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January 17, 2004

Dying Darkrooms

One of the biggest public darkrooms in my neighborhood is looking for a new place to move to. Though the darkrooms here at NESOP are probably the most popular for students and renters, Boston Photo Collaborative has been a great resource in its own right for a large number of photographers, and even NESOP students (especially when NESOP was closed for school vacation or had its blackout periods where only full-time students could rent the facilities).

Most importantly, it's been an invaluable resource for the community, with education programs and outreach to people who don't necessarily have access to photography classes and equipment. The collaborative is not going away in this regard...it fully intends to continue the youth and senior programs that have made it so valuable. However, in a note sent out to the community by the founder, it's clear that the darkrooms seem headed for a different fate:

"The darkrooms are another story. The business of darkroom rental has waned with the popularity of digital photography and our customer base that came from mostly advanced amateurs and professionals continues to decline. It is in the plans to build similar but smaller versions of the darkrooms we have now but the move to a new facility will take some time...

...there have been hundreds of thousands of prints made here since 1989 and we are very proud of the fact that we have helped photographers pursue their creative vision over the years. I hear the ghosts of all those prints grumble in the halls as the technology changes and the darkrooms grow quiet.

The thing I will miss the most, is walking into the print viewing area and seeing a photographer or one of the teens staring lovingly at their newly completed perfectly burned and dodged, well exposed, newborn print.

I was at a lecture at Harvard last week... and at the end of the talk, 40 people got up to take a photo and 36 had digital cameras. Even my three year old son takes pictures with a digital camera and can't understand why you can't see the pictures instantly with Papa's camera. We most likely will be taking the teen programs all digital immediately. I obviously have mixed emotions personally about this change but the computer skills that we will teach the teens will have far more value in their lives than film developing skills. I will miss the darkroom and the magic of seeing a print come up in the chemistry."

I noted in one of my first blog posts that I've been photographing avidly for four years or so, but I never entered a darkroom until 15 months ago, when I took my first class at NESOP. The excitement was so great with that darkroom class and succeeding ones, and I still think that the people whom I've met at darkroom classes (black and white or color) are the most consistently interesting and enjoyable people I've taken classes with. I don't mean that to sound as snobby as it does...on the contrary, the people I've met who take darkroom classes (with some exceptions...there are always exceptions) have been more generally down to earth, and not so haughty, self-absorbed, or careerist as one might expect from people with fine art tendencies.

Of course, this is silly and sentimental generalization, as I've met cool people across all areas of photography, wedding to commercial to digital, but even now, as I continue to take classes to refine skills in more technical areas (flash, product lighting, Photoshop, etc) I meet people at the developing tanks or wet darkrooms doing printing and strike up a conversation most easily with them.

The same goes for the people I've struck a conversation with at the Boston Collaborative's darkrooms...people working on all sorts of projects, some with truly lovely final results, but rarely the deadly whiff of the aspiring artist who takes themselves too seriously. Perhaps there's something about the chemicals and the nature of the process that makes people friendly, or perhaps it's the camraderie that comes with the reality of knowing that there aren't many who actively take the time to make wet prints anymore. Even the fair number of 35mm shooters I've encountered, who love the look of black and white for street photography and casual portraits, seem increasingly oriented toward scanning their prints and working digitally with the final product.

The flip side of this is that, anecdotally, there seems to be an increasing number of people demonstrating an interest in large format, with keepers of the flame like View Camera Magazine and lately, Black and White photography with their recent fine three part series on buying a Large Format Camera...perhaps as a recognition that certain type of photographs and processes are still worth exploring outside of the digital realm. As I've indicated, large format is still in my plans, barring any major life changes, in the spring or summer of this year.

Here is my first wet darkroom print...I sure generated a lot of junk from that beginning darkroom class (I still keep a huge folder of rejects from that class for sentimental reasons), but I remain very attached to the feel and look of this image.


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I'm also a relative newcomer to the magical world of the dark and wet, with my first (and so far only) formal course in photography being an intro to the b/w darkroom in the summer of 2001. It turned a hobby into a passion and brought more knowledge of the technical and artistic possibilities of photography than my previous Photoshop doodlings. I'm still amazed each time I watch a print float into life in the developer tray. The physical handling of the paper, the motion of my hands during dodging/burning, and all the related steps involved; from test strips to toning and mounting, somehow make the image more personal... more *mine*... than anything I've accomplished digitally.

I'm fortunate to work at a university which allows me access to a b/w darkroom whenever it is not in use by a class. I don't know if I could manage if I had to locate and pay for a commercial rental darkroom, or try to set up adequate facilities in my own home. The school, though, is leaning more and more towards digital, with all toning effects being done in Photoshop and selenium toner banned from the darkroom completely.

I hope you find the chancee to work with LF soon. It's a slower and more contemplative process, at least for me, and a big day of shooting may yield only half a dozen negatives but I think you'll find your percentage of "keepers" will be high enough that total image production may actually increase.

Posted by: john at Jan 18, 2004 12:36:23 PM

For a first try it's a good one !!! I print some of my pictures, though not as much as I would like.

Keep up the good work !

I'll check often !


Posted by: fred at Jan 19, 2004 5:44:18 PM

I need basic knowledge. I've forgotton how to develop my 35mm and 2-1/4 film. Can you help with instruction? I live in Alameda, CA.

Posted by: sharon hanson at Dec 26, 2004 11:05:33 AM