A friend wrote to ask, why the recent posts about darkrooms? I don't know, really. To pass the time until the long-awaited Olympus shows up in the middle of June? Guilt, after having suggested that Leica-for-a-year, one-camera-one-lens, B&W-only exercise, thus consigning fully converted, Kool-Aid quaffing devotees to actual antediluvian darkroom labor? Narcissism of the nostalgic variety? (It's been nearly a decade since I set foot in a darkroom myself. It is almost surreal that I can say that.)
Whatever. Another reason: it's fun to think about it again, after all this time.
Here are a few interlacing principles of darkroom organization. As you'll notice, some of these aren't entirely separate, and some of them are in mild conflict with each other.
1. The fewer things you intend to do in a darkroom, the easier it is to plan and set up. That is, if you have simplified your working methods to one technique, or just a few related techniques, your darkroom can be fairly simple and straightforward. Edward Weston's was—all he did was develop 8x10 film and contact-print it. That's probably the simplest, most basic technique there is; it's also one of the cheapest (on the darkroom side at least), and requires the most utterly simple darkroom. You don't even really need an enlarger.
It does, however, conflict with the second principle, which is:
2. The simpler and more limited your darkroom setup, the fewer things you can do in it. This is relevant because some people like to use the darkroom as a laboratory, to explore all sorts of different techniques, formulas, alternative processes, printing ideas, on and on. When I was at the darkroom magazine, I noticed that a lot of readers would use our articles as suggestions of new things to try. They weren't just about making photographs; they wanted to try all sorts of different neat things in the darkroom. Sort of like a succession of science experiments. Obviously, if this is your bent, you're going to need a workspace that's more flexible, one that's not built around limitations.
3. The smaller the largest print you will make, the simpler and more space-efficient the darkroom can be, and the less your related equipment will cost. The corollary is naturally also true. Making extremely large wet prints is a virtuoso skill, requiring all sorts of specialized equipment and specific techniques. Charles Phillips is the extreme case, although, unfortunately, I don't know of a good, easily accessible written description of his processes; suffice it to say that his "tray" was a giant custom-made chemical bath that held the paper stationary and pumped all the solutions (developer, stop, fix, wash) through in sequence. The largest prints I ever made myself were about 4' x 4', and even those weren't trivial, despite not being all that big. But if all you're going to make are 8x10s, you're going to have it nice and easy.
4. The smaller and handier the camera, the easier a time you will have in the field (i.e., when you're out actually shooting). But the larger the negative, the easier a time you will have in the darkroom. The two are a tradeoff. Easy in the field = tough in the darkroom. Tough in the field = easy in the darkroom. Well, maybe "easy" isn't quite the right word, but more satisfying and less of a struggle. It takes concentration and good technique to print 35mm negs well. Good 4x5 negs are more of a pleasure to print, and often much more gratifying because they make much higher quality prints more readily. Medium format splits that difference.
4. There are only a few aspects of a darkroom that are critical to its performance—the rest have to do with comfort and convenience. We'll get to the details later.
5. The more comfortable and convenient a darkroom is, the nicer it is to work in. And the nicer it is to be in, the more you will want to be in it, and (presumably) the better work you will do. Brett Weston used to do darkroom work only on moonless nights, with the windows of his Hawaiian house thrown open to the ocean breezes. I doubt I've ever heard of a nicer darkroom to work in.
A darkroom is a workroom
Now then. As you might imagine if you've been reading my patter for a while, I like simplicity, and I like limits. This is a matter of taste and temperament. Some of you reading this, and doubtless some of the people who will comment, are of different temperament. Humans do vary. Here, I'm going to describe my own ideal darkroom, and I'm going to leave it to you to realize that a) my ideals might not suit everybody, and b) they might not suit you.
To start with, I'd suggest choosing between 11x14" and 16x20" as your maximum print size, so you can buy your trays, easel, and paper safe accordingly. I've mostly shot 35mm, so I'm fine with a maximum paper size of 11x14. If you shoot much medium format, then I'd probably recommend 16x20 as a max. Note that if you run too many sizes and they're too disparate, then you're going to need multiple sets of trays, and possibly more than one easel. If you settle on 11x14, you can use the same trays for 8x10" without wasting much in the way of chemicals. If you have 16x20 trays for big prints, you will probably also need a set of smaller trays for smaller prints. You don't want to have to fill a set of 16x20 trays with chemicals just to run a few 8x10 contact sheets.
