Darkroom is on the way out, on the way down, Banco Unpopular. Easy to kick, backward-looking, subject to ridicule (gentle and otherwise).
But there's nothing inherently wrong with darkrooms. They have at least one good thing going for them: they're not computers. Anybody out there dying to spend more time at the computer? Are there legions of people today who prize what little computer time they get, and just feel they do not spend enough hours basking in the glow of monitors and clacking away at various sizes and kinds of keyboard? Just aching for some valid excuse to spend just a little more time that way? Any excuse will do?
I'll grant you that if the darkroom is a necessity, it's an evil one. It's inefficient and expensive and seldom done right. If you hate it—and more people hated it than loved it—then being forced to do it is like being forced to do your own car maintenance or home remodeling.
But here's a news flash. Sometimes, some people do certain things simply because they enjoy doing them.
Even difficult, inefficient things.
For example, I hear some people enjoy cooking. I hear they do it on purpose. I can hardly boil soup, and just being in the kitchen stresses me out. One of my standard lottery dreams—how I'd live if I were ever big rich, admittedly a diminishing prospect—is that I'd have other people cook my food 24/7. I would never cook, and I would never again set foot in a grocery store. But some people cook because they enjoy it: for them, it's a recreation. The same can be said of gardening, woodworking, sewing, all sorts of things that for other people are chores—yes, even working on cars. My next door neighbor worked off and on for years restoring an incredibly decrepit MG Midget, and I have to say that when he finished, I was completely astonished: it was just the kind of project that I might start in a quixotic flush of completely misdirected enthusiasm but which would defeat me almost by definition, and yet he not only did it, he did a great job—his teenage son was soon to be seen zooming around the neighborhood in a gleaming little car with a nice throaty exhaust note, the envy of all. Well, at least, the envy of improbable audiences such as the middle-aged gentleman next door.
In my considered judgment (and remember, I used to be the Editor-in-Chief of a darkroom magazine) somewhere between one in six and one in ten photographers, back in the days of film, enjoyed darkroom work. Some did it because for them, it was a recreation. Here's a shocker: for some, neither the finished prints nor the practice of photography was the main attraction of work with a camera; they actually liked darkroom work above everything else in the hobby. I'm thinking of real people here. I'm not making this up.
As history proceeds, fewer and fewer people will ever set foot in a darkroom. Most won't mind. So how would you know if you might enjoy it? Here are a few clues. You might enjoy darkroom work if:
- You're an introvert
- You like to see what you're doing, as opposed to figuring it out with directions, like a puzzle, or by measurement or theory
- You find it gratifying to create something tangible as an end product
- You have the time to devote to it
- You have the space to devote to it
- You're able to obsess about the right details and let the wrong ones go
- You don't have kids who need your active presence
- You could use a place to get away
Most of all—and I fear you can only get this by trial—the darkroom might be good for you if you find it relaxing and peaceful to be in it doing the kind of work that is done there. For some people, it created stress, I'm sure, like cooking creates stress in me. For others, it relieves stress. I'm one of those. In the comments today, reader JonA says, "I have been reading about positive psychology, and one of the ways to make yourself happy is to get into what Mike Csikszentmihalyi calls 'flow.' It involves tasks that provide people with gratification but they cannot quite explain why they are happy. The components of these tasks are: requiring skill and concentration, there are clear goals, you get immediate feedback, you feel effortless involvement and a sense of control, your sense of self vanishes, and time flies by without you noticing it."
I've never read about Csikszentmihalyi or "flow," but this passage describes with uncanny accuracy how darkroom work always made me feel. There were times I didn't enjoy it, of course (at one time I did it for a living, and work is work), but at its best, that's the way it was. I imagine that when my kid leaves home, I'll get back into it—not to replace the computer, not to turn my back on digital (I don't imagine I'll ever do that) but simply for enjoyment.
And because what's left of my life is too short a time to learn to build a wooden boat or restore an antique car.
