Monday, 1 June 2009

Tears in the Stop Bath

Although the majority of the photography that I show in this blog is in colour, I make a lot of monochrome work, too, and always have. People who have come to photography since the advent of digital imaging have little idea of the realities of doing your own developing and printing in the days of "wet chemistry," and they have no idea how lucky they are, especially if their taste runs to colour. Don't believe the retrospective myth-making: The darkroom was a place of evil and loneliness, where darkness, dangerous chemicals and an almost comic lack of control over the uniformity of the end product combined to restrict art photography to a monastic set of pale-skinned creatures with black fingernails, or people rich enough to employ these shunners of sunlight.

Of course, there was a certain satisfaction to be had in learning to produce a good enough print, but producing excellent prints really only appeals to the kind of person who might enjoy the challenge of making their own furniture. It's a hard, painstaking craft, that takes years to learn. Don't misunderstand me: unless you've visited, say, John Makepeace's workshop in Parnham House, Dorset, you just don't know how exceptionally beautiful something as ordinary as a chair can be, or how skilful human beings can be with their hands. But then, you're probably neither much good with a bench plane nor in a position to pay £50,000 for a new table, are you?*

Similarly, unless you've seen a masterfully crafted print on a heavy, fibre-based, warm-toned glossy paper, air dried to a sexy matt sheen and with perfect tonality ranging from chocolatey blacks to creamy whites, perhaps split-toned in selenium so the shadows have the bruised purple edibility of a ripe plum, well... You just don't know what printing is about.

Most people learned to produce horrid grey shiny things that looked like poor photocopies of the world with no true blacks and no true whites and took it no further, largely because they didn't know there was any "further." But also because they had lives and every hour spent in the darkroom was an hour not spent doing something else. My own moderate skills were developed during an interval when I first moved from Bristol to a new job in Southampton in 1984 and was living alone in a flat. I did a photography course run in Southampton by Mike Skipper of the Oxford Darkroom (an excellent and passionate teacher), and set up a darkroom in trays on the floor of an easily-darkened corridor, and developed my film in the bathroom. Several nights a week for two years or so I printed until the small hours. Going for a pee in the night could be hazardous, though, if I had been too tired to empty and wash the trays that evening.

But consider this: not only did every print from the same negative have to be produced afresh (each time attempting exactly the same choreography of timing and hey presto handwaving known as "dodging and burning"), but every one had exactly the same blemishes. Usually dust or hairs too small to see on the negative, but like a white rash on the print. Dotting these out with a fine paintbrush and dyes carefully matched to the colour of the print, known as "spotting," is a torment of fastidiousness, the sort of activity best reserved for recovering post traumatic shock cases. Unless you have done your share of spotting, you cannot imagine the tedium of spotting an edition of 50 or more 12"x16" prints.

I could go on. The way you enter obsessive compulsive territory, alone in the dim red glow, rocking a tray from end to end, listening to the tap and gurgle of the print as it slides back and forth, waiting for the timer to go, counting along ("Elephant one, elephant two..."), trying not to slosh fixer out of the tray. Lifting a floppy wet print out of a tray with slippery tongs to drain it off, only to drop it onto the floor, again. Making test strips for exposure that take just as long to process as a final print. Judging the grade of paper to use. Allowing for dry down. Trying to be orderly enough in your procedures not to fog yet another entire box of paper when you turn the light on. Trying not to spoil the pH of your stop bath with the bitter tears of tiredness and frustration...

However, I never felt I had much talent for monochrome. I liked taking the pictures, but never quite got it. When I moved to colour negative, something clicked, and I noticed people had stopped yawning when I showed them my work. But, I now had a family and operating a home colour darkroom -- unspeakably vile under the best of conditions -- was impractical. I started to pay a local darkroom to "dev and contact" and proof print my work and finally made the move from time poor to cash poor. This, of course, was good preparatory financial training for going digital.

When digital came along, I experienced a state of euphoria that lasted years. I still have the first little print I made from a scanned colour negative on my first Epson Stylus Photo printer using proper Epson photo paper, after some disappointing initial results on plain paper. I can remember holding it and staring at it in disbelief: it was ten times better than anything I'd ever produced myself, or paid someone to produce, with wet chemistry. Even the paper texture was nicer. When I realised I could spot and save an image once and for all, then print a dozen copies while cooking the kids a meal, well, talk about eu-bloody-reka. Adjust contrast? No problem. A bit lighter, a bit bluer? Why not? Frankly, if you have never grappled with adjusting colour balance in an enlarger -- endlessly dialling in and testing new combinations of cyan, magenta and yellow in complete stinking darkness until you decide either to hurt Mr. Ilford quite badly or that you quite like that peculiar green after all -- you have no idea what a revolution this was.

So, show some respect, if you have never peered through a grain enlarger, trying to fine focus an image: now that's pixel peeping! But, on the other hand, when you read these idiots on various blogs and bulletins waxing lyrical about "souping" film in Rodinal in that annoyingly bloke-ish way, as if photography were a close cousin to car maintenance, just ask to see some of their prints. Ninety nine times out of a hundred, I'll guarantee, they'll be shiny plastic sheets of nothing much poorly photocopied from a world apparently knitted out of 18% grey wool, and they will simply make you yawn.

* If you are, however, and you are reading this blog, do get in touch. I've got some really rather lovely prints and artist's books you might be interested in ...


Bronislaus Janulis / Framewright said...

TOP pointed me here, very nice post. Especially after TOPs posts on Leicas.

It was a little easier in a proper darkroom, but still a mole like existence.


Karl Knize said...

I agree when it comes to color. In fact, I was wise enough to never try and do it myself and paid good labs good money to consistently deliver the mediocre results I would likely have achieved on my own. And I also marvel at the color I produce from my desktop. But black and white? This is where you lose me. I think modern digital monochrome output is many things good and easy, many things controllable and convenient, and beautiful in it's own way if you appreciate -or can live with- photogravure or synthetic surfaces. Wet silver is a demanding process that takes years to master, if at all, is time consuming as hell and only really works as part of the entire creative process. And in the end, if you work hard, you may only end up with a very few prints from a particular photo that are truly great. Which is the point to me.

Unknown said...

Hey! I dev my film in Rodinal. Shove it in a scanner afterwards though! Where does that phrase "soup" come from? To me, "to soup" would mean to put in a food blender.....probably not a good way of developing film.

Phil said...

I always enjoyed the peace of a black & white darkroom when I had access to one already setup at College, but will quite happily work digitally for all those reasons you mentioned.

Anonymous said...

Oh man, the memories come flooding back and I swear I can smell the fixer again! Great post and you are soooooo right about working in color; what a pain! Remember those big print developing tanks for home darkrooms? Ugh.

But you know, I do miss the printing/dancing that was making B&W prints.

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