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Tuesday, 02 June 2009


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Oh the memory of those chemicals, the magic of the image appearing in the dish, the awe of taking the film out of the tank and hanging it up to dry - only negatives but magic. That was one of the great pleasures of my child and teen years - more than 50 years ago......oh, I also enjoy cooking by the way!

There is no zen in computer processes. In the true meaning of zen, the pleasure of having perfected a discipline so much it's an art in its own execution.

Hey, you described me in that "You might enjoy darkroom work if:" list. Ditto for the computer. :-)

Well, Mike, that about covers it. One more thing: years ago, and I do mean *years* ago, I read an article that differentiated between pleasure and joy. Pleasure was a good meal, a good ... well, you can fill this one in. Joy, on the other hand, was what you got from sustained dealing with some problem that you were solving or some process that was leading to further problems to solve. Flow, as the Hungarian guy put it. That article was talking about scientific work, work in a lab. But what's the difference between one kind of lab and another. One might be light, the other dark, but otherwise?

Just curious, Mike: can you identify what it is about cooking which stresses you out?


You hit the nail right on the head about the psyche behind a darkroom buff.

I am still keeping my Kaiser 6x6 enlarger with multigrade head, Rodenstock APO lenses, Leica Fotocars and Elmars, an El-Nikkor and 4-bladed easel. I can set up in 15 mins if I wanted to.

Guess what? My ONE Year Leica challenge is starting to roll some film through and soon, I'll have some negatives to play with. And the anticipation is great feeling.

Dan K.

I've been using a darkroom weekly for the past 15 years. Although I like it for many of the reasons you list, the main advantage is that for workprints it is actually faster than digitally printing.

I use an RC processor which develops, fixes, and dries in about 2 minutes. If I have two enlargers going at once I can whip out roughly 100 prints in a 6 hour session. To scan, retouch, color balance, resize, etc in Photoshop would take much longer, and that isn't even getting into printing. The prints look better, they're quicker to make, and it's a tangible process.

For making multiple copies of demanding exhibition prints, the computer has the advantage. For day-to-day printing, I like the darkroom

I wonder, was Csikszentmihalyi really Ctien's name before he wanted a much easier version to say and spell? Just kidding C.....

My darkroom is alive, music'd, dark and cool so on hot summer days it is indeed a welcome respite...

I started my darkroom adventures when I was in the 8th grade in 1966. I got a kit for Christmas that had everything except an enlarger which I quickly saved up for and got. I will NEVER forget seeing that first print appear before my eyes. I processed a lot of B&W film and paper until I went off to college. At college the free University darkroom was always booked and I rarely used it. It was only years later that I realized I'd been exposing myself to a lot of really noxious chemicals over the years. Gloves? Surely you jest. After college I just never got around to setting up the darkroom. I still processed my own (E4)slides, but that is essentially trivial.

I did enjoy darkroom time. I got pretty good at it mostly self taught through books and magazines. I even won a couple of local photo competitions. In high school, hours in the darkroom sure beat studying.

I would never go back to darkroom work now. I've gotten really good at digital and my prints are very satisfying to me and friends and family, which is all that matters. I still escape by spending many hours on Photoshop but I have to say I sure don't miss being exposed to those chemicals.

I liked film and wet photography. I love digital.

"Just curious, Mike: can you identify what it is about cooking which stresses you out?"


1. I'm no good at it, which means
2. I risk ruining expensive ingredients, and
3. I'm likely to not like the result. Also,
4. I never learned how it was "supposed" to be done, so I have no confidence--I can barely tell when a fried egg is "done." And finally,
5. Despite my excess girth (which comes from bad, lazy, self-indulgent diet, not a fondness for food), I actually don't like food that much.

I think that's it.

You'd think that darkroom work would be more like cooking than unlike, and I can easily see how some people would feel about printing just how I feel about cooking. I guess I just mastered one because I like the results and never was motivated to overcome my deficiencies in the other.


Hey Mike,

I'm definitely one of those "nut cases" that really enjoyed the darkroom! I'm just waiting for my daughter to move out so that I can convert her room into a darkroom; the 8' stainless sink has been waiting patiently in the garage for about 10 years now! :)

Like you, I won't ever give up the desktop and digital (especially for color work), but there is still something special to me about a finely crafted silver B&W print. Also, no investment in new hardware required...I can still put a neg into my 30 year old Beseler 4x5 enlarger (ayup, still got it!), put a piece of light sensitive paper on the easel, turn the light on and make a pretty decent print. Try that with your current computer 30+ years from now! Oh, and my Leica M's are retaining a fair market value...What's the value of my Canon D30? Probably couldn't sell it for enough to buy a candy bar! :) I'm just saying...

Great article. I bet the best thing about writing a post like this one is the flow of old memories about great days spent in the darkroom.

I suppose a guy who plans on returning to the nether regions (aka the dark room), will need to start mixing his own chemicals too in the not-too-distant future. Perhaps "Enjoys math and chemistry" should be added to your list.

A guy that has to introduce himself as "Csikszentmihalyi" had best know a thing or two about "flow".

"... enjoyed darkroom work. Some did it because for them, it was a recreation. Here's a shocker: for some, neither the finished prints nor the practice of photography was the main attraction of work with a camera; they actually liked darkroom work above everything else in the hobby. I'm thinking of real people here. I'm not making this up."

Of course, there are some people for who the digital darkroom holds the same allure.

The excitement of perfecting their image, to get the best they can out of the data captured!

In my younger days, I turned my bedroom into a light leaking darkroom. I did really enjoy it. I still have an Omega enlarger stored away somewhere, and in my office closet is a Paterson developing tank.

