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Saturday, 28 February 2009


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I remember being the heavy in the college dark room back at Ithaca College. I was the last monitor of the day and it was up to me to put everything away and clean up. Around finals time, people were trying to print up to the last minute. Of course, I had some things to do myself around finals time so I wanted to get out of there. I would end up doing a countdown to when I was going to turn on the light. I warned them that they better have their paper put away in 10...9...8..7...6...

It's amazing how different darkrooms look when the lights come on, especially the big ones. We were using those Thomas something or other sodium safelights, so it wasn't like we couldn't see everything, but it was as though the magic had been sucked out of the room when the lights came on. It was just a room with the lights on, it was something special under the safelights.

Poignant, yes, but from my simple darkroom, which was active from 1969 to about 1985, I remember only the easels and the piles of boxes. Those nifty color heads I only dreamed about. It was nice to see a little Focomat holding its own in one of the later pics.


Anyone seen the *Digital DeVere Enlargers* in the USA? I wonder if there's one in a commercial setting? It'd be nice to get a few Fiber prints for a look-see!

It's just a traditional enlarger chassis with an LCD insert where the negative carrier used to be. Light shines through the LCD carrier onto the *real printing paper*.................

I love photographs of darkrooms; they've always fascinated me endlessly. I'm still holding onto my beloved darkroom, like a capitalist/ anti-socialist in America.

Thanks for posting that Mike!

Yeah, and you learned not to leave your paper out under those big Thomas sodium vapor safelights, either! Those things could fog paper in five minutes.

Funny, I almost got a job teaching photography at Ithaca College once, until they found out I don't have an MFA. That was the end of that.


Not to dismiss Richard Nicholson's fine work here, but a young Swiss lady by the name of Catherine Leutenegger already did this exact subject, and very well, in a series called 'Hors Champ' in 2005.



(check the last two images in that portfolio selection)

It was shown at the Musée de l'Elysée in 2006.

She followed up with a trip to Rochester, NY, and won the Swiss Federal Prize of Design in 2008.

But, yeah, it's a great idea, a great subject, and deserves to be shot twice :)

So sad. I worked for almost 15 years in a darkroom with a Durst Laborator 1200 and a lovely Leica 35mm enlarger. Wonderful pieces of machinery, with a tactile sense that nothing digital will ever match. Now I use an Epson printer and an EOS 5D, and my results are better than anything I ever did traditionally. But I miss it and I always will.

I have to agree with Isaac, above. The soul of a darkroom is only revealed under the safelights. Richard's photos are good documentation, but they don't show what these spaces were really like.

Well, the safelights had louvers to adjust the amount of light coming out, we kept them mostly closed, but with such a large darkroom (each black and white lab had 16-18 enlarger stations!) they were really needed. Ithaca still has those big black and white darkrooms BTW, complete with a horizontal enlarger for really large prints and a non-silver lab as well last time I saw...

I'm glad I'm not the only one whose darkroom is a big, cluttered mess.

I have fond memories of doing 20" x 16" Cibachromes processed in open trays (and no gas mask either). It is definitely easier to produce a good colour print on my Epson 2100 or Canon i9950, but some of the excitement is missing. Watching the paper creep out of the printer is not the same as seeing it emerge in the developer. A sad but wonderfully nostalgic post.

Yep, those are good old De Vere Cathomags. Super pieces of kit which were a joy to use. We also had a 10 x 8 one as well - real fun! Takes me back some!

You know I have fond memories of those old cash registers. Watching a skilled operator punch those keys - listening to that kachunk kachunk. Those were the days when people did real business. Well, the magic is gone. It's all just wham bam thank you mam and out the door.

Sorry guys this is sad. I loved my 60 Chevy Impala but when the floor boards rusted out I moved on.

Canon, Nikon, Leica, Pentax ..... The technical world of photography is naturally dominated by the names of camera manufacturers, but I was struck by the ubiquity of the "De Vere" label on the enlargers. I'd never seen it until today. To my mind, these devices and the items stacked around them (papers and what not) constitute a disappearing "biosphere" of photographic tool, practices and heritages. (Pushing the biology analogy a bit further, I some times sense that the passing of Polaroid and other such companies is somewhat akin to a photographic "Permian extinction.")

