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Friday, 18 June 2010


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I can't help but see a parallel to internet photography forums, and following and discussing camera gear in general. That can be a hobby in its own right, with actual photography only tangential.

Regrettably, some of us spend more time shopping for cameras than actually using them. This syndrome is its first cousin.

And maybe its another manifestation of the Magic Bullet: if only I had a great darkroom, I could make great prints.

Mike: It is exactly the same with woodworkers. I haven't had a functional darkroom in a long time and I really don't miss the exposure to the chemicals. For this reason I worship my large format Epson printer. I also do woodworking, not fine furniture, mind you, but functional stuff. I have always tried to keep the woodshop as functional as possible but it always looks like hell - yet I can get things done.
I have friends with "ultimate" woodshops and they never seem to use them much. It's a pity as they sure have some nice (unused) tools!

Ah, this sounds so familiar!

In the 1995 book "How Buildings Learn", Stewart Brand (the Whole Earth Catalog guy) posits that the best functioning buildings are those that can be easily and cheaply adapted with additions, by knocking out or adding interior walls, etc. These buildings "grow".

This is similar to darkrooms carved out of other spaces that, when the darkroom is gone, can serve other functions.

On the other hand, buildings that are gloriously built for a single wonderful purpose (cathedrals, the MIT Media Lab) are great at first, but do not adapt well. This may be OK for a tradition-bound institution like a church, but is not so good for high-tech or creative endeavors (Media Lab again) where facility needs will change over time.

I wonder what the new homeowner did with the ne plus ultra darkroom? Odds and ends storage? Expensive ripping out to turn into a home theater or gift-wrapping room?

(Speaking as a guy who had the contractors wire his new 1995 home with 4 separate CAT-5 networks that go unused in a Wi-Fi world.)

Maybe the 'most elaborate home darkroom' builder was also the guy who designed the Focomat IIc?


Been there, done that. :(

Only counterpoint I can offer is, if one does move (say for job purposes) from time to time, the darkroom space needs to be viewed positively by the buyer. And, that person is rarely a darkroom person. My last buyer loved the 7 foot sink...for her pets.

Funny how a computer and printer slotted into an office space is used more often, and more productively, than the 4 darkrooms I built; none perfect, but all pretty nice.

Perhaps recent retirement has something to do with the matter. :)

I love my makeshift darkroom. Used for printing only. A garage with the blinds closed, night only. I have one long table with the enlarger of left. Paper in a changing bag to the right of that and finally all the chems in proper order. No wet side-dry side. Keepers are left soaking in a tray of water until hand washing time.

The place is climate controlled which is as important here in Texas in the summer as it is up north in the winter. I think proper darkroom would spoil it for me. Too clinical, too expensive. I prefer the folky kind of work flow I'm using.

Only improvement I plan to make is building an easy access paper safe. Shuffling around in the changing bag is getting old.

Jerry Uelsmann...he is a master at printing..uses 3-8 enlargers to make his prints.... would love to see that darkroom

Reminds me a little of a story that I read somewhere about a famous photographer's assistant. The guy could have been a great photographer himself, but he enjoyed and was very good at setting up studios, so that is what he did very well, and got paid to well to do it.

Anyway, the comparison comes to mind when (paraphrased) he said: "My heart would sink whenever I showed up for a job at a fancy studio, with all new 'state of the art' equipment, all owned by the photographer. Invariably the photographers with the cleanest equipment and nicest studios were the most clueless... beat up and well used lighting equipment in a rusty warehouse was always a good sign."

When I started learning photography my 'darkroom' was the basement I lived in, which only had a few small windows and could be made to be totally dark in just a couple of minutes. My trays, timer & enlarger came from a yard sale, along with some good kharma from the guy who had the stuff before me.

I washed my prints in the shower, and dried them on towels spread out on the floor. It was always fun to wake up after sleeping off a long night of printing, and see the (mostly) dried prints curling all over the place. Funny thing...more than 20 years later most of them still look great.