For a while I belonged to a local camera club and had access to their darkroom. But it was filthy and nobody wanted to invest the time in cleaning up after themselves.

But I remember working for hours and never realizing the passage of time -- a profound stage of concentration, equivalent to flow.

These days, no darkroom and I do spend the time in front of a computer. I still get into the profound state of concentration.

One would say that the only thing I'm missing is the noxious chemical smell. Wrong. Rocky the wonder dog sleeps under my desk and farts on a regular basis...


Were you in the "flow", as an editor, when you spelled: Csikszentmihalyi ?

Nice piece, and I'll admit that even when I did it as a job, that there were moments of great pleasure. Enough so that I still think of getting another Darkroom. The skill of loading film onto a reel is like that of riding a bike, it seems to be retained.

Then I could use up the almost full brick of Tri-X my kid left in the refrigerator.

Just when I was getting comfortable in my Lightroom.

I've just turned fifty, the last child has left home and I've started building an extension to the house for a darkroom, so I know just where you're coming from. I spent twenty years relaxing in the darkroom but without sufficient time to really develop my skills, even though I got to a decent exhibition standard.
well now I feel like the last five years in digital have been a frustrating waste of time, all that effort (and money, lots of it!) put into being like everyone else. I never stopped using my leica or my linhof, but I never ever liked my digital prints as much as my fibre based prints, and I suspect very few people do get a chance to print the same image both ways and make a true comparison.
The real bonus is that this time i can buy the best gear for a pittance,such as my 'as new' durst L1200 for $100! you have no idea how much i'm looking forward to fitting out the new room and relaxing with this wonderful hand craft, it'l be like coming home.

Darkroom work is always more enjoyable in a 3 piece suit and putting a lamp under an open book like paper thing will definitely make things more exciting later.
I enjoyed the darkroom for 40 years but after standing that long, sitting in front of the computer in a 3 piece suit works better at my age. My last 10 years was spent working with Pyro and glycine developers, producing great negatives and the most beautiful prints I have ever seen.
It had to be done but it was the end of a era when they had to remove the cadmium from all of the warm tone papers.
I think thats when my darkroom days really ended. Spent 10 years getting the look I was after and then the door was shut. I'm now getting close with the computer and inkjet--but it will never have the same look. Close but no cigar.

What can I say about your writings? They're hors concours!

And they are the reason for many people having their home darkrooms, back in the times of DCCT.


Nicely put, Mike.

My own thoughts and preferences resonate with yours - especially on the subject of computers. I resent the amount of time I need to spend in front of Photoshop, and consequently photography loses a lot of its charm when the tedium of repetitive enhancements at the computer is taken into account. I actually dread it when I know I have a few hundred images in the memory card that all need 'help'.

Up to the point of pressing the shutter release is still quite okay. But beyond that, I still prefer the joy of a big colour tranny through a good loupe on a light box.

It still feels like a craft when there's something tangible and analogue involved, be it a tranny or a chemical print.

If your neighbour used a computer to restore his MG Midget, and all the labour was done by CNC machinery, I'm sure he wouldn't get a fraction of the satisfaction from it.

I hate, hate, hated it! And longed for the day when something, anything would replace the drudgery, the tedium, the sheer hell of striving ad infinitum just to get it right once! The dodging came out good, but the burning in didn't- they both came out good, but I bleached it all to hell at the very last second!

After five years of not being in the dark, I finally rented a darkroom, did three workprints, and ran out practically screaming after not even nailing down the basic exposure... How I survived over two decades of it, I'll never know (and it looks so "romantic" in movies).

Still, I've yet to even buy a digital camera... If I ever get filthy rich, I'll make my own sandwiches- and hire that printer in Nachtwey's documentary.

I guess I'm one of those darkroom people. I'd go into the darkroom in the morning and when I would come out, much to my surprise, it would be dark outside. Flow.

I enjoyed the printing part of darkroom work quite a bit (processing film was drudgery, and included the possibility of utter failure).

I enjoy processing digital photos even more, for all of the same reasons you list. This "flow" can occur while processing a new batch of shots, or while endlessly tweaking a single image. It's at least as enjoyable as actually shooting photos, and sure beats hauling heavy cameras and tripods all over creation.

Yes, I do enjoy basking in the colored glow of my monitor, and I'm happy when I have the time for it.

"The real bonus is that this time i can buy the best gear for a pittance, such as my 'as new' durst L1200 for $100"

That's a fabulous deal even these days.


Back in 1970 when my dad gave me my first camera (the ol Canonette QL-17, of course!) I didn't know really how to take pictures, but he also introduced me to his darkroom. At that time, I was more into the darkroom than actually taking pictures I think because I could see the magic, the image show up in the developer tray. That was the cool thing for me.

I consider myself one of the lucky ones who had an opportunity early on to learn a bit about darkrooms. In the mid 60's I joined the yearbook photography staff at my high school. By my senior year I was the one-man-band photography staff - photographer, darkroom technician and photo editor. I must admit it was very satisfying to see the process through from shoot to printed page. But the pressures of engineering school and then family put an end to my darkroom days. After high school I think I only worked in a darkroom one time - to make some prints for my father to submit his work to a national biannual design book. He got in, so I guess I did ok, though I never advanced beyond the intermediate stage.

But in the 1980's when the IBM PC appeared, I fell in love again. And by 2000 when the kids were grown and digital cameras hit 3 megapixels, I jumped in feet first and never looked back. My guess is, that like the darkroom days where you supposed that maybe 10% did it for pure enjoyment, the same is probably true of today's lightroom process. I know it is for me. It all gets back to that end-to-end process that results in a tangible artifact, whether it's a book made from silver gelatin prints or a fine art carbon on paper print.