Second, in my opinion a darkroom is a workroom. I have tolerance for, but not much interest in, those whose goal is to make the darkroom itself a showpiece. I knew one very ingenious photographer who worked for a number of years constructing "the perfect darkroom"—it was very complex, had all manner of sophisticated innovations (including automatic tray rockers, which to me is like having a machine to put your socks on), and was highly customized. I was very impressed—until I contacted him several years later. Seems he hardly ever used his darkroom. His enthusiasm and passion was for design and construction, not for darkroom work. Then he had to move, and that was the end of that.
Similarly, I knew of a carpenter whose entire darkroom was constructed of superior materials, put together to a standard higher than that of average dining room furniture. His handmade wooden sink had several coats of glossy enamel and gorgeous teak accents; driving a nail into it would have amounted to vandalism. Now, I'm aware the some people trick out even their garages, but I'm of the opinion that workspaces are more effective when they're utilitarian. I would say that a darkroom is most comfortable to me when I feel no reluctance to pound a nail in somewhere to hang something from. I would have some raw 2x4 showing here and there and perhaps slap a piece of masonite pegboard on the wall somewhere just to keep it all in perspective. It's a workroom. Make it pleasant, but utilitarian.
The perfect darkroom for me would be a room not in a basement about the size of an average secondary (i.e., not master) bedroom, with an 8' or higher ceiling and one window. It would have some piece of furniture to set the enlarger on, preferably something fairly sturdy. In an old house with flexible subfloors, a wall-mounted shelf might work best, especially if there is other activity in the building. Often, if there is a corner formed by two structural walls, this makes the most stable area for an enlarger stand. A wall-mounted stand is better affixed to a structural wall than to a non-structural wall that's just sitting on the subfloor. Use common sense.
The room would be painted white or off-white (there's no reason for a private darkroom to be painted black).
And it would have no sink. Well, if I were really after the utmost in luxury it might have a laundry-type sink somewhere, perhaps even in the room if I really wanted to get fancy. But it would have no darkroom sink.
A typical laundry or utility sink
A photo by Nina M. Westerberg of a typical stainless steel darkroom sink, in this case at the Washington State University Vancouver Darkroom Club
My darkroom would have just a plain formica countertop for the trays (a.k.a. the "wet side"). Most home supply stores sell six- or eight-foot lengths of pre-made countertop for modest prices—cosmetic seconds are even cheaper and would be fine for a darkroom. And most people handy enough to attempt darkroom work can contrive to whack together a structure sufficient to hold said countertop up in the air, perhaps using the aforementioned raw 2x4s.
Alternatively, white melamine work tables, also available at home supply stores, work fine too, although they're a little too low for me personally (I'm 6'1") and the 4-foot length of most of them is a bit short for anything but 8x10 trays, although you can use two set end-to-end if you have the room. If you can find one that's six feet long and that has height adjustment, you're good to go.
Why countertop? I've just always preferred it, is all. All you have to do is try not to spill too much. If you have a tendency to slosh solution out of the trays when agitating, just buy trays with higher sides. At the end of the session, wipe the table or countertop down with a wet sponge. It works fine. No need for a $3,000 18/8 stainless steel sink in a home darkroom.
That's all for today, lest this get too long. Coming up: Performance features of a darkroom, and comfort features, and a few more thoughts about water management.
Featured Comment by hugh crawford: "Think about cleaning the darkroom when you plan it. A shiny floor that you can wet mop is a very good idea. Smooth walls and ceiling that are painted with washable semi gloss paint are a good thing. Storing dust catching stuff that you don't use for printing in the darkroom is a bad idea. If you can wipe down everything in the darkroom including walls and floor in about 10 minutes you are in the ballpark. One of my teachers said that every minute spent cleaning the darkroom is worth an hour of cleaning negatives and spotting prints, and I think that is an understatement."