The basement had a dropped ceiling with 2'x4' tiles which were great for hanging film from...just press the edge of the roll under a tile and put a clothespin on the other end.

The conditions weren't ideal, but there was a tangible benefit to having to live with the work that way. It was literally all around me whenever I was home!

Over on Cheryl Jacobs Nikolai's blog (you featured her in Random Excellence some time ago)is a lovely piece about packing up and moving and leaving her dark room behind. She writes:
"My darkroom and I have been together for eight years. When life overwhelmed me, when people doubted me, when I doubted myself, when anger took over, when creativity was making me insane, through a marriage, divorce, and remarriage, the darkroom was my haven. In it, I learned not just about photography, but about discipline, emotion, patience (sometimes), and true self-expression. I made ridiculous mistakes and indescribable messes, celebrated triumphs that I never imagined, and at times drank and cussed like a sailor. The things I learned!"

Mike, I hope your darkroom gives you as much pleasure as Cheryl's has to her!


Its been a really long time since my last darkroom. I had a two bedroom apartment… er garret. I devoted one whole room to my darkroom, borded up the windows got a twenty-five watt orange/greenish standard screw in darkroom lamp that i stuck up in the ceiling fixture (highish ceilings) and had the brightest roomiest DR ever! sorry no pictures. Now as a long time woodworker/designer i have had many shops of various pedigrees and they do fall more in line with Mike's make it work approach than the Cadillac style. pictured here (and this is one of my more Cadillac like shops!)
To see the end result of this particular mess click through to the album's end

Ooh! The Beseler/Minolta head... Nifty memories of that, I worked a summer at a lab that had one, it was just a blast to use. And it sounded really neat as the bulbs fired... Pip pop pippity pop pip pip pip. It would usually find a beat and then repeat it until the exposure was done, it usually made a neat rhythm.

(BTW, this post will make sense to those that used one, and sound like lunatic ramblings to those who haven't... Sorry...)

No one has really hit the nail on the head on this one. The reason the ultimate darkrooms don't get used is that building one is very expensive and before you can even begin you need a house with a large extra room. That is also expensive. The only people with such houses and the money needed to build the ultimate darkroom in them are upper middle class or wealthy, and unless they were born into the money or won the lottery, they have to work long hours as doctors, lawyers, business owners, etc. to maintain the big income needed to pay payments on that big house...leaving no time for actual photography (including printing/processing).

My best work was always in improvised spaces, it seems, but man, oh man, do i miss my Minolta 45A. I do find that when i set up the rc processor so I can print a ton of work, I'm too tired to print a lot, and when I set up the small trays for 5x7's i get creative and inspired. Perhaps i need a photo valet more than a perfect darkroom....

Seven enlargers, actually...it's kind of small, but go here:


...and click on "in the darkroom."


Beautiful, John.


Ann P,
I have to say, Cheryl is one of my inspirations for this project.


Maybe if darkroom-owners poked their heads out from behind the curtain and co-operated (in several senses) with other film-users in the area, a more optimal social distribution of dark-rooms could be achieved?

Or is letting someone else use your darkroom akin to letting them wear your pants?

To see where the professionals work(ed) take a look at the wonderful "Last One Out, Please Turn On The Light - a survey of London's remaining professional darkrooms" a project by Richard Nicholson at http://www.richardnicholson.com/darkroom/

“ Don't build too much in; let the joists and studs show; never be afraid to hammer a nail into a wall. “

Mike you just hit the nail on the head there!

BUT DON’T…. (hit the nail)

Better to use screws, a lot easier to get out of the wall to change your layout.
One of the best tools you will ever buy is a decent quality power screwdriver,
There isn’t a darkroom builder that I have ever known who got it right first (or second) time.
And as I now know to my cost (dermatitis) the best darkroom accessory is a large box of latex gloves (never could get on with tongs).

Cheers and keep well, Paul.

