It’s late Sunday night and the wife and dog are asleep. A light snow is falling as I start a pot of coffee and pull from the bookshelf a binder of negatives. I flick on the light table, dust off the loupe, and begin my biweekly ritual, my zen, my happy place.
I’ve made a commitment to myself this year. Not so much a resolution, more a goal or perhaps nothing more than a pre-ordained time to allow myself this indulgence. For the entire year of 2019, every other Sunday night is spent in selecting a negative from my collection and making a darkroom print.
Why this rigid, nocturnal, fortnightly schedule? Simple answer; my unusual, every-other-week nightshift job necessitates frequent reversals in circadian rhythms. Also, my basement darkroom/workbench/general catch-all for things that must be hidden from view is not light tight enough to print during the day.
With caffeine coursing through my veins and visions of gallery-worthy prints in my mind, I descend confidently into my darkroom dungeon (ducking under PVC drains and stepping over razor sharp Nylabones along the way). Much like the palatial, mirror-ceilinged master bedrooms of MTV Cribs, this is where the magic happens.
I hang blackout curtains at the bottom of the stairs, block the windows with foam core board, and select a few albums to fill the air with sound. Coffee is soon replaced with beer. The trays are lined up along my Harbor-Freight workbench and filled with their respective fluids (developer, stop bath, fixer #1, fixer #2, rinse, selenium toner, hypo clear, water). I obsessively spray the negative with canned air to remove dust. The fluorescent tubes flick off and my pupils adjust to the warm, red glow of the safelight. Suddenly I’m transported into another world. The darkroom is a place of contradictions; home to both tradition and experimentation, to basic chemical reactions and mystical sorcery, to endless self-doubt and deep satisfaction.
Just as it’s critical to have the end product in mind when first exposing the negative in-camera, so too is it critical to envision how I’d like the finished print to look when I’m done before I even begin. Where do I need to retain detail and where can I push the blacks? What is the focal point of the image and how should it look? Do I need to crop? My success or failure begins with the test strip.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to accept the fact that lots of paper will be wasted. Coincidentally (and paradoxically), the more I try to be frugal with supplies the longer it takes to figure out what my base exposure needs to be. After I’m happy with the test strip I make a determination regarding the overall contrast of the print. I usually use two different contrast filters to control the highlight and shadow details separately in a method called split-grade printing. This involves more test strips at each different contrast level. The next step is a work print. Sometimes everything looks great, but usually adjustments must be made. Times can be varied or areas can be dodged and burned. Eventually, I arrive at what I determine to be the final print. This can take anywhere from one to three beers.
Feeling proud of myself, I transition into production mode and crank out an edition of five prints. One by one the prints are exposed, developed, and toned, after which they wait patiently in the water reservoir for the rest of their friends to join them. Finally, they get a thorough washing in my improvised archival print washer (a tray with water jets in the bathtub) and hung to dry. After disposing of the chemistry and rinsing the trays, I rinse the inside of my stomach with another beer and jot down notes about what I just accomplished. When the print is dry it gets flattened in a dry mount press.
In the cold, hard light of Monday morning (evening for all the rest of you sane people who keep normal hours), I finally get to evaluate my finished work. Did I really accomplish anything the night before? The answer is always yes, even if the print is shit.
I think this is the beauty of photography, or any attempt at any art. Practice and repetition is what drives progress in our output. Henri Cartier-Bresson famously said that your first 10,000 photos are your worst, and I really hope that is true.
There are few things more humbling for me than to look back into my archives only to realize that photos I thought were great at the time now seem like complete garbage. Much like the act of shooting film can turn the trigger-happy digi snapper into a contemplative creature, darkroom printing can foster an ability to cull one’s own work. At the start of this year-long project, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to narrow my entire archive down to just twenty-six negatives. Now that worry has transformed into one where I hope I can find enough decent frames to make it through the next month.
It may sound like my commitment to printing has caused me to lose all confidence in my work, but the opposite is true. I’ve never felt more inspired. I want to shoot more photos to make more negatives that are worth the time, paper, and chemicals it requires to make a print. I want to nail my exposure and dial in my processing in order to make my life easier under the enlarger. I want to learn how to manipulate and mold a negative into the print I envision in my mind. I want to fill my walls with my own work and the work of those photographers I admire. I want to push myself to create work that’s meaningful to my family and myself. I want to produce prints in a way that ensures their survival long after I’m gone. In short, printing makes me want to stop being a hobbyist and start being a master of my craft.
Inevitably, Monday night rolls around and I head to the hospital to start my eighty-hour rotation. It’s a job that I love and gain immense satisfaction from, but after a long week of calls, orders, and both physical and mental fatigue, it’s invigorating to know I have a creative outlet to maintain balance and something at which to endeavor to improve. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have photography to fulfill the creative desires of our soul, well, we’re the lucky ones.