I think the 10% figure will always be about right for whatever is the current process. Maybe we should call it Johnston's Law.


"it was the end of a era when they had to remove the cadmium from all of the warm tone papers."

So true. And to add insult to injury, they still put the same name on the "reformulated" paper, thus insulting the memory of the deceased.


Mixing chemicals? And here I thought he was pouring himself a "recreational" beer.


Regarding your disclosure that " I can hardly boil soup, and just being in the kitchen stresses me out": When I, too, was faced with being single yet gastronomically inept, I found my footing in the kitchen by learning how to stir-fry. Now, that's tactile and satisfying! Toss chopped beef and garlic, then onion, broccoli, red capsicum, beans and whatever into a hot wok or frypan with a little extra virgin olive oil. Stir madly, add soy sauce: there's lots of sizzle, steam and a satisfying sense that you're an expert! Women love it! :) With that mastered, you can then lash out further! :))

I'll tell you one thing, you'll see that more and more blog articles about "film" and "darkroom" are being written more then ever lately. Have you noticed? Know why? Because more and more people are returning to film.

I happen to think, hear and see, more folks being bored with making things as a graphic artist and want to be, once again, photographers.

Man, that H.H. Bennett is the best dressed darkroom worker I've ever seen!! Sure beats my old apron.

""it was the end of a era when they had to remove the cadmium from all of the warm tone papers."

So true. And to add insult to injury, they still put the same name on the "reformulated" paper, thus insulting the memory of the deceased."

Mike, you and anyone else you've motivated to get back into the darkroom should try this paper when it becomes available:

Adox MCC 111

I've printed on some from the test run and think you'll like it very much, even without cadmium.

Mike, I teach B&W darkroom and the idea of starting in class 1 by printing negs supplied by the instructor is brilliant. I'm gonna steal it!



You'll be pleased with the effect, Dave. It works nicely.

I would give them a clear filmstrip with one negative in the middle of it. Made it as easy as possible. (Also kept them from handling the actual neg, which in turn made them last longer.)


Mike, for the last few years I've been gradually collecting darkroom equipment, mostly at flea-markets, with the plan being to build a darkroom in the shed. I have the space set aside, now I just need the time.

Your comment "And because what's left of my life is too short a time to learn to build a wooden boat or restore an antique car." bothers me. I also have an unfinished wooden boat (actually a cedar-strip kayak) in the shed. And an old car that needs an engine. Hmmm.




A few years ago when I was seriously teaching myself photography, I was editing about 500 digital images from a trip, learning Photoshop and Nikon Capture. I would come home from work, which involved composing English sentences on a computer, and work for hours more on a different computer composing images. A few months later I realized this contributed to and/or triggered some rather intense repetitive stress injury: tingling, numbness, soreness, etc in hand and arm.

Because I was in love with photography, this got me thinking about film, again, about creating pictures without a computer. Hmm, fancy that! Long story short, it was the best thing that's ever happened to me creatively. I now shoot pretty much exclusively film, mostly Tri-x and I have a small darkroom in the garage and am a member of a coop darkroom in Austin.

I think that sooner or later this disorder, which is caused by sitting on yer fat as* making the same miniscule movements over and over with a very limited group of muscles in a very limited range, will become more and more common and may very well drive more and more folks off their as*. Which could well be the best thing that could happen to most of them. And it could save film to boot (crosses his fingers).

The last few posts have been quite apropos to me personally. I just started shooting in 2006 and last summer decided I should switch from digital to black and white film due mainly to a comment from you (yes, it's your fault; kidding, kidding).

I only intended to do this as a once-in-a-while type thing. But after getting back negatives and scanning them I realized that I had no mental baseline for comparison on what was a "good" scan or "bad" scan. Last December I put together a darkroom and started to really focus on black and white film.

I have to say that it's been a bit of a struggle. In my "normal" (i.e. non-photographic) life I'm an electrical engineer designing digital integrated circuits. Computers, complicated software, flows, methodology, etc are all sort of the norm for me. During my stumbles in the film world it seems to be filled with rules of thumb and dark secrets, etc, etc that may or may not hold water. Suffice to say it's been a learning experience.

All that being said, I am coming to a sort of peace with the darkroom work. I've come to accept that I'll never be a great printer and I'm okay with that. I think my mental attitude alone has allowed me to just enjoy the process of making the prints and really, that's all I'm looking for.


I just spent 6 lovely hours in the darkroom at IFP here in St. Paul, MN.

I would much, much rather be making wet prints from well-exposed and developed negatives than slaving away in photoshop and wondering if the colors and luminence I see on my screen will once again verchackt by the internet or the lab doing the lightjet prints.

Having said that, making a good print from a badly exposed or developed neg is a nightmare I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.

But for me, the print is the final result. The image alone is an epistemological bit of vapor.

When I was very small my grandmother baby-sat me and my cousin while our parents were working. My cousin was already a budding tearaway, so my gran (at his own request, I hasten to add) used to put him in the 'coal-hole' - an indoor larder-sized room, windowless, into which poorer folk had their deliveries of the black stuff tipped. He used to spend hours in there, happily shovelling and burning off all his friskiness. I suspect that wives liked darkrooms for precisely the same reason that my gran swore by the coal-hole.

I began photography in highschool while working for my highschool newspaper. I was one of the first to learn on digital and, as such, never got to learn to develop film in a darkroom.

