THE DARK ARTS

One New Year’s Resolution Fulfilled

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And so to the darkrooms of the University of Salford, (as promised in my Happy New Year post in January) for a two day course in the basics of darkroom developing and printing. Having gone back to film over the last 18 months or so I thought this was a natural progression: I hadn’t been able to see a way forward with digital and this looked like it might be a fruitful route.

After a happy and absorbing twelve or so hours a number of thoughts occur to me.

1.  This is an entirely different process from that of producing digital images. (Cries of “duh!” – but stay with me.)   It is so different that the suspicion I have had in my head for some time now – that they cannot both reasonably be called photography – is hardening into certainty. Older photographers may have consigned their enlargers and printing trays to some dusty corner of the loft with relief but for every advance there is a retreat somewhere and sometimes you don’t notice until it is too late.  That’s not to suggest that one process is superior to the other: just that they are very different.  This is A Big Subject and you have my promise that I will develop it dazzingly in a forthcoming blogpost.

2.  The mere process of producing a negative, contact prints, several test strips and a full-size print or two brings about a familiarity with a photograph which a memory card and software program simply don’t.  By the end of the darkroom process you are not looking at the photograph you thought you were looking at when you started. 

3.  You probably can’t (well, so far, I can’t anyway) distinguish a darkroom hardcopy print from a digital one.  I went to see a Lartigue exhibition a year or two ago and some of the prints were modern darkroom-produced from his own negatives; and others were produced from the same negatives but through scanning and digital printing.  I saw no difference and the young man overseeing the exhibition said he couldn’t either (notwithstanding the fact that the digital ones were very significantly cheaper).  That’s a bit of a disappointment because I thought I would be tapping into a rich vein of print aesthetics from day one.  I still have hopes, however.

4.  Darkroom printing is one of those activities in which time simply comes to a halt because you become so absorbed. (The darkness seems to contribute to this effect.  Space takes on a different quality.) This puts it on a level with only two other practices in my life; motorcycle mechanics and writing.  Since I gave up the former a couple of years ago I maybe do have a little capacity now for further escape from the time/space continuum.

5.  You don’t actually need much space for the activities in the dark bit.  You do need significant kit though: enlarger, trays, chemicals and so on.  Most of the hardware you can pick up fairly cheaply on ebay but I have this feeling that the hardware side might begin to expand…..

Am I hooked? I am certainly tempted.  I suspect that the highs are higher and the lows are lower than the digital process.  That makes it look addictive to me – and like all addictions, first somewhere inside you have to want to become addicted.

P.S. These two appreciating classics are my first darkroom printed images. On-screen two things are immediately apparent. First is that the backlighting of the screen lifts the highlights a little - so, for example, the chap’s head below has lost the highlight detail in fact it has blown it, compared to the print in my hand. The other is that the overall tone has changed to create a harder, brighter image in both cases.

P.S.  The other interesting thing about the course was more general.  We went out on the first morning to shoot a roll of film in half an hour or so.  Obviously, in that time you just shoot whatever you bump into: buildings, environment, people and so on without much intention.  Yet when you have printed your contact sheet you find that you have several interesting images at least.  Where, then, does that leave intention in your general photographic life?  When you squint through the viewfinder and line your image up – what is your intention?  And is it a help or a hindrance?  That is something that I hope to be in a better position to comment on later in the year……..(mysterious, eh?)

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