I grew up in a photographic home. I spent a great deal of my childhood in one of two states—either antsy while standing stock still and waiting for the shutter to click, or hopping from one foot to the other while banging on the bathroom door, waiting for my dad to let me in because he was locked in there printing pictures. He would let me in, eventually, but he was always a little huffy about it, and he was impatient, standing there in the rosy red light and bathed in the fumes of developer and fixer.
When I got older he wanted to show me how to develop my own photos but the chemicals smelled bad and the production of mixing them, dragging the enlarger and trays and squeegees up from the basement was overwhelming.
It seemed to be a male pursuit, all the beakers and glass stirrers and thermometers, the black changing bag he used to spool up his film before he developed the negatives. All of it a production and exhausting and the drama of monitoring the faintest of stray light, the yelling to keep the door closed frayed my nerves, eroded my confidence and sent me to an early bed.
Sometimes I would stay with him and watch the images emerge, but I remember mostly the sensory aspects of it. The familiar bathroom made alien in the red glow of the special light bulb he used, the snap of the enlarger drawer as he extracted paper from the light-tight box, a softer snap of the negative carrier, the even softer metallic scrape of the enlarger head sliding up and down.
The watery slosh as he rocked the large white trays gently back and forth, an imperceptible twinkling later, the chemical smell. Our eyes fixed on the trays and the paper floating just below the surface of the chemicals. We willed an image to appear. It would, eventually, but it took a long time, and it felt like a magic trick that wouldn’t work this time.
But, then, faces rose up, or buildings, slow and faint and distorted in the watery darkness, wanting to be liberated it seemed. My father kept pushing them back into the drink, by the corners and gently, but still. It seemed excessive.
Photos, transported from one tray to another to another, and then plucked dripping by the corner to be hung up to dry on a string by metal clips. And as mysterious as the process is, I was—and am—still struck by the fact that these high value objects—photographs—begin their lives as wet paper.
In college, though, I changed my mind about the process, and learned how to take better photos and how to develop film and print my own pictures. It was still messy but I used the school’s darkroom and that helped.
Now, I am feeling the itch to try it again. I have inherited a couple of old but good film cameras and as much as I love my digital cameras I would like to see the difference in prints made from real negatives, not pixel. Amid the junk in the basement sit two enlargers, shrouded and kind of creepy, and I am just not sure I have the strength, or desire, to haul one upstairs and use it.
My research question has become this. Does black and white photography look so good because of the camera and lens, the film, the processing of the film, and/or the way in which photos are developed from the film—the chemical process and the paper.
And if it is the camera, negative and paper, could I bypass the chemical processing of the darkroom for a quality scanner and printer and good paper? Would the results be almost as good, good, or maybe even better? Is printing images the old way an esoteric pursuit like bookbinding by hand, or in service of the finished product? I don’t know.
This will be my holiday research project. I want to play around with the old film cameras. I admire classic film black and white photography, the creamy whites and rich blackness of it.
Would like to try my hand—again—at developing my negatives. I can do that at the kitchen sink. But I can also tell you this. That lazy kid hopping from one foot to another is still hanging around, and if there is an easier way, a better way, or as good a way, she is going to embrace it.