Up and coming Australian photographers seem increasingly intrigued by the old ways of the darkroom, film and processing. But those who endured the older ways have happily moved on…
Over the past few months there have been articles in The Age and on ABC radio about B&W film and darkrooms making a comeback. What with this and the resurgence of vinyl records, it won’t be long before people start hankering for a 26 inch B&W TV with fuzzy reception on all four channels so they can enjoy an ‘authentic entertainment experience’.
Nostalgia is a funny thing: we love advances in technology, and when those boffins in Silicon Valley deliver us a phone that’s also a clock and a radio and a calendar and a computer and a board game and a dictionary and a navigational system and a torch and a calculator and it fits in our back pocket, we queue up overnight to buy the latest model because it comes in three new colours.
So you’d reckon when they invented cameras on which you could instantly see how good your snap of Aunt Beryl blowing the 78 candles on her birthday cake turned out, we’d have happily kissed goodbye those days when Uncle Reg used to say, “Hang on – I’ll just go process the film, wait for it to dry then print a few 5 by 7s and be right back in two hours”. Or leave the film at a chemist who sent it to someone else who did all the film processing and printing and wait a week to get the results back.
There certainly was/is magic in seeing a photographic print developing before your very eyes. It’s like a photographer with no handyman skills repairing a front gate: a kind of “Hey, I did that all by myself and it actually opens,” sense of achievement. But it’s messy, complicated and expensive (as is fixing a front gate when you don’t know how). You need a processing tank, squeegee, lightbox, loupe, enlarger, masking board, developing trays, negative developer, paper developer, paper, stop bath, rapid fixer and one of those red lightglobes that turned your laundry-cum-darkroom into a place FBI agents enter with pistols drawn.
As a photographer in a darkroom, despite your best efforts to stay clean, shirts and trousers were stained with the kind of chemicals military dictators deemed too lethal to use on their enemies. And some negs were so over or under exposed they required a dozen sheets of paper before you finally got the print right. And just when you’d gotten the hang of things your housemate would knock on the door shouting they needed the laundry to do a load of washing.
It was a little easier for professionals who had permanent and spacious darkroom sets-ups, and even cadets or darkroom assistants to do their dirty work for them. All the professional had to do was remember which roll of T-Max he shot at 1600 ISO and which roll he shot at 100 ISO.
So if one of those community darkrooms for hire has opened up nearby and you really want to drive down that infrared-lit memory lane, go right ahead – it’ll be fun. It’ll also make you love your digital camera a whole lot more.
Should photography equipment from the days of film be on display in a museum, or dusted off and resettled in a darkroom?