Damn. The old discussion about what one owns instead of what one does. I appreciate Mikes move back to 'real' photography, but I dislike these posts that engage with equipment instead of photographic content.

I'm chasing the digital equivalent of a perfect darkroom. I'm not sure I'd be happy here though, looks like something out of 1984


People who really want to make photographs can't wait weeks to build a great darkroom - they just start printing as soon as possible.

My smallest darkroom was 3x5 feet, and there was a toilet in there - can't remember if I had to sit on the toilet to print. I can remember dish processing 12x16 inch Cibachromes and coming out choking from the fumes after each print. Happy times.

Chris Crawford-
I'd have to respectfully disagree with your analysis. As a rural family doc I probably average a 70 - 80 hour work week. I tend to get just as intense—my wife would say fanatical—about photography as I am about my day job. She not infrequently finds me running off "just a few more prints" at 2 am to decompress after a stressful delivery or a night in the ER. My digital 'darkroom' is a converted garage attic crammed with piles of work prints, stacks of photo books and half-used rolls of paper, with a few narrow paths through the chaos.

Of course, that kind of intensity and passion (and, um, cash) may instead be devoted to building the "perfect darkroom", or acquiring the fastest computer with the most RAM, a 30" monitor, a 44" inkjet and a P65+ digital back...and scarcely using them. As Mike has noted, there's room in our hobby for folks who produce fabulous photographs with a 30 year old battered SLR and for people who just love the toys. And the perfect darkroom (that's never used) is just a really big toy.

I had darkrooms everywhere I lived since 1975. My ultimate darkroom (in every sense of the word) was built as part of our house in 1987. It continues to be used. Today I will use it to bottle my latest batch of an IPA I started brewing last week.

Yes, I have fallen to the spell of digital. I find that the last five years have been more productive than the previous thirty. I do not look back on the "good old days" of analog photography as many do. It's so much better now.

When I was young, I had the opportunity to study with the Czech photographer, Vilem Kriz, a member of the Paris Surrealism School. In the early fifties, he had a show at the MOMA in New York. His darkroom was his bathroom. His enlarger was his 4X5 camera hung over his toilet. His chemicals and toners mostly came from his kitchen.

To get a sense of what a great printer he was, he also printed Dorthea Lange's show when it hung at MOMA.

I still remember how I had to "build" my darkroom in my parents' bathroom each time I wanted to develop some films or photos. Setting it all up, including the blocking of *any* incoming light (never forgot the vents or even the keyhole) took less than half an hour. That Durst enlarger went on the closed toilet, the chemicals into the bathtub, film was put into these round development boxes in complete darkness - wow what a time.

Never had a real darkroom, and now - with digital - I'm somehow glad that I don't need one anymore.

But those memories are still nice, and the experience with having to do all this to get a decent A4 B&W "print" was priceless. If I would have to do it again, I'd start any minute.

My final darkroom was built, about 20 years ago, in a shed at the bottom of the garden. I raised the roof by 18" to get the enlarger in and lined the walls with polystyrene to give some insulation.

Not long after I built it we took our two year old son to see Father Christmas at Selfridges in London. That year his grotto was covered in sheets of polystyrene. After that the darkroom was always known as 'Daddy's Grotto'.

It has now reverted to a garden store.

The intersection of the set of people who like to build darkrooms and the set of people who like to use darkrooms is small. Same for builders and flyers of airplanes.

"Maybe if darkroom-owners poked their heads out from behind the curtain and co-operated (in several senses) with other film-users in the area, a more optimal social distribution of dark-rooms could be achieved? Or is letting someone else use your darkroom akin to letting them wear your pants?"

I think it's more akin to sharing a bathroom with strangers, or having a parking space a block and a half away from your home. The former is done in roominghouses and college dormitories, and my mother once owned a garage a block and a half from her house--and a very valuable garage it was, too, in Georgetown, D.C. Both are probably a vast improvement over not having those things at all; neither are as convenient as having one of your own, proximate to where you live.

