I miss the darkroom. More specifically, I miss the darkroom in wintertime (it snowed here yesterday and last night, enough to cover everything, and the house today is filled with the white reflected light of snow, a wintery look...).
I miss the darkroom in winter because wintertime used to be the season when I'd spend the most time in it. I did photograph in the winter, when I was younger, but never very much, because I tend to photograph wherever I am, whatever I happen to be doing, and in the wintertime I don't like being outside for very long. Plus, the days are short and often gray. Light is...scarce. Not always poor. Scarce.
So winter was darkroom season. I suppose only one in ten photographers actually liked the darkroom, but I was one. It was a sanctuary, a nice place to be (even if some of my darkrooms were pretty dreadful little holes when you turned the white lights on!) and I enjoyed the process, the work, the amber glow and the comforting low burble of running water. If I had ever established any sort of career as a photographer—if I'd been able to sell prints, for instance, more than every now and then—I'd still be doing darkroom work.
A not-so-gentle reminder: if winter is a good season for indoor work, for being indoors out of the light, then spring is the opposite. Spring is for shooting. In most of the Northern Hemisphere, which I inhabit and I suppose a lot of you do too, spring is the best time of the year for shooting. Some photographers (poor souls) never learn the essential trick of photography, which is that photographs are about light—not about their subject, not about your equipment, not about colors or "sharpness" or proving you've been to the Statue of Liberty or Disneyland or what Uncle Fred looked like. Well, all of that, too. But mainly light. Light is the essential ingredient of a photograph. It can ennoble virtually any subject. More than that, it creates subjects. It structures the things we see. A photograph that doesn't depend on the light it was taken in has a lot of extra work to do to amount to anything.
And summer light is often as bad as winter light. Monotonous, overbearing, unmodulated—white skies and humid haze and smog on the horizon. Things aren't clear in the summertime. Or often aren't. In the summertime you have to resort to the old photographer's trick of using the angled light of dusk or dawn to help your photographs along.
Spring is the time for photographing. The wind blows, the weather changes, the clouds move; the air's often cold enough to be clear. Look especially for the edges of storms, as one departs or another looms; look for blankets of clouds high enough for the sun to get in under at the end of a day. Even the land changes fast in spring. Don't like the way a place looks today, come back tomorrow, or next week. Spring is the season of light. Get out in it. Use your eyes. Bring your camera along.
High style landscapes
If you still love the darkroom you might be interested in this: I heard from John Sexton recently, and he's still teaching his popular master-class workshops on printing called "The Expressive Black and White Print." John is a direct link to Ansel Adams: he learned his craft in Adams's Yosemite Workshops and from studying the prints of Ansel, Edward Weston, and Wynn Bullock; later, he was Ansel's last assistant. That's John in the illustrations of The New Ansel Adams Photography Series, The Camera, The Negative, and The Print, a trilogy of books any black-and-white film photographer (well, perhaps any film photographer, period) ought to own. He is of course a master craftsman in his own right, in the West Coast tradition, with four beautiful books to his credit. There are printers in the world who are "as good," but there are none better. John's workshops are as close as you can get today to the high style Zone System landscapists and the tradition they worked in, going back to to the heroic days of early California and the West.
Of course, the workshops that are coming up soon (April, May of this year) are already full, as they always are. But John tells me there are places left in the ones scheduled for next fall and spring in Carmel Valley. Now would be the time to plan that, if you want a place. The fall workshops are for November 3–8 and 17–22, and the spring ones take place at about this time next year, March 9–14 and 23–28, 2010. The cost is $900, and it takes a $150 deposit to reserve a place, $100 of which is non-refundable. Here's the link to the brochure and the application.
Oh, and I note with pleasure that at John's Ventana Editions book page, Ray McSavaney's book Explorations is still available—signed, no less!—for a mere $60. (That's better than paying twice or three times that for a used copy from the usual sources.) The text of Ray's book is...well, not bad, exactly, but wooden, declarative, quotidian...earthbound, and I don't mean that in a good nature-y way. But the pictures soar. Pictorially, it's one of those transcendent books, in which every page offers a reward and, often as not, a thrill. Yes, an actual thrill. I love this book. Sorry if I'm gushing, but this is perhaps my #1 all-time favorite book of black-and-white large format nature photography (well, nature plus), or, at least, right up there with five or six now-unobtainable books in my library that I won't name for fear of frustrating you. If you like large-format black and white, don't miss Explorations. I had thought it was gone. It's not going to get any easier to find.
But back to springtime: now is the time of year to stop nattering over cameras, stop sitting around indoors, stop looking at...screens. (I know.) Pick a camera and get outdoors to watch the light. This is the shooting season. The season of light.
(Photo © 2009 John Sexton, all rights reserved)