UNDER THE RED LIGHT – THE LOST ART OF THE DARKROOM
In the alchemical dark, images are born
It’s 3AM and the night is now gently quiet. There are no conversations to be had, nor phone calls asking for answers. Just the metronomic countdown of the enlarger’s timer and the muffled sound of the train yard, just a block away and beyond the cement wall which borders the art colony in which I live. It is my respite from a loud world with even louder demands and though all these stresses will be contended with – They won’t be tonight. Tonight, the coffee is fresh and I will likely work till dawn.
In the alchemical dark, a red light bathes the room in shades of itself. It is called a ‘Safe Light,’ and protects the light sensitive paper – for red is the only color it is blind to. The darkroom is a mystical realm where images are born from traditional materials and whose processes reach back to the early-nineteenth century when photography found its genesis. When in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, France, light passed through a pin-hole in a small blacked out box to strike a surface coated in bitumen and brought forth the world’s first photograph.
It took eight hours.
The ‘box’ was known as a Camera Obscura, where light from outside passes through a tiny hole to project its reverse image within the box. And though replaced by lenses whose technology has advanced in magnitudes, the principle is still the same.
You can try it right now in fact. Take a piece of cardboard, poke a small hole in it and take it outside. Hold it against the sun and its image will be projected upon whatever surface is facing it. This is often used as a safe way to view a solar eclipse.
And sometimes they happen by accident, like a surprise visitation.
Leaves blowing outside my warehouse as sun pours through a screw hole. (Creepy noise added for creepiness)
From Niépce’s first image, photography advanced quickly and by 1838, Louis Daguerre created his legendary Daguerreotype which became the standard for the rest of the century.
But the process was cumbersome, time consuming and expensive, keeping it out of the reach of the general public, but by the turn of the century, Eastman Kodak changed all of that with the Brownie camera. With its ease of use and the simple press of a button, images were captured on the first rolls of film and sent to a lab. If you have old family albums, those shots of your great grandparents were likely shot on a variation of this camera.
Cameras evolved, films evolved and soon 35mm cameras were in the hands of most everyone and darkrooms were common in almost all high schools and colleges. And this is how I was taught and this is how I learned. I studied the chemistries, films, papers and how they reacted and why. In the darkroom, I could now be the steward of my own images as I nervously pulled the still dripping film from the development tank to see if the images were a success or a failure. And there were many failures. Some heartbreaking and over the moments I knew I had lost due to amateur miscalculation or mishap. And though the invisible mechanisms of chemistry are now second nature, I continue to believe it is a kind of magic.
With film you learn grave patience. There is no image that appears on the back of the camera. There is no reviewing them, editing or deleting. The images remain dormant and voiceless within the confines of darkness. It is a birth process and to marshal them from the shoot to the final print can take days.
Developing the film itself however is not creative. It is math, temperature and chemistry. In complete darkness, the film is removed and fed onto spools by feel only. And that feel takes time. Once safely in the development tank, what was formless now takes shape. As the timer counts down, the frames are gently forming and what was touched by light darkens into its opposite – a negative. What was light is now dark and what was dark is now light. And in the printing process it is reversed. The light from the enlarger, like an artificial sun, passes through the negative to illuminate the surface of the printing paper to render it back to a positive - the chemical expression of a moment that once was.
Photography is a soulful mnemonic of reversals to leave a story behind when you are gone, when the people who have photographed are gone and all the temporal things of memory have perished.
For the darkroom print is a child you can hold, that speaks back to you and which exists only in the realm of the physical. Not on a hard drive, not on a computer screen - In my hands, tangible and immediate. A thing born of effort, skill and love. The darks and gradations of the print are not pixels, but pure infinite light. I could enlarge an image a thousand percent and it would never lose its sharpness nor detail. And it will endure for hundreds of years.
Faces and cityscapes appear. Relatives and friends long dead are alive again. In this I become a conjurer in the realm of long memory. Save for the precise snap of a shutter at a precise time, these images would have passed into forgetting, but now they are preserved like an insect caught in amber - forever young, forever speaking - their small story forced into the eternity of a single frame. Each print a resurrection - an incarnation of the light that birthed it in the first place.
So tonight, I revisit an image almost long forgotten. One that has rested, nascent in a folder for decades - my first photo.
Many years ago, on a beach in Ocean City, Maryland, the pale dunes raised themselves against the proud waves – barriers for the cabins beyond, which were lifted high upon their wooden pilings and whose windows glowed orange in the dimming blue of dusk. There, the families gathered in their plaid shorts, told stories over the fatal hissing steam of boiling crabs and I fell in love with an older woman. She was fourteen and I was ten. Her name was Jackie.
Jackie was a cataclysm of perfect backflips, tomboy fearlessness and withering insults to anyone who crossed her. I was utterly enraptured. But I was an awkward, ungainly child. A nothing to her fierce presence and no offering to make that would garner her attention beyond being the strange kid who just tagged along.
