I recently had the opportunity to immerse myself for several days in photography…photography, the old-fashioned way. You know, darkrooms, mixing chemicals while wearing a respirator mask, glass beakers and red safe lights; all in sufficient order to do a Frankenstein lab re-enactment. If that wasn’t challenging enough, it also meant I had to blow the dust off―quite literally, I say with embarrassment—the dependable Linhof 4×5 view camera. And all this necessitated the use of hand-held light meters and exposure by feel.
This was a step back in time: a time when photography required a learned skill to create a picture, as opposed to allowing a processor and algorithms to do all the work.
Before I get drawn-and-quartered by the digital masses, let me freely state the reason I haven’t shot with the 4×5 view camera for all these years rests solely with the fact that I have been capturing pixels.
When I arrived back at my home studio and darkroom, I tried to recall the last time I processed a roll or sheet of film in the E-6 processor (for those readers who are entirely borne of the digital world, E-6 is the abbreviation for the six chemical stages required to develop slide film). At my best recollection, it was about 2005. Feeling some nostalgia and looking at a completely under-utilized processor, I called my local camera store and challenged them to locate some Kodak 1-gallon E-6 kits.
The response was disappointing. I was aware Kodak had stopped making E-6 chemicals around 2012, but I was hoping in my heart of hearts there were some kits remaining, and I could stockpile those. Yes, I could shoot my positive film and send it out to be processed, but that was not the purpose of the exercise. I wanted to spend time back in the darkroom—it is therapeutic.
All of this got me thinking: are the photographers who are just entering the craft today missing out? Is there no longer a requirement to understand how those f/stop numbers originated, and what they mean? Some might argue that time spent working with caustic chemicals could be far better utilized by just being outside taking pictures. I’m not so certain: there is a difference between making a picture and taking a picture.
When we are just entering the world, we learn to crawl before we walk, and we walk before we run. In learning to crawl, we discover the nuances of balance and establish the foundation in order to be able to walk and run. I believe the same is true of photography. Before we can create incredible pictures we must first establish the foundation. Although some may think art history is boring and dry, I would argue that learning the styles of the great master painters will influence your vision. I would also argue that learning about how the f/stops arrived on your lens barrel (or LCD view panel) will provide you with a better understanding of how to use the correct shutter speed in concert with your lens iris to achieve the desired result, which is different that the correct exposure.
But beyond all the technical considerations and foundational training, I have yet to meet a photographer with darkroom experience who does not revel in the magical invigoration of watching a print come to life in a tray of developer. Having been there and done both—and perhaps it is the result of smelling too much hypo—you have my guarantee that no pixel can replace the sanctuary of the darkroom.
It most assuredly is in the darkroom where pictures are made. What a travesty should beginning photographers be deprived of that magical experience should black-and-white chemicals disappear the way E-6 has.