The darkroom was often a "safe place" to create and work in solitude.
Many hours of my life were spent in a quiet, isolated, inspiring, and at times challenging environment of a darkroom. It was a place away from the "outside world," a shelter from the multitudes of "naysayers" we often encounter on a daily basis. What could be more pleasant or more stimulating than being self-confined to an almost lightless room, inhaling toxic fumes, and dripping harsh chemicals on one's self ?.
The magical moment when an image would first appear during development usually made my efforts worth while. At the least until all the flaws became apparent. There was always that "unknown," that element of surprise. Was the paper exposed long enough under the enlarger? Was the aperture set correctly? Did I manage to keep my fingers away from the surface? Then of course, the perpetual challenge, did I manage to keep dust particles off of the negatives?
Many years ago while attending an opening luncheon for doctoral students, we were greeted by a prestigious guest speaker who was carrying a rather large "cumbersome" briefcase. He addressed various issues related to our anxiety regarding the pursuit of our possible degree. At one point, he opened the briefcase and proceeded to expose what appeared to be a manual "typewriter."
"This device is my old typewriter, " he stated as he placed the typewriter on the podium in front of the audience. "When I struggled through my dissertation, I had to depend on this!" "If I made a mistake or was required to produce a rewrite, I had to return to the beginning of the specific section and start all over." "Unfortunately a mistake could take hours or days or more to correct."
Dust particles on negatives were similar to writing errors within a document, one often had to start all over or attempt to retouch the image. Printing an 11x14 inch photograph and then discovering several scattered dust marks was an unfortunate experience. This was especially the case if the photographs were intended for display. Retouching attempts often resulted in more than obvious errors, becoming an annoying and frustrating personal obstacle to "perfection."
My "Life in the dark" began when I was 17 and had just graduated from high school. I worked on the school yearbook where I developed a passion for photography. This passion would become a life-long "friend." In my search for learning more, I discovered a "non-accredited " school in Manhattan, located on a lower floor of the Empire State Building. It was an interesting and informative program experience designed to encourage students to understand photography and explore the possibilities at their own pace. Six professional photographers were available to assist students in their elected assignments. On many of the walls were posted large charts indicating the various choices,
subject areas and related assignments. Lighting, Camera work, Commercial, Fashion, Table-top, Portraiture, and Film Development appeared among others. The experience was very similar to that of an "internship," students focused learning on their own interests and abilities. Completion of all assignments was required, but they could be pursued in any order. The student made the choice and completed the assignment with as much assistance and time as necessary. This made the curriculum interesting and individualized. The element of competition did not exist, both students and teachers assisted one another. This approach worked quite well, as the students made their own choices and would often repeat assignments if they chose to improve their skills in a particular area.
There were two darkrooms, one for film development, and one for printing. We were provided with assorted cameras and lenses within the studios and often worked with large format including 5 by 7 inch and 8 by 10 inch sheet films. The darkroom for film development was essentially black with the exception of a very dim green light. The film being used at the time was "panchromatic" and some of the preparation for development was accomplished in complete darkness. We were using large sheet film as described and loading each sheet into rectangular developing tanks in total darkness. In order to identify the film and the emulsion side (the light sensitive side) there were little notches cut into the corners of the film sheets. It took a great deal of practice to be able to identify the emulsion, handle the film without touching the surface, and place it into the tanks properly.
The photo-printing room was of course much more manageable as a red light was permitted and one could navigate with ease around the space. Both rooms took some time to get accustomed to and understand the various stations etc. There was one gentleman from Texas who enrolled in the program. He was quite talented and serious about his "studies." After one three day weekend the Texan returned to the darkroom to print several portraits. An hour or two later he decided to take a break. I was able to see and hear him as he walked past me and into the narrow corridor that led to the exit.
In order to reach the exit one was required to make a turn just outside of the main darkroom space. Unfortunately the gentleman continued to walk straight into a plaster wall. This resulted in a loud "thump" and considerable cursing with a Texas accent. Though fortunately not seriously injured, he proceeded to holler at the staff, insisting that the wall was not in that location a few days earlier. He claimed that the wall was placed in that space over the past weekend! At 17 I stayed away from the "line of fire" but I still remember him hollering at the staff for sometime later.
My "favorite" darkroom came to exist many years later, one that I had constructed into a third of my kitchen. I built a temporary wall that divided the kitchen into 2/3's of the original space. I was fortunate to have had a wonderful friend and "land-lady" at the time, "Rose," who was the mother of one of my close friends. She gave me the permission to construct this space. It was a comfortable darkroom that included all the luxuries of home. I installed a small air conditioner, a landline, safelight, and even a small television. I placed red acetate over the screen so the light from the T.V. image would not expose the photo paper.
In this space I worked for my many hours, especially on the weekends. I was studying and practicing Tai Chi at the time and was frequently "recruited" to photograph Master Ahn for a book he was compiling. In exchange for my work I would often print photos for 6, 7, or 8 hours in an effort to meet his "deadline." Most of the photographs consisted of Ahn himself demonstrating the various moves that combined into Chang style Tai-Chi. It was a positive experience that helped me to speed up my ability to develop and print photographs. Master Ahn was also a philosopher, fine artist and a professor who I first met in college, He influenced my understanding of Yin and Yang in art and in my life. He assisted many people, young, and old. to find their "center," and strive for both mental and physical success.
The image above is a fairly accurate representation of the darkroom I first discovered in the "Woods." I inherited the space from several predecessors and fine former teachers who retired as I began my work there. For several years I privately referred to the space as "Das Boot." It reminded me of the film I had recently seen, and was reminiscent of a narrow windowless, poorly lit, claustrophobia inducing submarine. Somehow hundreds of my students learned about and experienced darkroom work in this unlikely space, to this day some have become professional photographers and journalists.
Both comedy and sadness occurred within those cinder-block and plywood walls. One student became lost in the space and started shouting for help! Another was unable to participate despite several "tries" because he was unable to fit through the narrow maze-like entranceway. One of my somewhat sad memories involved a misinterpretation of directions. I will discuss this misinterpretation soon in an upcoming blog entry "The Pinhole."
My first cameras were an 8mm Keystone and a great big box containing a tiny Kodak Brownie "Holiday Flash" and all the equipment necessary for lighting and film development. I recall jumping for joy when I viewed my first self-processed image including fingerprints, dust marks, and faded grey edges! The joy of my chemical darkroom work had begun!