I sincerely wish I had. Maybe it's misplaced optimism for what might have been, but every time that I set foot in the school's darkroom (usually while film-savvy friends were working) it had an air of relaxation about it. It was dark, cool and quiet. We live in an increasingly loud society. I wouldn't mind a process that gives me a little space, not to mention something that I'd actually get to work on with my hands.

But, then again, what do I know?

In the 1960's, driving around in an MG Midget was OK, as were film and darkrooms. We didn't have any better.

In the 21st century, allowing one's offspring to drive around in an MG Midget is irresponsible, considering what we know about the car's crashworthiness, and the much better options that are available in modern cars, such as airbags and side impact protection.

Film? What's film?

Regarding flow: I think the thing that you refer to might be similar to Betty Edwards idea in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. The basic thought as I remember was that as a person was involved in drawing, one was using "right-brain" or global thinking which was something not based in logical, word-based thinking. One could thus get lost in the activity and experience a sense of enjoyment in that. One step further was that she felt the "left (logical) side" resisted ones art work because it wasn't getting used. I don't think today we really see the two hemispheres as divided as she talked about in that writing, but the the holistic/global thought patterns and the logical/work/sequential ones still hold true. When one truly has absorbed a process, then it can be approached with a greater amount of global thinking. Photography and darkroom work would definitely be part of this world. When one excels you can understand an old coaches saying--"Too much left brain thinking hinders right brain performance." That is why my golf swing was always terrible!

I like sitting in front of my computer. It opens up a sea of possibilities - I can read novels, I can read "newspapers", I can visit places like TOP, I can watch a film, I can work on my photos, I can write, I can correspond with people all over the world or those just a street away. Googolplexes of possibilities.

Of course, the sedentary way of life is not healthy, but a bit of exercise and walking takes care of that.

And I like cooking. I get results. :-)

In spite of dabbling into film photography back then, I never spent any significant time in darkroom. I do toy with an idea of buying a film camera, but I'd only develop films and do the rest on the computer.

BTW, yes, the name is pronounced Mi-hai in Hungarian.

The attraction is that it is a process that has to be done in the right order, using the right tools and chemicals for the correct time. There are no short cuts, it can't be huuried or delayed. Thus you are the subject of the process, making it almost religious in its practice. If you do this, you don't have to think too much, you just have to do and all will be well or perhaps that also equates to Zen. In the same way one can get peace and pelasure from taking apart and re-assembling an engine or baking a cake.

"Anybody out there dying to spend more time at the computer?"

This is exactly the reason why on holiday, I shoot slides, not digital, and when shooting digital, I prefer getting good JPEGs straight from the camera.

Being a programmer, I already spend well over 10 hours a day behind the computer. To me, postprocessing is a chore, and one I'd rather avoid.

Funnily enough though, scanning slides is different. Somehow, the gradual build-up of a slide on your screen feels good. (Maybe that's a bit like seeing the print appear in a darkroom).

Long live the darkrooms at the University of Wales, Newport; you wouldn't believe how busy they are. The gentleman who keeps it all up and running is a bit wild, but as long as don't break the C41 machine he won't cut your hands off.

We're all (pretty much) shooting film and will be doing so as long as we can get our hands on it.

As an interesting point, the first semester of the course (Documentary Photography) is spent rather how you recommended recently; Manual camera, Black and white film, etc...

For me, taking pictures was just what you had to do to get something worth printing.

It was the kid thing that shut me down.
I had a darkroom set up to do prints as large as 8 foot square, even though I usually never printed larger than 40 by 50 inches. After paying rent for a year or two and hardly ever using it I gave away a lot of the gear, and put the rest in storage where it's been for 15 plus years.

I'd changed careers to the software biz and I started playing around with digital about 10 years ago when pixels were ten for a penny and quality was just awful. I was thinking of doing darkroom work again but found that all the films and papers I had been using were no longer available.

I remember lugging 2 50 inch wide rolls of portriga rapid on the subway. I had no idea how unique that moment was.

The block my studio used to be has been gentrified and my old darkroom is now a popular tattoo parlor.

Great to hear I am not alone. I've just started developing my own 8x10 and 4x5 negatives and it is a joy. This is a part of photography I find very exciting (geek?).

Sitting in the dark, anticipating the move from one bath to the next, and thinking of nothing else other than photography. I made a tape with somebackground jazz (Marcus Miller) and with instructions on when to do what which works really well for me.

Even though I may be 40+ I'm just a newbie when it comes to darkroom work and I love it! Believe it or not I was crazy enough to purchase over 1500 sheets of 8X10 paper recently so if that isn't a sign of pure geekness what is?

Having fun and thanks Mike!

" Anybody out there dying to spend more time at the computer? Are there legions of people today who prize what little computer time they get, and just feel they do not spend enough hours basking in the glow of monitors and clacking away at various sizes and kinds of keyboard? Just aching for some valid excuse to spend just a little more time that way? Any excuse will do?"

Well, most ten year old boys for a start.

Which makes for an interesting series of thoughts about what "hands on" and "craft" might come to mean in the future.

When it's going well, I really enjoy working in the darkroom. When it's not going so well, I don't like it.

Either way, it beats sitting at the computer.

Similarly I'd rather be outside, whatever the weather, than be at work in an office.

Seeing as you're there, Erlik, could you perhaps give us the correct pronunciation of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Martin Munkacsi, please? Thanks.

Both darkroom and cooking have an element of suspense that can be almost stressful - was the film in the holder straight? Was all that niggling getting it onto the reel bad for it? Is my chemistry the right dilution and staying at the right temperature? Have I fixed it enough? Is it sticking in the tank? ... That's ~10 minutes of stress right there. :)

What a timely post for me, sitting here (at the computer) trying to decide whether or not to shutter my darkroom.

