Darkroom Printing

September 24, 2016

A few weeks ago, I participated in NYCWLK, a darkroom workshop and photo walk. I had been looking forward to this all summer – darkroom printing is arcane, requires equipment and chemicals, and a dark room. Having someone experienced there to show me the ropes in the Bushwick Community Darkroom was the perfect way to try it out. Johnny Patience was great, and I learned a tonne.

Here’s the gist of how things work: when you take a film photo, a negative is created on a piece of plastic. It’s called a negative because the dark parts of the photo are clear, and the brights parts of the photo are dark. When you want to create a photo from your negative, you basically shine a lamp from one side of the negative to project the image (enlarged) onto a piece of light-sensitive paper. This creates a negative image of the negative. This recreates the original scene.

What has fascinated me for so long about this process is just how analogue it is. Film photography is obviously analogue, but there’s some science to it around metering light to get a proper exposure; you can only take the photo once, so you need to get it right. But in the darkroom, you cut test strips and try over and over with different exposure times and contrast levels until you see what you like. It’s all very subjective and you just sort of experiment until you get the results you want.

(Again, this is kind of like programming where you try something and see if it works. This repetition and experimentation is how humans acquire new skills, and both programming and film photography imbue this same learning philosophy.)

Since the workshop, I’ve returned to the darkroom in Bushwick. My results are nowhere near great yet, but I’m really enjoying the process. I can’t say that printing in the darkroom gives me a better result than scanning and printing digitally – not yet anyway – but I definitely enjoy the process more. I feel a deeper sense of ownership over the final product, too. I’m looking forward to entering darkroom prints into next year’s Artsy Salon.

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