Mike and I have been discussing plans for one last dye transfer sale on TOP next year (we're not ready yet to divulge the details), which required me to go through my supply of dye transfer paper and inventory it. This is a remarkably tedious, repetitive process of closely examining each large sheet of paper by both reflected and transmitted light to catch any surface flaws or inclusions. Kodak's quality control was not the best in the waning days of dye transfer, so such precautions are necessary; half or more of the sheets in a box turn out to be unsellable.
When all was said and done, I discovered that my supplies of good paper were rather smaller than I had thought. By the end of next year and quite possibly sooner, I will have used up all my good dye transfer paper. Well, good riddance, I say. I've been bored with doing dye transfers some time now. I keep doing it because it's a profitable part of my business, but I won't cry at all at being forced out of it from lack of supplies.
This slightly surprising result had two immediate consequences. The first is that I stopped offering commercial dye transfer printing services the day after I finished my inventory. I can't afford to devote paper to new clients at the expense of existing obligations or making and selling prints of my own work.
I believe that leaves exactly one purveyor of dye transfer printing services in North America: Jim Browning in New Hampshire.
The second repercussion is more interesting to me. Psychologically, I'm now in the end game when it comes to my darkroom. I've been talking and mentally planning for a while about closing it down, by the end of next year at the latest. But the details of those plans were indefinite, and that made it feel a bit less real. Now I have a well-defined endpoint that will come with the exhaustion of limited supplies, even if I don't know the precise date of closure.
This has made it very real for me. When I recently went into the darkroom to make some dye transfer prints, I no longer found myself reflexively thinking about what maintenance, upkeep, and improvements I wanted to be doing, but about what will last for the next 12 to 20 months. If it's good for that long, and it hasn't been driving me totally crazy so far, then it's ignorable. That's a distinct change in my head.
In truth, it's a much more profound change then me "officially" giving up film for digital photography. Photography is photography, so far as I'm concerned; there is no significant difference for me between making a film photograph or a digital one. I honestly don't care about the medium, just the message.
But a darkroom? That has a substantial, tangible physical presence. For as long as I've had my own place to live, I have always had a permanent darkroom space, starting with my first apartment in 1972. By the end of next year, for the first time in 40 years, that will not be true. Do I mind? Not in the least! Finances permitting (fingers hugely crossed, here, hoping for a good sale), Paula and I will be able to take the garage space that currently includes or caters to my darkroom and build a couple of more rooms into this house. It would be nice to have a real guest room among other things. And an actual printing studio that can handle my humongous digital printer and its supplies and output in a convenient way.
Will I miss the darkroom, even one bit? Not once, not for a moment. But, man, it's sure a huge change.
Longtime columnist Ctein sheds light into the darkness every Wednesday on TOP.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Geoff Wittig: "As someone who never made a darkroom print and who loves my large format inkjet, it still saddens me just a bit to see a truly expert darkroom printer hanging up his spurs. Watching the Luminous Landscape videos of Ctein making a dye transfer print, or Clyde Butcher making a huge black & white darkroom print, reassured me that there was still a living tradition stretching back to Edward Weston's contact prints and Paul Outerbridge's carbro color prints. It's becoming a more tenuous connection with every passing year. By the end of the decade, darkroom printing is likely to be as arcane and deliberately retro as self-coated glass plate capture."
Featured Comment by Walter Glover: "Been there and done that six years ago Ctein...and now find I have lived to regret it. Think long and hard before you reduce your darkroom option to zero. Old habits die hard and the darkroom was always more than just a production facility; it was a haven for a very special kind of contemplation, even therapy. I miss mine and am forever trying to come up with ways to even set-up to contact print some 8x10s."
Featured Comment by Jeff: "I found that selling off and donating my last darkroom four years ago was a liberating, and motivating, experience. After four darkrooms in four houses over 24 years, and after only using film, I finally decided to go all-digital prior to another house move. Only by getting rid of it all could I be all-in. Two people were perhaps happier than I: my home design friend, whom I've known for 25 years, finally able to not sacrifice her aesthetic choices due to my darkroom requirements (but still my stereo speakers and equipment); and a longtime friend and photo bud whom I gifted a nice Leica Focomat enlarger (in exchange for some much needed guidance in the digital realm). No regrets."
Featured Comment by MM: "I did the film-and-darkroom thing for 25 years. Then I stayed out of my darkroom for a few years in the mid-2000s when I was only shooting digital.
"Then about four years ago, after shooting and printing another pile of digital photographs that the client regarded as technically perfect but felt clinically bland to me, I made a realization that seems obvious in retrospect but was a huge leap at the time: darkroom printing, like shooting film, 'means' something completely different in an age when there's digital than it meant when film and darkroom was the only way to make photographs.
"I say this observation is 'obvious in retrospect' because I've since realized that there are countless analogous activities that took on new meaning in the face of new technologies: playing acoustic instruments after synthesizers were invented; driving a stick shift after automatics were invented; gardening after grocery stores were invented; walking after bicycles and cars were invented; woodworking after Ikea was invented; sending snail-mail cards after e-mail was invented; sailing after powerboats were invented; making paintings after photography was invented....
"In all of these cases having a new, more efficient way of doing a task didn't satisfactorily replace the old way for everybody. Instead, the new way gave the old way a different meaning to those who still chose to do it the old way for the inherent satisfaction of the activity, even as they knew that their final product wasn't necessarily going to be 'better' as judged by whatever metric. (My large inkjet prints are usually far superior—and far, far easier to make—than my darkroom prints are. So?)
"Needless to say, and I've said it here before, I'm happily shooting both film and digital now (the former for personal satisfaction, the latter for my profession)—I try to keep a 50/50 balance—and I'm happily printing with inkjet and with my reborn darkroom.
"I'm not saying Ctein ever would or should consider anything similar; he knows himself and it's very clear he's done with film and darkroom. In part this could be because unlike a hobbyist he may associate the darkroom more with professional work than with low-stress personal enjoyment. And anyone who gets no more feeling of accomplishment from nailing a difficult shot with film than with digital should definitely shoot digital (it's the same principle as gardening, walking, sailing, painting, driving a stick shift, and playing acoustic instruments: if the process doesn't matter to you, do whatever gives you the best results).
"But it could also be because Ctein was born too early. In my observation, 1957 or 1958 is about the cutoff point for long-time photographers who are willing to return to analog photography. It seems that people born before then usually say, 'Did that for too long, will never do it again,' while those born after that date seem much more open to giving film and/or darkroom a(nother) go."