany, after all, seems to have deep roots in bookmaking history. I still have mixed feelings, though, to tell you the truth, because I can be quite rebellious at the core and this recent bookmaking craze is turning me off a bit – but worry not, I’ll make it unique.
And lastly, you can look forward to an updated portfolio soon. My work has shifted focus a bit and there’s the one or other thing I don’t want to put out there yet, but I’m working hard to narrow down on a good representation. I’m trying not to sweat this one. It’s hard, really really hard… and painful. Basically, I have hundreds of small prints of a pre-selection of photographs from 2013 that found a way into my heart for totally subjective reasons, and now I’m eliminating prints one by one, a ruthless selection process that is cruel and hard and exhausting. To be frank, I’m starting to hate all of my photographs, there’s still such a long way to go. There are moments I just want to throw the towel… but I won’t, it’s necessary to stick to it. I give myself two more days. Two more days. Then it’s time to close the door for a while.
Yes, you. How was your year 2013? What are your plans for next year? I’m really curious, so if you feel like it write me a mail or a comment 🙂
Wherever you are, thank you so much for stopping by my blog and reading my newsletter. Happy New Year and be careful with those fireworks!
You hopefully haven’t noticed, but I am very productive these days. Because I share less. I went down the black hole and came back.
Let me elaborate just a tiny bit.
In part one of this post I was talking about one half of the Yin and Yang of the creative process — ideas – and the importance of giving them space to incubate and develop. We also established that imitation is not inspiration, but often these two words are used interchangeably. Today in part two I want to talk about taking action.
Memory is always biased. And memory is something very organic, changing, breathing, living. It is far from a static piece of information, stored away in some folder of your brain. Yet many people think that’s exactly what it is.
In fact, the more you try to remember something, the more this memory might change from how things really were. With every recollection, you are more and more convinced that what you could barely remember at first really happened the way you remember. Your memories become your past, your life.