Monday, June 14, 2010

Do I agitate every 30 seconds or sixty seconds?

I developed two rolls of film and made a contact sheet today. I hadn't worked in a darkroom in a long, long time. I used to spend hours every day in the darkroom and now I have to clean my darkroom for a day to find the things I need to develop a roll of film or make a contact sheet.

It's hard to believe nobody really shoots film anymore. When I started making photos you shot black and white or transparency film. We didn't even shoot color negative. I remember what a big deal it was when we moved to color film and C-41 chemistry. Now, nobody shoots film. It's all digital.

There is a certain mystery about developing your own film and prints, the darkness, feeling your way around, mixing up the chemicals, the smell of fixer, watching prints develop in the yellow light, the feel of fiber paper print, the look of different papers...everything had to come together for a nice print.

But, to me, there was more than just the way the chemicals all came together. There was a chemistry of people. When I was in school we printed in gang printing rooms. A bunch of us students would develop and print together in large or smaller, connected darkrooms. Even later in my career I was still sharing darkrooms with other photographers.

We would chat and socialize as much as work - especially in college. Well, we did a lot of things in a darkroom when we were in college. I can say, sometimes, the kids in the darkrooms were doing all the cool things. There was a certain camaraderie among photographers. You could always see one another's work, good or bad. Everyone was a critic, but it made for a tough skin and, ultimately it made you a better photographer and often it inspired you.

Now, we are all digital, as we say. No more mixing chemistry, no more washing film or prints, no more waiting. The waiting was the thing. Wait to process the film, wait to wash the film, wait to dry the film, wait for the print to develop, wait to fix the print, wait to wash the print, wait to dry the print. Wait, wait, wait. Photography did much to teach me patience, I know that.

With digital my work is on a disk, which I am constantly misplacing. I work on a laptop. I shoot, edit, tone, caption, upload...everything, myself. I never really have any feedback about what I shoot. Sometimes, after its published, I'll hear something about my images. But its never really a critique. Back in the old days at Florida, my instructor ripped prints off the wall and tore them in half if he didn't like them. He was a bit of an ass, but you got the point and you certainly didn't want your prints torn in half lying on the floor with your classmates looking on in horror.

But, as romantic as I seem about the days of darkrooms, the reality of digital photography makes my life easy. I can shoot, edit, upload photos within minutes...from my car, or a bar, or the Tomb of the Unknown. I can look at thousands of pictures stored on a memory card the size of a postage stamp. Photoshop can make my technical mistakes look not-so-bad and can make a rainbow look - WOW! I would never go back to film for daily work.

But, while watching my black and white pictures of Paris develop in the yellow light of the Kodak safelight, I felt a little connected to the past - a little connected to an art and some of the great photographers. Now, when processing two rolls of black and white film, do I agitate every 30 seconds or sixty seconds? I can't remember.

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