I'm the first to admit it: digital photography is a brilliant invention. It is quick, easy, and inexpensive and painless to the novice. Simply deleting your mistakes, rather than wasting rolls of expensive film and reams of photo paper, makes digital photography amazingly accessible to the everyman.
But with all that said, I am and always will be a diehard darkroom fan. Some people say that in an effort to sound elitist or to show off their knowledge of techniques that nobody else knows. For me, it has nothing to do with that. It is just the simple fact that being in complete, manual control of every step of the photo gives me a rush that I'll never get from clicking and pointing in Photoshop.
Why we love darkrooms
What I've discovered in the past several years is that many people would love to know how to use a darkroom. I was in a thrift store a few years ago and I found something called a "Darkroom Kit." This was basically a large cardboard box released by the Kodak Company some thirty years ago. It contained the remnants of some student's darkroom attempts, including some measuring vials, a few pairs of tongs, and developing trays. The whole collection stank strongly of stop bath, which has a distinct vinegar-y smell. When I opened the box in front of the cashier, who was perhaps high school age and wore her hair in two green ponytails, she breathed in deeply and then sighed. "I've never worked in a darkroom," she said, "but that smell makes me want to try."
And that's the best way to put it: it's about the smell. It's about stains on your clothes and feeling lightheaded from breathing chemicals for hours. It's about turning on a little transistor radio and zoning out to bad music while the world around you is bathed in red or amber light. Most of all, it's about watching an image bloom like magic on a blank sheet of paper- then deciding to do it just once more to make it perfect.
For the checkout girl at the thrift store and everyone else who has sighed and told me that they would love to try working in a darkroom, I'm here to say that it's so much simpler than anyone would think. The techniques of developing your own photos are complicated- but there are a million books on the market that deal with technique so perfectly that I won't even try to imitate them here. Go pick up The Print by Ansel Adams to learn the specifics. My main point here is that building your own darkroom doesn't have to be an expensive and complicated task.
When I stopped taking photo classes and lost my access to the darkroom at college, it didn’t take long for me to realize I needed a darkroom of my own. However, at the time I was renting an apartment—a small one at that—and sharing it with my boyfriend. We didn’t exactly have the space available for what I assumed would have to be a big, fancy set-up.
I knew I'd need the equipment before I even started, so I hit up Ebay while I thought about the logistics. Sadly enough for everyone (but luckily for me), darkroom supplies really can be had for a song nowadays. I spent just over a hundred dollars on a Beseler enlarger. When the seller shipped it to me, he was apparently desperate to clean out his own darkroom because he also sent boxes and boxes full of chemicals, paper and supplies. But the whole pile sat in my storage closet unused.
I was reading all of the articles available online about building darkrooms, and it just made the whole idea seem completely out of my realm. I couldn't partition my garage; I didn't have a basement of my own; I couldn't even use the closet because it was too small to turn around in. I didn't have an extra room that I could devote to the project. I started to understand why darkrooms were dying- this was complicated stuff.
Finally, one night when my boyfriend was out of town, I decided it was time to print- no matter what. My chemicals were nearing their expiration date, and I figured it was better to waste them with an unsuccessful printing attempt than it would be to let them go bad while sitting in storage.
So, I did what the professionals often laugh at: I set up a bathroom darkroom. The entire process took about half an hour, and I spent the rest of the night printing black and white photos and having the time of my life. A big fancy set-up wasn’t necessary. Here’s what I did.
The bathroom darkroom
1. In order to make my darkroom “dark,” I found a roll of black trash bags and plastered them over the window, using mailing tape to hold the edges down. It took several bags hanging side by side to cover the whole window.
It was only after I had taped them down securely that I remembered darkrooms need ventilation. I had to un-tape the edges of the bags and reach underneath to open the window, then tape it all up again. This did allow for a little air circulation, but I would recommend fans or more high-tech systems for long-term printing. You don’t want to breathe in full-strength for too long.
2. After the window was taken care of, I drove a few nails into the wall above the bathroom door. I then took the comforter off my bed and tied loops of yarn onto the corners. The yarn loops went over the nails, and the comforter more or less blocked light from the door. A towel crammed along the bottom of the door finished the job. It wasn’t easy to get in and out, but it kept the room sufficiently dark. I sat in the room for about two minutes, and when my eyes had adjusted and everything was still pitch black I knew it would work.
Many people forget that you don't need total darkness for developing photos; it is only when your paper is exposed that there cannot be any light leaks, and if you keep the paper out for as short a time as possible you should be fine. Only film requires deep darkness for extended periods of time.
This leads me to my biggest annoyance about the whole project: opening and closing the paper box, as well as the plastic envelope inside, every time I needed a new sheet of paper. If you have a light-tight container or drawer, by all means store your paper in it. You will save yourself a lot of hassle and, possibly, paper.
3. I took the regular lightbulbs out of my bathroom fixture and installed a red safelight bulb (part of my Ebay booty) into one of the sockets. This isn't even technically necessary; if you don't have a safelight, just set your darkroom up so that you know where everything is by touch, and work slowly and carefully.
4. A board set across the bathtub provided space for the three developing trays. For a print washer, I stretched a pair of old pantyhose over the mouth of the bathtub faucet to act as a filter (we had very hard water) and turned the water on a low warm trickle. A dishpan below the faucet held finished prints, and the falling water was enough to clean them as long as I left them in there for at least ten minutes.
For best results, I should have probably measured the water temperature- but I have to admit I didn't bother. Black and white is more forgiving than color when it comes to the right temperature for water and chemicals.
5. A piece of yarn tied across the shower rail and a handful of paper clips created a place for prints to drip dry.
6. Because I didn’t have a table for the enlarger, I put it on top of a big storage trunk that originally held towels, and slid it into the bathroom. Our bathroom was long and very narrow. There was just enough space for me to sit cross-legged in front of the enlarger without hitting my head on the sink. I plugged it into the bathroom outlet. In hindsight, I should have used a surge protector or something else to help protect the current. Not to mention myself. But this worked just fine.
7. The hardest part was keeping the wet side of the process separate from the dry side. Because the bathroom is so small, it was really hard to avoid getting the paper wet (and avoid getting a shock). I kept a ton of towels close by, wiped my hands dry every chance I got, and worked very slowly to avoid splashing water all over the dry side of my darkroom.
Some of my prints were a little stained (I didn’t rinse them long enough, I guess) and none of the exposures were all that great (I couldn’t find a clock with a second hand, so I was guessing at the exposure and development times). But I did get a handful of useable prints, and most importantly I had a fantastic time! With a little more preparation next time around, I’m sure I can make this set-up perfectly functional and just as useful as a “real” darkroom.
Nowadays, I have moved into a new house that has a long, skinny room in the basement. The room holds the furnace and hot water heater, among other things. It also leaks when it rains. It's far from ideal, but nonetheless it is stacked full of darkroom supplies, and I'm measuring the walls in order to hang shelves in the next week or so. For me this is a huge step forward towards my own darkroom, and I'm determined to make it work. And I'm extremely excited, too.
The art of darkroom developing doesn't have to die out. There are plenty of people out there who are longing to try their hand at this unique skill. Once they realize that having a darkroom and learning how to use it doesn't take years of knowledge or tons of cash, hopefully they'll get involved, too. Inconvenient, it can be. But darkroom developing is incomparable to any photo editing software I've come across yet.