The darkroom is finally up and running. Drying racks are not completed yet so I’m using the old school clothesline and wooden pins. It works. My goal on this day was just to break the ice. Was talking with another photographer yesterday telling him I had finally started printing and he said, “It takes me about three days before I’m in the right mental space to make a real print. (He is a master printer.) He said he starts with small work prints and several days in he begins to make larger more important prints. I totally get it.
When I mention the darkroom I get a lot of photographers who make comments like, “Can you get paper anymore?” or “I bought an Epson,” or “Ugh, never again.” They know the answer to the first question buy they don’t want to think about it. Switching to inkjet happened a long time ago. For guys from the newspaper world, I get the third statement. I think it all depends on what you did in the past and what you are doing now. I can only speak about why I am doing this.
I’m not a great printer, so working in the darkroom means several things. First, it’s very slow and time consuming. Learning to print well is like learning a new language starting from zero. There are a million ways to mess things up. The darkroom requires ability, patience and A LOT of skill. The chemistry alone is an art form. Temperature, agitation, dilution rates, etc, are all critical elements and each in themselves a separate education. In other words, it’s really damn hard to make great prints.
So why would I do this?
For me it’s about intent, meaning, slowing down and ultimately making things. I made my first inkjet prints, with the help of friends, in the early 1990’s. We were amazed as we stood around and looked at what came spitting out of the printer. For the next decade I truly fell in love with this new technology. Oh, and you can call an inkjet print by a variety of trendy and gallery friendly names but you are still talking about an inkjet print. Ink ON paper. I think they look great and don’t need the apologetic titles given in the past ten years.
For me, there isn’t any reason to compare inkjet and wet darkroom prints. The are two very different things. Inkjet prints look great, are technically incredible and are machine made. You can work in the light, use a nearly endless variety of paper and make prints effortlessly in a very short amount of time. Wet darkroom prints are made by hand, impossible to replicate and require copious time in the dark. The wet darkroom offers far fewer paper choices and requires a skill level that takes far, far longer to acquire. In so many ways the digital prints far surpass the technical aspects of the wet darkroom print, but as we all know by now, more horsepower doesn’t always win the race. Great images and prints are not really about technical perfection. I think they are more about feeling.
So at 43, what is the rub? The short answer is this. Working in the darkroom made me a far better, sharper photographer in the field. I could no longer be sloppy, make a good scan and make a workable digital print. Making a good darkroom print starts with a good negative, so you have to be more focused and more on your game. I also love the reality of never being able to make two prints the same, meaning that each and every print is a unique object, the complete opposite of digital printing. But ultimately my decision to go back in the dark is spurred by the unfortunate reality that I have absolutely no feeling toward machine made inkjet prints. I’m not sure when my love of digital prints departed me, but it did and in a big way. I have two state-of-the-art printers in my office, one capable of 24 inch wide prints and I have real time access to state-of-the-art printers that do sixty inches wide. I haven’t even plugged in my printers for months and months and told my wife all I wanted to do is donate them as fast as possible. (Plus, I have a plethora of labs to choose from if I want an inkjet print and the cost of prints has hit rock bottom.)
I have a feeling for me this started when I realized my life was so tied to the computer, a device I both love and loath. I LOVE the computer for doing things like this, blogging, email, etc, but I find it sterile and detached when it comes to my images. The minute I went back in the darkroom, after a fifteen year break, I KNEW I was in trouble. I KNEW it was my future, and that it would be a long and trying road.
I printed earlier today and I found myself trying to lose my digital leash each and every step of the way. Digitalization has ruined my attention span and ability to focus. I put a print in the developer, where it sat for about five minutes with agitation, and my FIRST thought was, “I should grab my phone and check my email.” I also realized I had two and a half hours and MIGHT be able to make ONE decent print. My mind flickered with options of how to avoid this reality. When I print digitally there is a casualness that I can operate under because the worst case scenario is load another sheet, hit print and walk away. Casualness in the darkroom, from my experience, means bad print, time waste, mental anguish. The darkroom for me is a therapy of sorts. My modern mind SCREAMING for empty calories while the isolation of the dark deprives me.
The other thing that printing has reminded me of is that I don’t need to make huge prints. SO much of what I see at gallery shows, portfolio reviews, etc, are images printed on a grand scale…for no apparent reason other than we now have the technology. The idea being “bigger print, bigger paycheck.”
I included these last two images because the first one shows a 16×20 image on the left and 3.75×2.75 prints on the right. The final image is all 3.75×2.75 prints. I made the large print just to see how the physical setup of the darkroom was working. I then made the small prints to see how small I could go and was suddenly greeted by a set of prints I was in love with. I knew immediately my first darkroom goal will be to print my entire story in this miniature size as soon as I have the time. These tiny prints are SO intimate and force the viewer to engage them at a different level. You don’t back up to see these prints you actually move forward. I love this.
We are consuming more words, content, visuals and information than at any point in the history of our species, but the understanding of the content and the depth at which we comprehend is what is really in question. For me the darkroom process is about attempting to shift this paradigm.
Maybe this all stems back to the idea of my prior post in regard to speed, ease, convenience, automation and the technological domination of modern photography. I know I’m not alone in this. Over the past fifteen years I’ve had many, many conversations with photographers who have drawn the proverbial line in the sand and said, “Okay, I’m going digital.” I’ve NEVER understood this. Our conversation would cover all aspects of the superiority of digital printing and how much EASIER and QUICKER it is. I would nod silently and then wait for the inevitable…….all these people uttered the EXACT same line. “There’s nothing like silver.” So if this is the case then WHY are you abandoning it? (This exact same conversation applies to photographers going digital with capture.)
I don’t have a difficult time looking at digital printing and wet darkroom printing and being able to say “these are simply two different things.” What is the right choice? There isn’t one. Whatever gets you or me doing what we do is a good thing.
I find myself asking “What’s the hurry?” and often times I don’t have a good answer. At some point I might be spitting out inkjet prints again, and there are a multitude of other digital printing options that are interesting and compelling, but just because they are out there doesn’t mean I’m going to bury the darkroom process which in a VERY short amount of time has taught me more than I could have possibly imagined.
And I’ve only just begun.