I have a darkroom built into a tiny windowless spare kitchen at my family home in Washington state. It took nearly ten years to collect the equipment, lightproof the room, and seek out all of the necessary supplies and chemicals, but it is finally up and running. My father worked as a sports photographer in the late 1960s and to him capturing the magic action shot that tells a story is key. The development process that takes place in a darkroom was always a means to an end, but a process that he thoroughly enjoyed nonetheless. I started shooting on his old Olympus cameras back in high school, and to his amusement, became absolutely enthralled by the laborious development process. Unfortunately, this was about the same time that digital cameras became a household necessity, ringing the final death knoll for many darkrooms around the country.
While I was a student at Berkeley, the campus darkroom closed. Soon, my favorite photography store back home did as well. Darkroom photography was becoming a lost artform and I was determined to hang on with all my might. But was it worth the effort? Digital photography will never replicate the tactile control of developing film by hand or the nuance of exposing photosensitive paper to light. Film photography always involves a crisis in the making. The photographer lives in fear of exposing those delicate silver particles to light, dust, and finger prints (all of which can be detrimental). Unlike the digital medium, film photography denies instant gratification, forcing you to work for those few limited frames.
Once the film has been safely developed, the darkroom offers endless possibilities. Every adjustment of light, filtering, focus, and aperture on the enlarger can create a distinctive picture. Favoring abstract black and white photography, my teenaged self used to love to experiment with photogramming, superimposition, and high contrast; techniques which offer endless possibilities. Digital simply can’t replicate the look of film stock and the crafty experimentation beckoning in the darkroom, but the new medium’s appeal isn’t defined merely by its convenience. There is a crispness and a beauty to the image captured by a good DSLR camera, uniquely recognizable in the same way you know and love the graininess of highspeed film. There is a joy in seeing the environment before you gorgeously captured in a view finder that is unique to the digital medium.
In contrast, nothing can replicate the feeling of watching your print slowly appear in the developer tray under a red light or the surprise of finding out how your experiments with light, silver, and chemicals pays off. Yet, I’m beginning to wonder if the hours spent cleaning garage sale equipment, mixing noxious chemicals, and sealing up doorways to block every crack of light is worth the effort. Now that most of the work is done, the chemicals are mixed, and the film is developed and ready to go, I am hoping I will fall back in love with the darkroom after a long absence. Or perhaps, I will learn to let it go, save up for that Canon Mark II I’ve coveted for years, and fully embrace the new.