I've had a working darkroom-- a pretty nice one of late-- for the majority of my 50 years. And I like working there-- mostly. Thumbs up to the reflective and solitary time spent holed up in a dark room, to the time spent actually making prints, and especially to the experience of creating something tangible and beautiful from raw materials. I love the look and feel of silver gelatin prints.

But a BIG thumbs down to mixing chemicals, washing (forever) toning, drying, and flattening prints, and cleaning up. So much of a thumbs down, in fact, that I felt compelled to "make the most" of every printing session, so that each one lasted a full day. Not so many discretionary full days in my life so printed less and less.... and you know where this is heading.

It's now been more than a year (possibly two, but I'm afraid to do the math) since I actually printed anything in my darkroom. Trying to decide if I should keep it or close it. To most, I suppose, the answer is plain. But I hold out with the idea that I will return to it all once I am [semi] retired and have more time on my hands. Or maybe that I will be able to hire a high school kids to slog through the boring parts of the process and to clean up after me.

Meanwhile, still shooting lots, but it's all digital.

I am one who enjoys both darkroom work and cooking. And yes, Mike, they seem to me to be quite similar pursuits, so at first I was puzzled by your comfort with one but not the other. Until you explained it, of course.

I currently do not have available space for a darkroom, though I would absolutely love to get back to it. I do not care for digital post-processing (OK, it borders on hatred, but I am working through that emotion ;) ), and I love a fine silver print. When I stopped printing (due to job and moves), I was using Zone VI Brilliant paper and Amidol to achieve prints of great tonality and depth. They weren't perfect, but they were satisfying.

I suspect, however, that when I am able to reconstitute my darkroom, the supply of good paper and chemicals may be quite tight ... if available at all. I still have the essential equipment (enlarger, lenses, timers, etc.), and trays and tanks for 4x5 are easy enough to acquire or cobble together. I'm thinking maybe I need to buy a freezer dedicated to paper and such, stockpiling for the coming wet print holocaust ...

"You like to see what you're doing..."

That's one of the big advantages of my computer monitor over my darkroom. Many photographers prefer to compose via field of view (as opposed to perspective), and they create visual art in the dark. Those are some of the reasons why painters make fun of us. ;)

"You don't have kids who need your active presence"

That's the number one reason I'm shutting my darkroom down. Without kids I'd probably get in there every once in a while, even if I have come to prefer Photoshop. After my daughter was born I went from almost daily darkroom sessions to once a week. I've developed film, but never printed since my son was born.

I still enjoy working in the darkroom, but I enjoy working on the computer just as much, and I'm much more productive with Photoshop than I was in the darkroom. What I enjoy most of all is looking at finished photographs that get close to the vision in my mind. Even though I am completely born again digital I must still have some love left for the darkroom; I gave away all my paper and film, and I'm trying to find a good home for the gear, but I am holding on to one enlarger, and just enough stuff to start a bare bones room up again. Maybe someday?

There may be some magic in great silver gelatin prints. When I look at the Harry Callahan prints at the Nelson Museum of Art in KC I know that's what people are talking about when they go on about the unique beauty of silver gelatin prints. Honestly though, I spend a lot of time visiting galleries and museums, and I rarely see silver gelatin prints of that quality.

Well I feel much better about wanting to do darkroom work now. From Mike's list, I am introverted and I love having a tangible end result, which is why I like wiring new lights. At the end you flip a switch and you know it's right if the light comes on (and nothing catches fire). From Rod's list, I would rather work in concrete, black and white (bad pun) things and I desire to be creative (desperately so). Anyhow, I have a 16 month old daughter and I love spending time with her and my wife so the darkroom will have to wait.

I also have no idea where to start with a darkroom since I am new to photography in general, which is sad for a 32-year-old. I did buy a Durst M501 for $15 at an estate sale but I'm not sure all the parts are there. So, when Zander is off to college I'm looking forward to the darkroom classes you are going to teach, Mike. ;)

By the way, my description of flow was very close to as it appears in Martin Seligman's book "Authentic Happiness." Sorry for the plagarism, Dr. Seligman! If you are interested in positive psychology, it is a very good book so far. I'm about halfway through. Dr. Seligman explains the science behind the findings and then how to apply them to your life. He also calls Mihali "Cheeks-sent-me-high" Mike. I guess that's an Americanism.

Mike, along the lines of people getting away from computers for a while there is an interesting essay on working with your hands in last week's NY Times magazine. Here is the link (which I don't know how to hyperlink):
The author, Matthew Crawford, has a book that just came out called "Shop Craft as Soulcraft."

I love the darkroom. I love making prints, it's just how I want my photographs to look. I do color in digital (got tired of dealing with labs) and I think photoshop is fun, but I don't get the same sense of satisfaction. I think it's too easy. Also, my arms hurt after too much time on the computer, and I just can't afford that. At least in the darkroom I'm moving around more. I only wish I had more time to devote, because I feel like I'm as good as I'm going to get, and that ain't good enough! ;)

Mike, I really think things went down hill for great printing in the 1950's. Just like the auto industry today, just to consumer driven--bigger, better and more types. The great papers with gobs of silver went the way of the gas guzzler's of today.
I think if the old masters were here today they couldn't make a great print with what was available in the last 10 years.
To few to keep the good stuff on the shelf--Pyro, Glycine, silver rich film, azo paper and lots of warm tone papers used by the masters. All just about gone. All together, lenses, chemicals, papers,and soot smoke filed air all gave the prints (photo's) a warmth, sensuality and depth that can't be duplicated today.
I guess thats what history is all about, remembering the past.
I predict the same will happen in ten to twenty years with, what's? an inkjet printer as we start looking at all our images on E Book devices etc.
No I don't long for the damp, dank and stinking chemical dark rooms of the past.
Have fun, I did my time in the red light district. For those who think it's a trial to work on a print for an hour on the computer--try a day working on a print in a dark room--only to start over the next day because it just wasn't right. Then make 10 more just like the first. Sorry, but I'm happy I closed the darkroom door for the last time years ago.