I hope that photo historians who read this blog might start an oral and visual history project that tries to record these legacies before the material items are consigned to the recycling bin, and the practitioners and their art pass away. I note the other blog message today regarding the book creation project--perhaps this would make a viable topic for such a publication.


The fact is this is the relentless march of technology.

I'm glad to be rid of those chemicals. Fixer was sulfuric acid, and indicator stop bath was 28% acetic acid. Developer was a strong base.

I remember spending some time in a darkroom around 1998. I had a severe asthma attack.

"Sorry guys this is sad. I loved my 60 Chevy Impala but when the floor boards rusted out I moved on."

Yeah, carved marble, oil paints, furniture made of wood, books bound in leather for crap's sake. It's all so yesterday.


Hi Mike, thanks for featuring my darkroom series.

I don't know if you saw my email from a couple of weeks ago. I wrote to say that the series was partly inspired by this post of yours from back in July 2006:



"I'm glad to be rid of those chemicals. Fixer was sulfuric acid, and indicator stop bath was 28% acetic acid. Developer was a strong base."

Okay, look. Nobody's saying the old days were perfect, nobody's saying they should come back. Some of us just have memories of the way the craft used to be practiced.


P.S. Stop bath was VINEGAR. You could drink it and it wouldn't hurt you. (Well, at least the kind without indicator in it.)

And my poor darkroom sits lonely in the basement. It hasn't been used in years and I sometimes lay awake at night wondering what to do with it.
The enlarger wouldn't get anything in the market, I am sure it would not be appreciated if given to someone who would use it once or twice and then look upon it as a burden.
I could put it out with the garbage, but I would regret that immediatly. And the final insult would be some kid vandalizing it as it sits waiting its fate.
No, it sits there, quietly waiting for the day that will probably not come.
I no longer work professionally, my new job (not as a glamourous photograher, just a cog in a corporate wheel) makes sure I don't have time to spend days on end printing. And digital consumes too much of my photography time budget. Always causing me to spend more and more time relearning what it took me years to learn in the darkroom.
No, my darkroom and the skills to run it are obsolete, I can no longer buy Kodak papers as I can no longer buy GAF film.
Someday I will sell the house and the darkroom will go and so will the last of my love of the 40 years.

I hope it inspires similar essays in other major cities as in the Naked in NY, Naked in LA books of the previous decade.

My aging legs and feet don't miss the darkroom, but my heart always will.

Wonderful series. I'm lucky, I've just started as a part time lecturer in photography in a tertiary institution. Two black and white darkrooms with 25 enlargers in each, a splendid RA4 darkroom with 4 printing stations and an automated printing line, and our very own E6 machine. Joy oh joy. I would have paid to have access to all this.

I still make silver prints commercially, and for my personal purposes. No reason to write off to a perfectly viable process just because there is another way to do something.

People still ride horses ya know... (and I'm pretty sure they know about cars).

It's now cheaper than ever to set up a great darkroom if you have the space, and the best cameras from history are available at a fraction of their once hefty cost. If you love b&w why not do this? I'm making contact prints from my 8x10 Deardorff and shooting Tri-X in my Hasselblad, getting gorgeous prints out of the darkroom. It's SO EASY! You'll have to pry those stainless steel tongs from my COLD DEAD HANDS!

For photos of lots of working darkrooms of every size and shape, take a look at one of the most popular threads on APUG.org (Analogue Photography Users Group)--


Fixers sometimes have sulfuric acid as a hardener, but there are plenty of fixer formulas that have no sulfuric acid, and there are even alkaline fixers that have become quite popular in recent years. I use one myself--TF-4 from Photographic Formulary.

Regarding commercial users of the DeVere digital enlarger, I know that Precision Photos, mainly a headshot lab in New York, has two of them-- http://www.precisionphotos.com/
Headshots are the perfect application for this technology, because it's easy to combine text and image, the standard print size is 8x10" (well within the maximum enlargement limit with this technology), and with a roll paper easel and processing setup, it is way faster to make 100 identical wet prints than 100 inkjets, which is the standard run for headshots.

