This week's column by Ctein
This week's title alludes to a column I wrote three and a half years ago, called "I Quit." Sometimes quitting is a long process.
To put it another way, "The darkroom is dead. Long live the darkroom... somewhere else!" As I planned, the monstrous TOP Blowout Dye Transfer Sale was the last big hurrah. It wasn't my last darkroom task; I had a couple of commitments to clear off. Minor stuff compared to the sale, but still, it was work I'd promised to clients. I wound up with just barely enough large sheets of large dye transfer paper to honor those commitments. I was cutting it a bit fine, but it worked out.
So, what were the very last things I did with my darkroom? The next-to-last was an obligation to complete the dye transfer edition of Ken Jarecke's "Face of War" photograph. About ten years back, Pierce [Photojournalist and printer Bill Pierce, long known to one and all by his last name only —Ed.] put Ken in touch with me to inquire if I'd be willing to print that photo for him. I was honored by the request, but I had to think on it. I wasn't sure I could do it.
The photo's one of the all-time great war photographs, and I would argue the greatest to come out of Iraq War I. (Yeah, I know, that's practically trolling for everyone to trot out their candidate for "greatest" but it's how I feel, so have at it. No accounting for taste, especially mine [g].) But it was also well-suppressed in the United States at the time. The major news services, distributors, and papers refused to run it on the grounds that doing so could "hurt the war effort." Yes, an oligopoly can exercise pretty effective censorship.
OK, so what made me hesitate? Well, you will notice that the photograph does not appear here. That's not a permissions issue—Ken would be entirely happy with me including it in this column. It's because I don't think anyone should see it without warning. It's workplace-safe...but it's not entirely sanity-safe. It's not the least bit gory, but it is gruesome. With that warning, here's a link.
Imagine facing that as a 16x20" print in glorious dye transfer, nose to nose with the subject. I really wasn't sure I was up to it. I had to pretty seriously disconnect emotionally when working on that photograph for Ken. Otherwise, it was just too much to take. With long-term exposure and familiarity, I've become sufficiently desensitized to the image that it doesn't cause me grief to print now.
Once I'd finished that task I took stock of the darkroom and discovered a photograph (above) that I'd only I'd half-completed printing, part of the Jewels of Kilauea series. Something had interrupted me midstream (I have no idea what). It seemed fitting to finish off that one last 8x10" photograph before calling it quits.
That I did. Made myself four finished prints. Officially consigned the Ctein Darkoom Era to the dustbin of history. Ceremonially dumped the trays of dye down the sink (don't worry, it's environmentally safe) and watched the inky rainbow swirl down the drain.
In case you're wondering, yes, I do have considerable amounts of dye transfer dye left, as well as a stock of small dye transfer paper. I'm not physically prevented from making more dye transfer prints. Yet. But it's not a decision I'm going to be reversing any more than the one to stop using film (and anyone who might imagine otherwise really doesn't know me at all).
I'm making progress towards making the decision physically irreversible. Sunday, a TOP reader drove down from Mendocino and bought my Beseler 45 V-XL, color head and 8x10 head. That's three out of the four "too big to want to ship" items I listed in my column two weeks ago, gone. I'm delighted...and surprised. Mike and I had a shared bet with the Universe that I wouldn't be able to get rid of that stuff. There are precious few people still looking for darkroom equipment. I got lucky.
So, no new photographs printed in the darkroom, no way, no how. It's become physically impossible. Come early next year, when I sell off all the sets of matrices, even reprinting old work will be physically impossible.
Before then, though, I'm hoping there won't even be a darkroom there. I really have to get off my duff and start working with contractors on remodeling the garage level of the house (where the darkroom is). I've got lots better use for that space.
Columnist Ctein says hellos and goodbyes every week on TOP on Wednesdays.
[UPDATE: Ken Jarecke wrote a very nice response to this post in the Comments section, q.v. —Ed.]
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Featured Comments from:
Eduard de Kam: "I really hope that the huge body of knowledge and experience that you acquired using this technique will serve you well when using other methods of printing. Still, saying goodbye to something you have done so long must be strange. I remember me doing away with my darkroom. That must have been at least 12 years ago. It was a strange feeling, but with hindsight I never regretted it. But then, I used only normal printing, not the very special dye transfer process that you mastered. I wish you well."
Bill Pierce: "I believe the first time Ken saw the shot published in the U.S. was on a wall in the Village area of NYC. It was being used as a poster by a British rock group. I was with him at the time. It was a strange experience."