Shared darkrooms are more often provided by schools. Where I went to school, there were a number of local photographers who took adult education courses just so they could use the darkroom facilities.

Of course the demand must be much diminished now. I would guess that only big cities have a high enough concentration of users within a close enough area to make a shared darkroom feasible.

Then there's the fact that a shared darkroom just isn't nearly as nice to use. Darkroom craft involves fastidious setup and careful calibration of several parameters, as well as organization to suit your particular workflow (repeated movements are easier when you can optimize their efficiency for your own needs), and having other people blundering about with "your" equipment and contaminating "your" solutions is seldom ideal. To say nothing of other peoples' taste in music. [g]


Mike, how about a list of worst darkrooms? The absolute wort places people have had to put up with would make a nice post. My own worst was a black plastic tent in an unheated attic (that was unbelievably hot in the summer). I had to haul the water up to the attic from the bathroom below. The plastic tent was needed because there was a large window in the attic and also because of the dust.

I worked for a photo supply mail-order company for around a decade and found all of this to be true. Some people really enjoyed the process of building the darkroom, not making photographs. The complimentary fixation was people who love testing; zone system, densitometers, every film and developer combination possible. These folks went around in circles for years testing and re-testing. That was their hobby, not the actual photography part.

I began to divide our customers into three basic catergories, mostly based on how much money I thought they might spend. The first group was the "professional amateurs". These people are doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc. They had lots of disposable income and practiced photography the way their peers would practice golf or yachting. Many of them were quite skilled and made excellent photos, but they mostly hauled their prints around to show other pro-am photographers and impress their peers. This catergory accounted for the largest chunk of our sales, by far.

The second catergory was college students. You'd think they would all be on a limited budget, but in fact many had deep financial support from their parents. So they were a split crowd, some spending as little as possible and others with hefty budgets.

The third group was professional working photographers. Aside from the occasional superstar with a $2 million studio in NY or whatever, these people were the most frugal and had the most limited budgets of any of our clientelle. This is understandable. They had to make a living as a photographer and any money spent was a loss of profit. They didn't usually care about fancy darkrooms or the latest and greatest equipment. They had learned to get by with whatever limited resources they had available to stay in business, and realized that their customers couldn't actually see any notable difference in the prints. They didn't spend a lot of time testing the latest film or developer, that was wasted time and money, usually. It was a refreshing approach, but also a interesting lesson in the realities of being a professional photographer.

The revelation to me is if you build in a windowless basement you don't need light proof doors and you have great ventilation!
I have owned five houses in three different cities. All but the last had darkrooms. The fourth already had one built in, and I think I bought it because of the stainless steel sink. I developed prints in the third darkroom while my one year old son would sleep in a backpack. Except for the last one, they were not showcases. They were all used.
The house we have now has no windows in the basement. It would be a snap to set up a darkroom. But I have gone digital, and happy about it. I spend way more time in the lightroom than I did in the darkroom because there is no set up and no cleanup. So digital is wonderful for me.
Sure I miss the concept of a darkroom, but my computer is in the windowless basement, and after reading your story, I think I will add a dim red light down there.

I actually considered a reverse-snobbery tripod contest. Two prizes: the person with the heaviest and least convenient tripod gets one, the person with the oldest and most beat-up tripod gets the other. Both would have to be for tripods still in regular use.

What do you think?


Hi Jack,
The idea of the dim red light in your basement computer room made me laugh--


These discussions remind me of something the poet Allen Ginsberg talked about. He had some expensive, fine notebooks to write his poetry in, but preferred 'cheapo' notebooks, as he called them. He was less inhibited by a .49 cent book than a hand-tooled Italian leather book. Freed his mind and creativity to just scribble. Some masterpieces arose from that.

I think much of what you wrote about darkrooms can also be applied to the world of kitchen remodels, especially the pursuit of the perfect kitchen.

It's quite interesting to compare, e.g., Julia Child's kitchen with a few from the shelter magazines.

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