Mark- I miss it plenty- and there's plenty I don't miss. Making exhibition quality prints from 35 mm negs using wide angles that captured all kinds of details in all kinds of light was never, ever, anything near easy...

If you can't make art in a wet darkroom, you can't make it with a 5D and an Epson whatever.

Chris, I've never seen a DeVere digital enlarger, but I ordered some B&W selenium-toned prints from a house in New Mexico which uses them. The results were fantastic, but it was expensive, and I've never done it again.


Oh damn! They are closing their doors as of ... tomorrow! The owner posted a sad statement on the website, which I recommend you read. I wish I'd given them more business. I've never heard of anyone else providing prints made with that particular digital-to-chemical process. And I hope someone from San Miguel is reading this, because those guys were very nice to me even though I was an internet customer with a small one-off order.

Damn, again.

My interaction with them was several years ago, btw. A relevant detail which I forgot to mention.

After looking at those images, at least I now know why my studio is such a mess. It's just part of me that soaked into my fingers with the fixer in the darkroom.

Oh wow, who'd have thought the sight of pro-enlargers and a stack of paper would still send me weak at the knees. My darkroom kit has been boxed up for years but I can't bring myself to get rid of it.

I've enjoyed this post, particularly as I'm reading it while sitting in the darkroom, with the sound of my prints washing in the background.

Mr. Nicholson said there were no young printers and truly I know of none myself. This perhaps will finally be the end of traditional wet process printing, when us old guys die off. I sure can't find in any of my children or grandchildren even a passing interest in taking over my hobby. The missus and I have moved to a small apartment and now I just use a Durst Reporter and set up in the bathroom. I have however made an effort to D&P once a week.

"The results were fantastic, but it was expensive, and I've never done it again. ---
Oh damn! They are closing their doors as of ... tomorrow!"

Rejoice! Here's someone who's advertising Archival Gelatin Silver Prints from Digital Files


The photos brought back the smell of acetic acid stop bath in an unventilated room.

As a kid, I used a camera club darkroom in the YMHA on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. Omega enlargers.

In the summer, because there was no ventilation in the darkroom, I would emerge after a few hours, soaked to the skin in my own sweat and stinking of salad dressing.

To add my 'I second that' to Mike Sperry's excellent comments:

Don't give up on darkrooms just yet, fellas. It's my sense that we're going to see a resurgence in the wet darkroom. A lot of people still enjoy being part of a handcrafted process, whether on the creating end or on the viewing/buying end.

And, the person who keeps his/her darkroom and darkroom skills just might have a leg up on a 'new' cottage industry.


The only explanation I can think of to describe the venom towards darkrooms is that those folks never could "get it" or their experience was with inferior equipment or techniques.

I spent a good chunk of change for quality equipment, such as the RH Designs timers and analyzers, and suddenly things actually become fun.

Modern chemistry formulas, as can be purchased from places like "Photographers Formulary" are much easier on the lungs and even so, a ventilated darkroom makes it all a non-issue. Furthermore, invest in a slot processor and things get even more enjoyable.

Bad back? Folks, that's what chairs are for.

In the category of "Someone else did a major project just like that and is famous because of it", I nominate Québécois photographer Michel Campeau, who graced the cover of Aperture a while ago with his elegant and somewhat more abstracted portraits of local darkrooms, with an intro by Martin Parr.


Cf. also:

So now that we all know darkroom portraits will be a trend in the years to come, I call Firsties in the name of Campeau and Québec...

When I was a newspaper photog I had to manage the paper's darkroom and I hated it. Bulk loading Tri-X, mixing chemistry, developing the film etc. seemed so tiresome and stressful. Worst of all we had a totally ass-backward system of making wet prints and scanning them on a flatbed for every image, because the company wouldn't pony up for a neg scanner!
Now, some years later, I'm having a lab develop my film and I scan the images with my very own film scanner. But all my favorite photography forums are filled with reminiscences of the magical darkroom and I'm drawn back to the early days of being a student and learning printing for the first time. I recently uncovered some of my first printed photo projects and I was quite surprised and the quality and detail of these old prints compared to what I'm seeing on typical inkjet.
I just became a homeowner for the first time and in our new laundry room there is plumbing for a sink, ventilation, and enough room to squeeze in a little Durst. Hmmm...I think I'm going to take advantage of one of you guys who are too busy for your darkrooms!