I remember the advertisement for the Porsche Boxster, a two seat sports car, "The more kids you have, the practical it looks."

My wife calls my darkroom my "cave" and I suppose she is right. It's the only place in the house where none may enter without my permission. And that seems to include the bathroom. :)

I recall when my oldest girl, now graduated from college, was about 3 years old and knew enough to knock on the darkroom door. She would wait patiently until the print was in the fixer so she could come in. She always left at will, fogging my print in the process, not understanding the concept of "letting the dark out".

Take care,

I actually enjoy both darkroom work and cooking, and I think that's part of my affinity for albumen printing. I've arranged the front end of the process to be non-toxic, so I can mix up the unsensitized albumen in my kitchen with ordinary kitchen utensils and entirely edible ingredients. Of course this is no longer the case once silver nitrate is involved, so that takes place in the darkroom.

Though I could buy egg whites in a carton or use powdered egg whites, I start with normal eggs and use the yolks for pastries, ice cream, custards, sauces, and such.

I was quite fortunate in my youth have had a darkroom in my basement. When I was in the 7th grade and getting interested in photography, I was basically allowed into the black painted room with permission to use anything there, but I had little or no guidance. This turned out to be a blessing! (I'm a hands-on kinda guy) My learning curve was fairly steep, but soon I was making prints that actually looked good!

By the time I was in High School I didn't need test strips anymore, and could make a good print just by looking at the easel, and make a great print on the next try -- I'm not trying to brag, but rather illustrate the advantage of getting to know a system (in this case HP5+ and Ilford paper) so well that you can start reading it without any tools. As mike said, "Learn the light, Pilgrim..."

Later in life, when I moved to Denver, I was happily surprised by having 3 really nice rental darkrooms in town. One of them had 3 Leica V35 enlargers! (an incredible machine, by the way, IF you never shoot anything but 35mm) I was in hog heaven, not needing to clean up anything when I was done, and having lots and lots of room in these relatively enormous darkrooms!

But, like most things, that time has passed - as much as it does slightly insult my inner Luddite, my scanner and big printer makes beautiful prints, with no clean-up, no fumes, and no wet hands. AND (this is a big one for me...) [i]color[/i] prints are no more fuss or work than black&white. That's actually mind-boggling, if you grew up in a wet darkroom.

Would I go back? Perhaps, and I wouldn't mind teaching my children how to print in the analog darkroom. But, when it's all said and done, it will depend on what kind of a deal I can get a V35... :)

I plan to continue developing my own Tri-X.

As for printing, I miss the *magic* of watching a print come up in the developer and I miss the feel of a medium-weight fiber print; but I don't miss the smells, the spills, and the aching back and legs.

I got my first darkroom job in high school in the 1960's. It was a local studio in Bismarck, North Dakota and the owner had attended art school in Minneapolis. He had original Adams and Weston prints on the walls. I shudder to think what they would be worth today.
They did all their own B/W work in house and hardly any color at all.
It was a great experience and I have loved darkroom work ever since.
Now my 23 year old son is graduating from college with an BFA with an emphasis on photography.
He is good with photoshop but is hooked on traditional work. Last year for my birthday he gave me a handful of his palladium prints.
He and his wife are moving back to town and I look forward to sharing my darkroom with him. I may even still have a trick or two to teach him, who knows.

I too learned darkroom work as a kid, getting a kit in 1964 or so (with a contact printing lightbox), then saving up my paper-route money for an Omega B-22 XL in 1966 when I was in eighth grade. My mother used to love the prints I made - the "making them" meant more to her than the "taking them." Anyone could take pictures, she'd say, but few could develop and print them. I was disappointed once when I took a carefully composed, creative shot to a custom lab and she was unimpressed with it. But a "point-and-shoot" image I blew up to 16x16 - she framed it and hung it in the living room.
My father and I bonded over our two passions - his woodwork and mine photography - when we spent Saturdays building a darkroom in a little-used corner of the basement. I ended up learning a lot about wordwork and home repair.
After leaving home for university and settling for club darkrooms or abbreviated sessions back home during holidays, I looked forward to the day when I could once again build my own. I had a non-successful attempt in an apartment, trying to tape up the bathroom window and set my enlarger and trays on wooden boards laid across the bathtub. Bought my first house in 1978, and a year later started walling in a basement corner for my new darkroom. Stopped at the hardware store on the way home from work one night and bought $35 of electrical gear (a $100 investment in today's dollars). A few days later, my boss told me she had a promotion opportunity for me ... halfway across the country. Sold that house (and yes, packed the $35 worth of electrical gear), and in the four houses I've owned since, I've only given fleeting thought to trying to build another darkroom.
Postscript - in 2006, I took my Omega B22, which had been packed for shipping 27 years earlier, to a shop that bought darkroom gear and he gave me $50 for it. He was apologetic about the pittance he offered; I felt it was more than fair.
I look back fondly on my darkroom work, and appreciate how much I learned about the art and craft of photography, but I'm not going back.

