Darkrooms

It's almost a decade too late to mourn film photography, but yesterday I was given a clutch of exposed black and white rolls. Their contents are a mystery. There are enough of them that I considered buying new bottles of chemicals, retreating to the bathroom at night, and plugging the gaps with towels. Even though I have the time, it seemed like too much of an ordeal, too risky (I've ruined rolls of film before), and it's all just going to end up digital anyway. At this point, developing my own negatives just to scan them would be an affectation, and not something I would ever do again. While I still have a film camera somewhere in my closet, why buy film for it and go to the trouble of developing the film when I can take digital photos?

Possibly because one doesn't have to be a utilitarian; the goal of photography is technically an image, but its draws are many.

These days, film photography can only be approached via nostalgia--the conviction that the older the thing, the more real and the more beautiful it is. When I did a lot of dark room work, however, was the transition period during which the technical superiority of digital photography wasn't yet established. Even professional digital cameras weren't yet as high resolution as 35mm film.

Darkroom developing was taught in high school. Maybe it still is--what is taught there is less knowledge than discipline, which darkrooms require a lot of. I didn't take the class; my prints were sloppy. I wasn't so interested in the meticulous work that photography brandishes as a sign of its artistry. Not because I had anything against work as self-justification, but because I was lazy and I was a stubborn autodidact, which really just meant I relied on other channels. I was taught by friends who had taken the class, so for me photography was about belonging, intimacy, and conversely, solitude. Taking photos I was an obsessive, nitpicking aesthete, but in the darkroom I was a romantic.

It can be a mean place, though, waiting in the dark. In my makeshift arrangement in the bathroom, you couldn't open the door while film is developing. It could take about ten minutes. It's a long ten minutes, sitting in on the floor, listening to the timer tick. That lengthening of time was exactly what I wanted. It's a ritual; there is a great deal of preparation, and certain elements that must be in place. I learned these elements from the same friends who taught me the technical parts, and carried them to my time with myself.

In the contours of this practice's dissemination I detect a whiff of adolescent sexuality; having no similar experience to corroborate this intuition, I can only conclude that the scent is that of an idea of how adolescents get ideas about sex. Nonetheless, there was something erotic about developing photos with company. There was no physical contact, but there was the possibility of touch, or rather, touch diffused. The dark both depressurizes one's sense of inhabiting a discrete body, and heightens the awareness of sensation. A darkroom is not without light, but the lights illuminate photos, not people. Gazes do not meet, but fall on the images made by projector lamp or slowly accumulating dim and red on wet paper. In a room where all attention is on images, the sensuality of the dark becomes like the colorful static you see in the absence of light--atmospheric.

One thing I learned was that above all there must be music. A darkroom is as evocative a place to listen to music as a moving car, but in a different way. Rather than propelling, the music soaks.

But the music, like the dark, can grate. I once boasted that if I were punished with being locked alone in a room for hours, I would actually enjoy it. "Yes, you would," they said, but the truth was that I did this to myself regularly, and it was punishment. It had the same volatility that any extended period alone with your thoughts and few distractions does. "Nonstop you," the Lufthansa slogan that for Elif Batuman "seems to encapsulate the full horror and nausea of human consciousness," is, for the same reason, a good descriptor of being in a darkroom alone. Thankfully, there is one distraction from you, which is the work you do there.

I always hoped that the time would be meditative, which it rarely was. I remember either trying just to get it over with and having to turn off the music, which irritated me, or being caught in a high that teetered between euphoria and anger. Things can easily go wrong in a darkroom, and when your expectations are sky high, overexposing a print can be cause for cursing. I'm not a graceful person, and excitement makes one even clumsier.

More often, though, my moodiness in there had little to do with what I did or did not do. It was simply that there--like the minutes before sleep--you remember things you would otherwise not.

The more familiar you become with darkroom technique, the more you work in your imagination. I did a lot of trial and error, the imperfect results of which stuck around, and cost. Eventually, you get better at estimating contrast filters and exposure timings. On a computer you can do anything, you don't have to pay for paper, and the results are immediately visible. Delay defined the darkroom. Imagination lives in the often frustrating place where it cannot be realized, and Photoshop has made everything easier. Which is what I'm going to use to turn the developed negatives into positives, thankfully.

30 November 2012