"If you can't make art in a wet darkroom, you can't make it with a 5D and an Epson whatever."


I don't recall saying I could never make art in a wet darkroom. I could and frequently did; from 35mm, 120 and 4x5. But I can now from digital too. More easily, more consistently and well. But I still miss the darkroom.


Time and technology march on and we try new things. Some are truly better and some are just different. Film/wet process and digital are different and I don't think one is better than the other, they both seem to have their place. It does make me sad to see that some materials and resources are no longer available. It makes me happy to see how some photographers adapt by combining the new and the old to create great results. The darkroom has always seemed to me to be a magical place where the high priests of alchemy conjure their magic spells. I am allowed in once and a while as an acolyte aspiring to the brotherhood. I pray I may still have the time and resources available to cast at least a few spells that captivate. I never seem to feel that magic current while sitting at the computer or watching a print exit the inkjet. If I am ever so fortunate as to make a masterpiece I would much prefer it to happen by combining darkness and light in an analog environment.

I manage to avoid sadness and nostalgia by getting into the darkroom once a week.

I taught a black and white photo class at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina last summer. I had seven students, five of whom were under 30. I don't know how many, if any, of them will get themselves back into a darkroom anytime soon, but they had a blast.

I was prepared for a discussion (which I thought would happen on the third day of the class) about why anyone would still want to bother making pictures this way, but nobody ever asked the question.

It's clear that the darkroom craft is going to get very tiny, but, you know there was a time when etching, engraving, and stone lithography were the dominant forms of image reproduction. Those days are long past, but the media live on. So there may still be a few darkrooms around after all the old printers are gone.

And, as Ken said, this is a good time to buy equipment if you are so inclined. I never thought I'd be able to afford a Multigrade enlarger head or a stainless steel sink.

The comment about mechanical cash registers is interesting. I certainly remember when grocery store clerks had the prices for all of the products in stock memorized. Then clerks relied on the price stickers. Later came the scanning devices for the bar codes on products. It’s common today to see clerks needing help with using the scanners. That, friends, is progress according to some.

The unfortunate result of the move to digital image processing is that many folks seem to believe that amplifier that goes to eleven should always be set on eleven! I’ve seen enough amped up, super saturated shopped images. I’d like to see more NDR or Normal Dynamic Range images. I’d like to see a DSLR with an ISO 16 or 25 setting since few of us shoot NFL night games but many of us do shoot outdoor daylight images and wide apertures are appreciated. I’d like to see more moderate contrast B&W images just like those I enjoyed printing in the darkroom. Finally, I’d like to see the return of judging the artistic merit of images based upon their compositional qualities instead of just the artist’s application of special effects.

I helped to make our first cooperative darkroom in a dorm room that once housed Farah Fawcett. The building had been a sorority house but was purchased by the Austin co-ops and repurposed as a cooperative dormitory. Will Van Overbeek, Janet Gelphman and Ellis Vener were among the earliest members.

My final darkroom had a Leica V35 englarger and an Omega D5. Thomas Duplex Sodium Vapor safelights and a nice stereo. I spent 15 years printing my professional work there until digital took over.

When I read the article and saw the photos I actually had tears come to my eyes. My only consolation is that my son's middle school photography course still requires students to process rolls of black and white film and to make enlarger prints.

What a poignant reminder of a beautiful age of craftsmanship.

Thanks. Kirk

I did kind of choke up there myself, Kirk!

All my life I've dreamed of having my own custom built darkroom in a suburban home, squirreling away bits and pieces of darkroom equipment for that happy day, kids out of the house, and me leaving my cramped apartments. Now, with the great financial crash, its probably never going to be. But my memories of sessions in my 2 makeshift NYC darkrooms in the 1980s and 1990s still make me happy. Folks, never put off doing what you really want to do; it doesn't become a low priority item simply because it is a luxury or irrelevant to your responsibilities in life.