Or concoct a credible bouillebaisse.
Illustration: A costumed interpreter portraying pioneering landscape photographer H. H. Bennett mixes photo chemicals in the same darkroom where Bennett himself developed his stunning images of the rugged Wisconsin Dells that would draw tourists by the trainload to the area beginning in the late 19th century. (Courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society.)
Featured Comment by Doug Howk: "A kindred spirit. I work as a database administrator, and about the last thing I want to do is spend mornings and weekends looking at a monitor. Hands-on craftsmanship whether repairing a wooden large format camera or actually creating prints creates a sense of serenity. For me, its part of the good life well lived."
Featured Comment by Paul Butzi: "There was a large subset of the participants of rec.photo.darkroom for whom the darkroom work was the most enjoyable part of the photographic process.
"It was a large enough group that at one point I proposed starting a small company to serve that market. The main product would be film, in various formats, that had been carefully exposed to various conventional landscape compositions.
"The marketing slogan I came up with for this product was 'We push the button. You do the rest.'"
Featured Comment by Kamal Marhubi: "'Mike' Csikszentmihalyi is actually called Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I think it's pronounced roughly like 'Me-hi chicks-sent-me-hi.' He has a couple of books on the subject of flow, and has done a lot of research on it. I recommend giving Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience a read; fascinating and insightful."
Featured Comment by Rod: "Here are some more attributes that might signal that you’d enjoy darkroom work:
•You’re an extrovert and spend much of your day extroverting by talking to clients or teaching classes. Even extroverts need periods of quietness and solitude!
•You spend much of your day dealing with concepts rather than concrete things. My role as a mineral exploration geologist has me in an imaginary, albeit real-in-the-past, world of concepts. Perhaps you’re a designer having to imagine your outcomes for long periods, or a mathematician engaged in statistical analysis and imagining your different populations. Darkroom printmaking is a refreshingly, satisfyingly, concrete operation that’s full of touch.
•You are a busy, on-the-go person whose head keeps thinking of things-to-do, yet you desire to be creative. Your creative insights tend to be restricted to moments of automatic pilot mode, such as when taking a shower. For such a person, a darkroom will be strange at first, but will increasingly become appreciated as a welcome shield from the distractions. Many of us are addicted to hyperactivity and multi-tasking that stifles reflective creativity.
"In a break from my profession a few years ago I taught high school science. The principal introduced a Friday afternoon 'interests' session, with classes in digital and darkroom photography, robotics and cooking. I was asked to run the darkroom course. I’d never actually done B&W darkroom before, although I had briefly taught myself Cibachrome colour printing back in the mid 1980s. So I downloaded the Ilford data sheets and quickly taught myself how to develop B&W film and expose a print, and passed that onto the two classes I ran. After a few weeks, I had kids from the digital photography class coming over, take an interest in what we were doing and want to transfer, complaining 'All we get to do is Photoshop on the computer.'
"Here in Sydney I’ve just completed an 'expressive print' course through Point Light Galley. Despite being a busy extrovert, I really enjoyed it. My first re-discovery was that making the pilot print is easy and fast to achieve. Given a negative with good exposure, it may be entirely satisfactory. The course broke through some of the arcane language I’d be reading about for years in forums and articles. I learned the half-dozen ways of teasing detail and luminosity out of the shadows and highlights for more challenging negatives or exhibition prints. The results were easily repeated and controllable. I think more people might find a new part of themselves if only they had the chance to experience it for themselves."
Mike adds: I like Paul's joke, but Rod's point about the pilot print being easy and fast if the negative is good is important too—and believe it or not, both reflect the way I used to teach photography. My beginning classes would go into the darkroom on the very first day and make prints, from "perfect" negatives I'd made myself beforehand. Not only did we get right to the payoff of watching the prints come up in the developer, but more subtly I was laying the groundwork for them to understand that making great prints is easy if the negative is good. Not once did a new class fail to leave that first day charged with excitement and full of enthusiasm.