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DARKROOM INTRIGUE

darkroom1I had my first taste of the allure of the darkroom when I was a wide-eyed teen in high school, terrified of my enlisted work experience with the local newspaper. I was there to learn about photo journalism, but what I took away from it was not affirmation of a career choice, but rather a heightened interest in that photographic darkroom…

Time passed and I kept taking photos…

Then when the opportunity arose to study photography at University and therefore have access to both the black & white and colour darkroom, this girl lined up early and eagerly on enrolment day to ensure my name was included on the class list! And it was!

Excitement grew…
Darkroom access had been granted.

Armed with my SLR camera that my father had passed down to me, along with several rolls of film and my trusty tripod, I went to work snapping away. Exploring the use of perspective, light, contrast – yada, yada – was enjoyable as ever. However, there was now something different present inside me.

It was an increased drive to finish the shoot…
This was not just to see what had resulted from time spent behind the lens. It was a new drive to push forward to get into that coveted darkroom. No longer would I be required to let someone else develop and control my snaps.

The darkroom required complete organisation.

1. First develop your black and white film – not as easy as said!
Triple check yourself before entering into that claustrophobic “booth”…

Film – check…
Scissors – check…
Film can – check…
Your brain – check…
Your nerves – check…

This was the most anxious step for me! Feeling my way through the feeding of the film onto the sprockets was never easy, and I would find myself holding my breath more often than not.

Films on, cans closed up.
Exit booth and breath!

2. Chemicals in… swish… swish… back and forth… chemicals out… yada, yada… Done!

3. Drying time… make the most of it and have a quick bite to eat – cheese and spinach roll (yum), one coffee – down the hatch and back to the developed film!

4. The black and white darkroom…
My excitement had me boycott the ‘proof’ sheet stage and I always went straight to my favourite frame on the roll! Second checklist completed – film, filters, paper, cardboard with hole (x 2), cigarette lighter – all there and ready to be utilised.

Projecting my image onto the desk, I’d ask myself “Do I like what I see, or do I want to play?” Of course, I’d want to play! That was the point; otherwise I would have dropped the film off at a developing centre in the local mall as I had previously done in my youth.

I turn a knob, and the rise and fall of the projector helps me decide on the composition. I often retained the original composition as framing was something I wasn’t half bad at in lieu of my years of being snap happy. In the time before Uni, having no darkroom meant no ability to edit later! However, composition isn’t everything and the darkroom opened up a whole realm of intriguing possibilities.

I would try burning in areas – enter my self-made cardboard sheet with holes. Allowing light to hit particular parts of the paper more than other parts gives any darkroom fan the ability to control the contrast. Intentions can vary, but the common goal is control!

Well, lets call it ‘controlled’ or educated guesses. Did I guess right? Achieve what I wanted? Intrigued to know, I move to the chemical trays. Three lay before me – developer – stop – and… I always forget the name of the third! (not important to this article… but if any reader knows… leave me a comment!).

The room was always so quiet which seemed to elevate my anxiety to see the results of trial number 1. The clock, my only real ally in the room, was the loudest presence. I balance keeping one eye on my sheet of paper floating in the liquid, and one eye on the second hand of the clock… tick… tick…

The image would slowly appear. An apparition to begin with – a sight that would continue to fascinate me and never be lost as I got older.

Image is finally developed – into the stop tray to ‘stop’ the development process, and into the third tray to ‘wash’ the chemicals from the paper.

I move through the rotating door and exit the darkroom to evaluate what I have. As I shift from the red light of the black & white darkroom into the UV rays of the sun, my pupils contract and I struggle to see. Damn! The image needs to be burnt in one more place!!!! Back in for trial number 2!

I could go about explaining the various experiments myself and others undertook in that darkroom, but I will just add that I also loved watching the results for solarisation. Photoshop users may know of this effect by using the program – click a button and the image has been solarised. But in the day of darkrooms, achieving this effect meant several stages which included half developing, removing the paper from the tray, exposing it to light, and finally placing the paper back into the developer. Making ones’ way into the rotating door to spark your cigarette lighter (yes, that’s what it was for) was as fun for myself and others as a Ferris Wheel is for tiny tots.

After eight hours in a confined space, I move from one darkroom to another – transitioning from the photography building to the cinema, which was a wonderful place to work as a student and hone ones’ visual sensibility. The cinema carried me through four years of study, and was the start of my flick addiction.