I've still got an Omega D5 in various boxes (and the column and baseboard just sitting around). I used it in Massachusetts from 1981-1985, but never set it up in the next house, or the current house.

I should have set it up in the previous house (1985-1995); it lost out to my planning to finally build the *perfect* darkroom, which turned out not to be possible there (ceilings too low, among other things). I spent a lot on lab fees and wasn't very happy with most of the prints.

Then I had a space picked out to put in the perfect darkroom in this house, which could have been really good, but I got into digital printing (from photo CD images) very early, and the temptation to go back to doing things the slow hard way evaporated very quickly.

My first darkroom, in my parents' basement, was just black plastic stapled over widely spaced 2x4 framing. No drain or running water, either (I developed film over by the laundry sink, and washed prints there).

In college I was using three of the four darkrooms on campus, in charge of two of them and helping maintain a third. Helped build one of those, the "Photo Coop" darkroom in the basement of Sayles-Hill at Carleton College in Northfield MN. I doubt it's still there.

I'm very surprised to see that my darkroom was actually NEATER than the pro darkrooms shown; surely the only thing of mine that averages neater than any large set of other peoples'!

I am so *amazingly* much better a printer in digital! Especially for color; I was never better than a mediocre color printer, and only played at it a little in the darkroom out in Massachusetts (anybody remember Ektaflex? Other than you, Ctein, I *know* you do). But even for B&W, I'm a lot better digitally, and I was fairly good, not a world-class printer by any means, but fairly good, in the darkroom. And I can find time to do it digitally so much more easily -- there isn't long setup and cleanup time, so I can actually work on a photo (or photos) for half an hour if that's what fits.

when one of you old folks retires and needs to get rid of a durst or de vere, give me a call. kthanxbye.

This young women is doing her work in a darkroom, and she buys frames from me.Doubly impressed. Were my son not such a "gypsy" he would be using a darkroom. It's also my understanding that many photo schools start one out using film. Lament not, though Ctein's process could be marginal.



at my university i used to print from b@W negatives at its darkroom. it was actually the men 's WC of the floor for the classrooms there and it was quite spacious. the men that wanted a pee didn't mind a flight of stairs to the next floor.
Now the department of research has its offices at that floor and the darkroom is replaced by some of its archives. The enlarger and dishes were put in a smaller room and i dont think they have been used since.
Progress can be bitter sometimes...

Rayko here in SF (http://raykophoto.com/) has plenty of young, traditional printers.

There's a lot of heterogeneity in the world. I don't doubt there are whole communities where it's hard to find a young printer (Richard seems to reside in one of those), but it's not a universal.

Some people have a genuine and strong preference for one kind of -room ('dark' vs 'computer') over the other. In my small sample, in fact, more people have a strong preference than feel equally comfortable in both.

I'm sure Jeffrey Glass is speaking correctly for himself (and he'd be speaking correctly for me), but I've not observed this to be generally true in the world. The craft-skills and the working environments are so radically different that it would be surprising if it were otherwise.

pax / Ctein

I changed the water filters in my darkroom last week. It was obviously long overdue, since I forgot to turn off the water supply. I loosened the filter cover and it was like the scene from a World War II submarine movie. So yes, I can say I have a wet darkroom.

I still have the same feeling of magic watching a print come up in the developer as when I first saw it happen in 1965. Photoshop is never going to replace this.

I learned over 10 years ago how to print black and white. It was magical. I am still experimenting with platinum and silver prints. I don't know if anyone has ever read the book by Dan Burkholder "Making Digital Negatives for Contact Printing", but basically printing negatives from a digital file on an ink jet printer at large sizes and making contact prints. It takes practice and lots of experimentation.

I like this series a lot, and hope Richard will come to the U.S. and shoot a few darkrooms here. And then a book?

It seems these are mostly commercial darkrooms? And Richard only photographed the dry side? I'd love to see more

Well done!

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