I'd never step foot in a darkroom again if it wasn't for my ultra-modern F-Stop based analyzer and timer. They revolutionize the process and nearly guarantee success even on the very first "work print".

Variability in the darkroom is what sinks most people. Once you have a calibrated system with a proper F-stop based metering and timing system, it's beyond a breeze.

"And because what's left of my life is too short a time to learn to build a wooden boat or restore an antique car."

How does one know how much time remains in one's life? (Well, except for those with terminal illness or those scheduled to be executed)

The only fond memories I have of darkrooms were of the "non-photographic" variety with Jeni...well, anyway, she doesn't need her name sullied.

"...use the yolks for pastries, ice cream, custards, sauces, and such."

Sounded quite practical until you got to this part. [g]


I think it is sad that the future of 99% of photography is spending one second pushing a button on a computer that happens to have a lens attached and then sitting for an hour at another computer and pushing pixels around to "capture" an image.

This coming October, I will be facing yet another rite of passage. I will be packing up thirty some odd years of darkroom equipment and chemistry into our Jeep, and making a cross country trip to North Carolina, where it will be lovingly reborn into new life. My other friend named Mike who lives there, wants to get back into the darkroom after ten successful years as a digital photographer. The materials I had so lovingly coaxed into performing as I desired are no longer available, and so the many things I used to tweak old forgotten formulas from many a deteriorating old book go away for the last time:)

I am just simply happy that these things will end up in the hands of someone who wishes to soldier on against the digital tide, rather than end up in some metal scrap pile.

The conscious state described as 'Flow' is exactly where I often find myself when creating source code on the computer. I also sometimes experience Flow when creating or editing digital images on the computer. It is an altered state that I enjoy very much.

Watching an image appear during the development process is indeed miraculous. So is watching an image appear on the monitor assembled from digital bits. The wet darkroom is a place to exercise your skills and enjoy the process of photography. The digital equivalent of the darkroom is also a place to exercise your skill and enjoy photography.

I spend somewhere between 40 and 60 hours a week on various computers. For me it is not a loathsome thing to be avoided. I'd say my comfort with the digital world is a generational thing except I'm older than you. For me the combination of computer and internet is a universe in a box.

Max gets it right.

My art professor friend makes magnificent 24x36's from 4x5 scanned negs on his 7800, better and _far_ easier than in a wet darkroom, but... but...

I am reminded of the old Woody Allen joke,
"I hear that the 8 foot tall man at the circus has been replaced by a 9 foot steel pole".

I was the Batallion Photographer in the army back in the day and that meant I had my own darkroom complete with lock on the door and a warning light outside the door meaning, in no uncertain terms, Do Not Disturb! when lit.

I also had a spare mattress in the closet of the darkroom which I would pull out, after locking down, and sleep off the night before, many, many times (the army, remember).
Film and prints did get processed but it was absolutely, totally uninspiring work,no different than high school chemistry for me. Probably the subject matter....
Lightroom is so much better, I have zilch desire for the chemical mess of yesteryear.

I liked printing but I hated developing film. I just started printing Black and white on my hp z 3100 printer. MY god you do not need a darkroom to make beautiful B&W prints I am using Ilford Gold Silk it looks just like a silver print. Also much better for the enviorment. I still have a darkroom but I do not think I will be printing again.

"I think it is sad that the future of 99% of photography is spending one second pushing a button on a computer that happens to have a lens attached and then sitting for an hour at another computer and pushing pixels around to "capture" an image."

Perhaps once you actually learn the digital process instead of passing around 1990's era anecdotes then you'll realize that us who have embraced digital technology know that capturing the image in camera is the best way to a good digital image. The process of making pictures in the camera is shockingly similar.

For those who have trouble getting a good print, there are a few easy things to check.

1. Your negatives. Are they overdeveloped? Most likely yes. Mine often were, until I accepted the truth that negatives that look good to the eye after processing are probably overdeveloped. If overdeveloped, the highlights will not print well. The neg will be way too contrasty. Free yourself of worry about time and temperature development. Try using something like Diafine, Vestal's Divided D-76, or Thornton's 2 Bath. Almost impossible to screw up. They won't be overdeveloped. Don't believe anyone who says that they won't work with modern films. They do.

2. Your safelight. Make sure the filter is still good. Make sure it does not leak light. (Check your darkroom and enlarger for leaks too.) I fought mightily to make some good prints for a John Sexton workshop. When he reviewed my portfolio, he asked if I was using an old safelight. I was. He asked if I was fighting to make a decent print. I was. He said to try a new filter. I did and starting with my next session, everything was easier. (Plus, I learned so much from him that I am much better than I was after many, many years of printing.

3. Keep it simple. Buy The Elements of Black and White Printing by Carson Graves. You probably won't ever need another b&w darkroom book.

4. The rest is practice, and having something worth printing. ;-)

My 100 year old house had the remnants of a darkroom- a room in the basement with blacked out windows, part of a kitchen cabinet that an enlarger once sat on and a real darkroom sink connected to the sewer and garden hoses for the water supply. I had the door replaced, put in real plumbing for water and added a heater for the winter and I am on my way. I have a couple of enlargers from those who converted to digital. I don't spend as much time in it as I should with family and work obligations, but it is my hide out on an occasional Saturday night, Sunday morning. Still putting out a lot of muddy grays, but one day I'll nail it down. And it is a lot quieter than my woodworking hobby.

Maxim said:
"I am just simply happy that these things will end up in the hands of someone who wishes to soldier on against the digital tide, rather than end up in some metal scrap pile."