Just as time and technology affected the way we approach and look at photography, it has had an immense impact on our films. The obvious shift is the use of CGI to create ‘images’ that are meant to be taking us to places of greater fascination, but fall short of achieving any real kind of reaction. We are bombarded by slick images that are a representation of someone’s imagination, and this will often leave me cold.

However, CGI is not the change I want you to consider. Film plots have and always will evolve to reflect the current times. Therefore the use of technology, such as digital cameras, will be shown on our screens. I understand the relevance, but I also sigh at the results.

For example, take a scene from The Omen (1977) and compare it to a scene from Final Destination 3 (2006).

The Omen shows you the photographer in his darkroom. The red light, the quiet – all assisting in the setting of the mood. And as David Warner develops the images of the various characters involved, the tension is palpable. The mystery of the darkroom aids the scene and when we see the apparitions appear, we are just as effected by the reveal as the character is on the screen.

Final Destination 3 has a similar plot device, yet the two films are separated by almost 30 years.
In this film our main character Wendy played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is shooting pics with a digital camera. The act of taking a photo is basically the same, but intrigue and tension is lacking. Who cares about a poor girl looking at digital images on her computer… click… click… so what?!

The intrigue of the darkroom is now lost.

Can you imagine if you told a Gen-Y child that the photo you just took wouldn’t be ready to look at for another week! Do you think they would find that intriguing or insanely frustrating?!

If I had the cash, one of the first things I would do is set up an old school darkroom… but would I be able to still buy the equipment, paper and chemicals that I need? I suspect not…

HERE ARE A COUPLE OF MY OTHER PHOTOGRAPHS…

darkroom2

darkroom3

Discussion

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  1. Cool read. Totally agree. The darkroom did have a certain ‘vibe’, no doubt about it. And yr right, these modern-day snappers who fill up flickr with their digital documents are missing out on a fun part of the process. They also miss out on the layered smells that permeate yr clothes and fingers for ages afterwards–which is less fun, perhaps. But one can become addicted to all kinds of chemicals :)
    And the mystery chemical was called Fixer 😉
    Dig that smoky cig pic too…V nice…

    Posted by Decoy | October 2, 2008, 6:32 pm
  2. I really dug this article.
    I’m not one to shy away from current technology, that’s too easy. I do think it has its place and artistic value…but being a student of the “old school” and learning my way around a darkroom and a film splicer, I also think it would be a real shame to lose those “hands on” techniques.
    From a cinema standpoint, I agree in most cases the very soul can be sucked out of a film by going digital (onya George Lucas).
    I’m not sure I agree that we live in “dull” times, I think there are just more “dull” people. Technology has made it easier for anyone to have a crack at art, but luckily some of us can still see the true artists from the pretenders.

    Posted by Faystar | October 2, 2008, 6:46 pm
  3. Thanks for those unexpected comments :)

    I forgot about those chemical smells… guess there are a few negatives I left out… stains on my favourite t-shirts was another pitfall. But worth it!

    Posted by Manz | October 3, 2008, 6:47 pm
  4. I took a photography class before the digital, and we used a pentax and did all the developing in the dark room, there’s an art to that
    .-= shea´s last blog ..Eye of the Sun =-.

    Posted by shea | February 26, 2009, 6:48 pm
  5. Nice article Amanda! And you say that you can’t writte… You don’t use digital cameras?! I recommend you Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II . You like dark rooms… Well… We work faster in digital era, but, i like old fashion too! Has something… That something…

    Posted by Vanea Bell | February 27, 2009, 6:50 pm
  6. One of my favourites was to paint the developer on with a brush after overlapping images from several different the negs. It was all very artistic of course, and left much to chance – you can’t do that with a digital camera and a computer screen. No intrigue as you say.

    Posted by Dimzy72 | April 29, 2009, 6:51 pm
  7. nice. I was just talking to a friend last night, who has a child that is growing up in a world where mommy and daddy work on laptops at night while all three sit in front of a huge 50″ flat-widescreen TV.

    This kid will never know hitting the side of the TV, or adjusting the rabbit ears to get better reception.

    Reception? What’s that?

    Soemtimes I think the advances we make are good, but they always seem to leave the nostalgia behind, sadly enough.

    Great shots too!
    .-= Wayne´s last blog ..Pre-Order Airline Tickets for an Unknown Date =-.

    Posted by Wayne | September 25, 2009, 4:09 pm

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