In the times when photographers who wanted to work and weren't rich had to have what my friend Nick Hartmann once called "The room-sized accessory"—a darkroom—extemporizing was the order of the day. People worked in every conceivable kind of space: under stairs, in extra bedrooms, closets, basements, utility rooms in office building basements—the list is as long as your arm. Many such spaces and setups were just preposterously awful, some almost to the point of parody, or hilarity.
I've gotten interested in this notion of "reverse snobbery" that came up the other day, and I do think I've always considered it a point of pride that I could work anywhere. I've worked in some nice darkrooms over the years, but I've definitely worked in some horrible ones, too—dank, smelly, ancient, cluttered, cobwebbed spaces where it would be considered cruel to confine a cat. The only darkroom I ever put together that really didn't work was in the dressing area and bathroom of a one-room studio apartment I lived in in Washington, D.C. It was cramped, awkwardly laid-out, hot, and airless—too hair-shirt even for me.
Of course, the opposite impulse sometimes prevails: people get to jonesing to build the "perfect" darkroom, custom fit to them and with everything designed exquisitely just so.
As regular readers know, I edited a photo magazine for a number of years. It was called Photo Techniques, but its previous title was Darkroom and Creative Camera Techniques (D&CCT), and before that (before the publisher acquired Creative Camera) it was called Darkroom Techniques. It was one of two darkroom magazines founded within a couple of years of 1979, the year that the home darkroom hobby in the U.S. peaked. The other title was Darkroom Photography. (Ironically, I had a hand in changing the names of both of those darkroom magazines to remove the word "darkroom" from their titles.) Anyway, the magazine I edited was still essentially a darkroom magazine when I was there, so I saw a steady stream of "perfect darkroom" articles. Some of these creations were state-of-the-art in having the latest and best of everything; some deployed cutting-edge technologies (remember Minolta's 45A pulsed-xenon enlarger head?); some were lovingly crafted with furniture-grade custom cabinetry and multiple coats of glossy paint. One was so over the top that we ran a series of articles on it in the magazine. I wish I could recall the name of the author or the articles off the top of my head, but that information is not bobbing to the surface.*
Then, in about my fourth year on the job, I began to notice a trend: people who built "perfect" darkrooms tended not to use them very much. This was a purely empirical observation. I'd contact people I know had been passionately engaged in months-long building projects and ask them how they were liking their pride-and-joy. And again and again the same answer came back: don't really get down there as often as I'd like; it's great, but I just haven't had time; work situation changed; family obligations; so forth. Finally, several years after we ran the article about the over-the-top darkroom—really, the most elaborate home darkroom I'd ever heard of—I contacted the author.
He had tried to dismantle as much of the darkroom as he could, if I recall the conversation correctly, but the effort hadn't really proved satisfactory. I do remember him telling me that he had realized at some point that the building project itself was what had really interested him, not actually having the finished facility in which to do photographic work.
Reverse snobbery maybe, but that cemented my preference for plain, unadorned, utilitarian, workmanlike spaces. Don't build too much in; let the joists and studs show; never be afraid to hammer a nail into a wall. Make do with what you have. You never want it to be so set that you can't rig it some other way if you feel like it. If something's less than ideal, shrug and get on with it. It's just a utility room, not a work of art in itself.
Extemporizing, often merely necessary, can also be a virtue.
* Maybe it's in the famous Grad Photographica Bibliotheca, either the one of paper and shelves or the one of gray matter and synapses.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Chris Nicholls: "Lots of nostalgia going on here, but some of us are living the dream! And at least in part thanks to the inspiration found in your stories Mike. I completed my first darkroom last Christmas, and have been locked away in there on a pretty regular basis ever since. No time for perfection in the build, and plenty of unfinished timber on show! Take a look!"
Featured Comment by Paul: "Our flat has three bedrooms, the kids' room, my wife and I share the other room, and my studio. The studio is a darkroom with all the equipment set up all day long, it also holds the digital side where I'm slowly printing less and less on my Epson printer. I write my little blog in this room on a old IBM laptop and my kids enjoy doing their homework in this room also. Under the kitchen worktop which goes round half the room I've got a few cupboards and draws, some without doors on and others with. I couldn't give a crap if it isn't beautiful; I come in here to create with the least effort possible. My wife has a love-hate relationship with this room because it's sometimes quite untidy but it's always when I'm at my most creative. Anyway she's got the rest of the house to carry out whatever she feels like.
"The room also contains seven electric guitars, a 150 watt head and 50 watt combo amplifier.
"This room isn't open to all visitors who appear round our house, it's a sacred place where a lot of feelings come out. I'm not at all religious in the standard sense but it's sort of our little 'church.' For my little kids and I it's an escape from the real world.
"My pitbull and the chihuahua sleep under the table which holds the enlarger and they've got the lounge, kitchen, dinning room and terraces to choose from but there seems to be a lot of peace in here. A friend of mine says it's very spiritual in here, I just think it's cool.
"The only advice, I can give to anyone is that room you create whether it's a lightroom or a darkroom, it must welcome you every time you step foot inside to create. If not you will soon notice you're not printing very much or perhaps there is something more interesting on the television. I've always had a studio in every house or flat I've lived in, since I discovered at the age of eight I had a compulsion to create, so I sort of know what I'm talking about."
Featured Comment by Rob Atkins: "These discussions remind me of something the poet Allen Ginsberg talked about. He had some expensive, fine notebooks to write his poetry in, but preferred 'cheapo' notebooks, as he called them. He was less inhibited by a .49 cent book than a hand-tooled Italian leather book. Freed his mind and creativity to just scribble. Some masterpieces arose from that."