I remember when working in the darkroom was all the rave and shooting digital was some sort of abomination or perversion to the art of photography. To go back even further, there was a time when photography itself was treated like some sort of moral decline or the art world’s black-sheep. This was a time when photography was simply not accepted as an art form of merit, in part, due to the consensus that an image had already existed, and was “not created” like how they’re done in a discipline such as painting. Fast forward hundreds of years, we’ve gone from developing in darkrooms, to producing, post-editing and printing in our living-rooms, and almost everyone shoots digital. I feel fortunate to have worked manually, in the darkroom, and while its challenging at times, its quite relaxing and activating, sort of like yoga but not really. Both, your skills and creativity are at work, and at the highest levels.
The image below was shot with my manual Pentax ZX-M camera with a 50mm lens and I developed it in a color darkroom – a bit different from working in a black and white darkroom. The main difference is that we have to be knowledgeable of color theory and something called, “the subtractive process” which is necessary in order to select the proper combination of three color filters/gels, in their correct degree or intensity of color. For example, degrees of yellow range from the lightest tint of yellow to the darkest or deepest tint of yellow and the same goes for cyan and magenta. So, we must be able to calculate and select a specific degree of cyan (filter), of magenta (filter), and of yellow (filter), so that when they are combined and stacked on top of each other like cards, and put into an enlarger machine that allows light to pass through them for a certain amount of time, they will produce the natural colors in a given photograph. Regarding the light, we must determine the aperture (measured in f-stops) which is basically, the amount of light and length of time (in seconds) that we will allow that same light to pass through the color gels and through the film to expose (or project onto) the paper for the proper exposure. Oh and, the paper must be meticulously selected to work , or react properly with the type of film and filters used. Dealing with aperture (F-stop) is common practice in black and white photo processing too. And to make all of this easier (NOT!), most of this process must be completed in the dark, with minimal trial and error, or else a lot of time or money goes straight down the toilet bowl.
At the end of this process, its possible to have tested and flushed away a half pack of paper costing upwards $50-$100 for a pack.You could go through this process and create many dominantly green or pink or blue prints, before finally getting the right color combination that produces the correct, natural and intended color of the photograph, such as the browns, the blacks and blues in my photo below. For this reason, I could understand how some old-school photographers who still shoot and develop manually become nauseated at the notion of tweaking and enhancing photographs in Photoshop, as they’ve spent years perfecting these practices in-camera or in the darkroom. But in defense of digital shooters, it can take hours to edit photos in Photoshop as it takes hours to develop images in a darkroom. The image below wasn’t edited or tweaked in Photoshop, I just couldn’t, not after all the time it took to produce the seemingly banal colors that you see below, which may seem like no big deal or something easy, but join me or any photographer in the darkroom, and I’m certain that you’ll learn otherwise. If you’re a photographer who has NEVER worked in a darkroom and you’re looking for a valuable experience and challenge, consider taking a class in manual black & white or color photography. You’ll probably love it and see your digital workflow in a different light and appreciate the art of photography even more.
Sometimes its not all about the final image, its about the process of creating, of getting there.