I agree, Maxim. So if anyone is about to rid themselves of their darkroom equipment, I am willing to take it off their hands. I live in North Carolina too, Maxim, the area known locally as the Triangle. It's a great state and others must agree because it's getting more and more populous by the day.

How that for unabashed advertising, Mike? :)

I completely agree with you on cooking; I'd actually rather go hungry. A woman came over to my house a few weeks ago, looked in my refrigerator, and said, "My God, you don't even have any mustard." The contents of my refrigerator consisted of three bottles of Dos Equis, two diet Cokes and a half-bottle of milk. I'm another guy who doesn't care about food. Just don't care, and I don't want to hear about it, and I don't want any restaurant experiences of any kind and I don't want a waiter who wants to share the menu with me or whose name is Jared. I do appreciate a good bagel.

About flow: I think everybody who is very good at any one thing experiences flow. I even have a theory that the "yips" in golf, which usually afflict the most physically gifted golfers, comes when fear momentarily (for a matter of milliseconds) breaks the golfer out of an accustomed flow state. The whole theory is more complicated than that, but that's the essence. Best way to tell when you've been in flow (you don't usually recognize it when you're in it) -- you look at the clock and it's much later than it was when you last looked. You were unaware of the passage of time, and you feel very good, very relaxed and comfortable, and whatever you were doing, you probably did very well.


Wow, so many comments that it scares me adding one more...

Mike, very nice post, even better than photography! While reading, different examples of things I liked doing or still like to do came into my mind, I think it's because your thoughts are so universal that everyone can identify with them.

Thanks for posting this.

boil soup? who boils soup?

I've loved computers since I met them in 1968. Coincidentally, right about the same time I first encountered darkroom work. (I first got a GOOD camera in 1969, and that's not coincidental to my love of computers; the first couple of months salary from my first part-time computer job paid for that first SLR.)

I still work in computers, and still play at software, and still use computers as a tool for hobbies (science fiction fandom and conventions, photography, cooking, book collecting, ...).

I've had times of "flow" in the darkroom. But what I best remember, probably because it comes at the end of those long sessions, is the incredible drag and grind of waiting for the prints to wash and then running them through the dryer. When I wanted to go home an hour ago.

I still get "flow" working on software problems.

Mike, your idea of providing first-rate negatives to start printing from is brilliant.

Paul, LOVE your takeoff on the famous old Kodak slogan. I've seen places advertising exposed but undeveloped rolls of nude photos for sale, but not landscapes. Different market I think.

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

Las-lo Mo-ho:i Nadj.

Almost all the vowels are short -- 'Las-' and 'Nadj' as in 'but', '-lo' and 'Mo-' as in the British 'pot'. That 'o' followed by colon is longer, although it's shorter than the one in 'born'. The 'dj' is similar to the first sound in 'joy', but it's softer. Put your tongue a bit more towards your teeth.

Martin Munkacsi

This one is pretty straightforward...

Mar-tin Mun-ka:-chi

where 'u' is like the one in 'put', and the 'a:' is shorter than the one in the British 'past'. And 'ch' is a bit softer than the one in 'church'.

Funny thing is, the pronunciation of Hungarian sounds is not difficult, but it most probably still won't sound like the real Hungarian. They've got different word accents and stresses...

I think one of the worst moves for the joy of the darkroom was the creation of "developer incorporated" papers, such as Kodak's Polycontrast II. The magic of the excruciatingly slowly visibility, the blooming, of a black and white print was replaced with the "zip" in a couple of seconds of your effort. The loss of anticipation, of the slowly emerging image, was a huge psychological loss for later black and white printers.

The loss of the ferrotype tin, on the other hand, is unlamented.

Steve: The loss of the ferrotype plate may be unlamented, but the loss of decent-looking glossy photos is tragic. (Anything other than glossy isn't a real photograph.)

Great comments from everyone!

I don't use my darkroom as much as I should, but I agree with Mike's observation about working on computers: "Anybody out there dying to spend more time at the computer?"

I recently had to find a safelight filter to fit my Beseler Printmaker 35 enlarger. Went up to Campus Camera in Kent, OH (right near the site of the infamous shootings) and was lucky enough to find a large circular plastic safelight filter that I cut and ground down to fit the holder in the enlarger. I saw a stack of glass Wratten filters underneath the plastic filter I bought. I looked through one and couldn't even see the daylight pouring in through the window of the camera store. So I took the "lighter" filter.

I'm still not proficient at printing, but the magic is there when I see a print come up in the developer tray. I don't get a feeling like that when I fiddle with color print files on the computer.

Guess I'm a Luddite -- I still use screw-mount lenses! (Yes, Mike J., they're Pentaxes.)

I like working at my computer. I have a big comfy chair. There is a window. I can watch the Cavs choke on the second monitor. Have music. Non mole man humans can visit me without screwing anything up. In the middle of everything I can pause and wander to the rest of the house if I like. The animals can visit me. I hate to even think about that with a darkroom. The one becomes possessed by a lesser demon whenever the lights go out and the dumb one would end up floating face down in the stop bath.

Interesting thoughts about cooking.

Cooking and darkroom fit into the same part of my brain. Both are made eaiser by a lot of practice, good calibration, and most importantly, having a good feel for how the final product should come out.

Maybe I have an inflated opinion of myself, but I never had a problem getting what I thought were good prints from good pictures. It was mostly a matter of practice and time. I could even guesstimate proof print exposures about half the time just by eyeballing the negative.

I think in my heart I'd like to be doing darkroom again, but in my mind I know that the chemicals give me a skin rash and the fumes give me ashtma. So I'll take Photoshop for now, even though I use computers for a living as well.

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