But it was in the last waning days of the vacation, when she abstracted herself from the waves to wrap herself pensively in a striped fraying towel. She looked inwards to her secret world and stood transcendently still. Absent was the bravado and the sharp edge of her persona. And the world arrested in a kind of holiness about her. She was just utterly, purely – her. And I was the only witness upon all the earth.
In a move of instinct I had never felt before, I grabbed my father’s newly purchased Nikon F camera and approached her closely and with a tentative sacredness as if I was approaching an altar with my only offering. In my mind was an unspoken thought.
‘I see you. And who I see is absolutely beautiful.’
I dared not speak the thought. So if I could not speak in words, I would speak in images.
And she held the moment for me…unflinching and for as long as it took for me to nervously press the shutter.
I took only one image. One-hundred-twenty-fifth of a second, for I remember the setting glinting in the summer light. It was the fraction of time that changed the course of my life and she likely never knew the gift she gave me. Perhaps she was just placating this awkward tag-along, or just maybe she recognized the moment for what it was and entrusted me with it.
I will never know for I never saw her again.
And now, many years later, I stand before the enlarger and place the fragile negative into the holder. It is nearly an impossible image to print well. I had tried before and failed for it was beyond my capabilities at the time. The negative was badly processed at a drug store which housed a generic lab with exhausted chemistry leaving the image pale and drab. But tonight, I will finally try to make it sing. For its history and challenge of its creation if nothing else.
It’s a lot of pressure to place upon a ten-year old’s first photo, but it is not about the greatness of the photo, but bringing forth everything it should have been.
Like a play, the negative is the script, but the printing is the performance. It is all in the how it is executed and the options to approach it are myriad.
I need to get the contrast high to pull it from the muck, but not too high. The higher the contrast, the narrower the window to get it right is. A few seconds variance in exposure in either direction will ruin it. And each portion of the photo requires different exposure times. The negative is also in color which makes it magnitudes more difficult. This is the hardest needle to thread.
Yes, I could just scan it into my computer and adjust it there, but that’s not the point.
The first tests are wildly afield and it’s making me nervous. I make adjustments but they still aren’t working and the image is still flat. Maybe this can’t be done and this whole endeavor is simply hubris. I've never had this happen before. It may be beyond the threshold of what the tools of traditional chemistry and filters can produce. But something in me senses that it can be done. So, there’s only a last option - Push it as far to edge of the cliff it can go.
I dump the entire bottle of full-strength developer into the tray and choose the highest-grade contrast filter which will separate the tones even farther and make the lights lighter and the darks darker. That’s the ten on the scale and there is no eleven. Beyond this, nothing can be done and the print will fail. Apprehensively, I watch as the image tests waft into being.
The gambit worked. I have it.
But, it’s nearly 5AM and the coffee is rendering diminishing returns on energy and is now making me jittery. I have maybe an hour left in me and then I’ll start making mistakes. On most nights, I would have five finished prints by now, but this is not most nights. Time to begin the performance.
Like an incantation, my hands weave in the air above the paper which drinks in the light - but only as far as I will allow it. For each portion of the image requires a different amount of light. Her face is one exposure, her shoulder another and the background yet another. It is called dodging and burning and the image requires twelve variations of this and I can’t miss one step or I must start over. It will take precisely ten minutes and forty-five seconds.
I don't believe in zen, but this is its closest analog I have to it as I zone into the demanding moves ahead like a gymnast before their routine. I start the timer and it's game time. I keep watch over the light as the base image burns in and I am ten years-old again. What were you pondering, my almost friend? What secrets hummed in your mind? Stop... There is no time for sentiment now. I block the light from her face at three minutes, her shoulder at four and a half. The remaining time is darkening the background in multiple stages - six minutes, seven and a half minutes until the timer counts down the last ten seconds and I realize I've been holding my breath. In the red light I survey the paper though there is nothing yet to apprehend. The image is concealed in an unseeable realm. I take a long breath. I have it or I don't and I move the paper to the developer tray.
In five seconds the image appears from out of the artificial waves as I rock the tray coaxing it into the realm of sight. Two minutes. I think it's there. Can't tell yet but that's the limit of the developer and nothing more can be brought forth. I gently place it in the acid bath which immediately arrests all development and move it to the final tray. Still reactive to light, the fixative secrets away all remaining light sensitive material and it is now safe to turn the light on. Then I stare. Staring is important. Nothing jumps out at me as wrong, which is what I always notice first. I continue stare at it until it settles in my eyes. Yes. It’s there. Hey, Jackie. Good to see you again. You haven’t aged a bit.
Then like a baby, I move it to the washing bath and finally settle it down to dry on a towel in my studio. I imagine it is sleeping. When I wake, I’ll know if I truly captured it.
Exhausted, I pour a crippling vodka and tonic and head out to the porch where dawn is bruising in and light a cigarette. The silhouettes from the early morning traffic play like shadow theatre across the expanse of the adjacent building, illuminated by some unseen light as the trains ascending north from San Pedro sound in their metallic thrum from across the wall. And the child in me smiles. Did I do well, Jackie? I hope I did. Thank you...
I leave my extinguished glass on the table, stumble inside and turn the red light off.