Six months after moving into our new house, a long-dreamt notion was made manifest. There was now a room in the house fortified against intruding light, where chemical brews lapped the sides of plastic trays, and the shimmering apparitions of photographic prints emerged beneath an amber glow. Why do such a thing more than a decade into the 21st century? On the cusp of digital photography's victory over the previous era's antiquated analog mechanics, could we not make better use of our limited space? Heck, even 99% of photographs made with film today are scanned and end up as digital files, shareable online and printable with ever-increasing sophistication using digital devices. So why move backward?
In truth, I probably could not have given voice to my reasoning at the time. I had been using a community darkroom for several years, somewhat frustrated by its limited availability and the challenges of a shared space that at times seemed to have more dust than oxygen, but it was adequate as a place to pursue my hobby. Yet my own darkroom was something I knew I needed. Despite a rather nebulous justification rooted in adding print services to my business plan (something the aforementioned digital technology would certainly make more economically sound), it was something I felt necessary for my artistic vision to emerge. And even as the story remains unfinished, I believe it has been useful. Over the past 16 months I have made hundreds of prints, and tried all kinds of experiments and new techniques, both a volume of work and level of creativity that the community darkroom could never support.
Recently I stepped back a bit, due in part to the intervention of life (an injury sidelined me for a couple of months over the summer - ask me about sticking your hands into a gas grill sometime), and in part to other family, work, and business demands on my time. But I took this as an opportunity to think more deeply about where I am going with all of this. What are my goals? Is there a purpose to my work? Should there be? And what role does this "old-fashioned" method play? Why is working with silver so important to me? What draws me to black and white photography in 2015? I have nothing against color photography or digital photography, but nothing gets me as excited as traditional black ad white film photography. Although I have color film work in my portfolio, and even recently started a color study project with slide film, my personal projects have always involved a lot more black and white work. I am shifting my portrait business to focus on black and white as well, even while taking a more hybrid approach at times. In the end it is the final image that matters most, regardless of the medium used to attain it, yet I still feel that as an artist process matters. So by way of explaining myself (to myself at the very least), I offer the following.
At the same time I was evaluating my photographic life, In an effort to expand what felt like a withering creative force, I also opened the doors of creative writing and music composition, doors slowly sealed as I was sucked into grad school and working too damned much. Reading is another pursuit ironically languishing in my pursuit of a "career" working with books, one that has its moments but involves very little of passion's fire. Thus an effort to read more was also on the agenda. One of the things I read most recently was Andreas Feininger's Darkroom Techniques, where I found a section titled, "Why a photographer should print his own negatives." How apropos. Among my favorite nuggets, and by way of explanation:
It seems so obvious, but all the theorizing and talking about photography in the world cannot substitute for actually making photographs. Studying history, taking workshops, reading books and articles, watching tutorials: these are all things I enjoy, but ultimately they only take you so far. You learn by doing it, and the more parts of the process you do, the better you understand the entire endeavor. By making your own prints, you come to better understand how to make your negatives. You make mistakes, find the limitations, or maybe even discover something new that you didn't know was possible. I think part of the draw of black and white photography for me is the accessibility of the process, the control over everything from beginning to end. I could pursue the same thing with color film, and there's nothing to say I may not do just that someday, but it is a much more complicated and challenging process. Black and white photography matches my current interest and skill level.
As a side note, even if you are a film photographer committed to your digital workflow, you can apply this concept. Scanning your own negatives, at least a few times, can teach you an immense amount about them. There are some great labs out there, but allowing them to fill the gap between your camera and your files will only be enhanced by understanding the negatives yourself so you can give them the best possible material to scan.
Admittedly, this was written in the mid-1970s, and digital technology has come a long way since then. Software editing programs like Adobe's Photoshop and Lightroom were still years away and your average photofinishing service had a lot less flexibility, yet there is still something key here. Any time you cede a part of your process to someone or something else, you alter the possibilities, and when machines are involved, they are always going to be limited by their technical specifications. Whether it is the print machine described above, a film scanner, or your computer reading a file, the machine "sees" your work in a way that has nothing to do with your personal vision. Again, that is why I think that as a film photographer understanding how your negatives are scanned is important in informing your practice at the exposure stage to ensure you get the scan, and ultimately the final print/file, that you want. Feininger goes on to point out that when making your own darkroom prints, instead of getting a single version of the print, "you can experiment to your heart's desire and really go to town on a negative, exploring it in depth and extracting from it the best possible print." When printing you have all kind of tools and techniques at your disposal to alter the image, and this applies to scans as well; there is always more than one interpretation possible. Experimenting with the techniques and finding variations on a print adds a sense of play to the work for me. We increasingly understand the value of play in childhood development, but I think play remains important for adults as well, especially when it comes to creativity. Play promotes elasticism of the mind, an always evolving sense of the world we experience, stepping around dogma and the calcification of beliefs that can hamper learning and exploration.
That last sentence: has there ever been a more poetic description of what goes on tucked behind the flaps of a black-out curtain, dim light squinting as the scent of fixer seeps deep into your soul? There is a lot packed into this paragraph. First the melding of technique and vision. This is something I push toward, never quite reaching, but soft ambitions swim through the haze of my disjointed training. I have often heard the phrase, "get it right in camera," and once accepted it as gospel. And when the alternative was spending gobs of time in front of a screen using software to try and "save" an image, it was an attractive faith indeed. But photographers have been manipulating negatives to achieve the best print from the very beginning. It was only after the rise of supposedly "objective" photojournalism that this manipulation began to be called into question. And then works like the posthumous Diane Arbus monograph that showed the edges of her negatives went some way to fetishizing the full frame and the rise of the mythological perfect in-camera negative was complete. Part of the joy of printing from my negatives, on the other hand, has been discovering the ability to move beyond the camera, to have more image-making space in which to work, to push, to breathe, to manifest ideas in silver halide and fibrous sheets and filter the world through my vision to create new objects that enhance it.
That is the real kicker for me. Photography is a process, and the more hands on that process, the better I feel about it. Digital technology has indeed become a powerful tool, but for me there is a huge difference between staring at a screen and sending a series of 1s and 0s through a USB cable to my inkjet printer, and the way that working with my hands in the dark feels, smells, sounds and looks. In both cases I end up with a physical print, a tangible artifact that I think is incredibly important, but the method of arriving at that object makes a huge difference in my understanding of and connection to it and thus how I experience the image. And so as the urge to spend hours "in semi-darkness enhanced by pools of amber light" once again surges, hopefully to continued evolution, I look forward to the making in the solitude of my darkroom...