Lessons from the Darkroom

I like photography a lot, and always have. I’ve always appreciated a well-done photograph and have devoted a few years of my life to learning how to compose, create, and finish a photograph just the way I want it.

When I was a student at Pikes Peak Community College, almost all my time was spent learning the boring crap you need to get out of the way in order to finally study what you want at a “real” university. For me, that meant almost all my time was spent building up my “core” classes; economics, geography, meteorology, interpersonal communication, English composition, and math, math, math. (I finally passed College Algebra on my 3rd try).

During my several-year stint at PPCC, there was only one type of class I really enjoyed: photography. I found just enough room in my electives to sign up for several photography classes, which transformed my experience there. Aside from a few some music classes that I liked, photography was the only thing I had any interest in.

I started at the beginning: I learned film/slides, then black and white, then darkroom, then digital. It was an amazing experience, both learning about the very technical details about taking a photo (ISOs, aperture/f-stops, shutter speeds, lenses, lighting, development, and more) and also the artistic side of what it is that makes a picture look good.

I liked it so much I ended up buying a complete darkroom set, and spent a couple years taking black and white photos on a mix of cameras (both a 35mm and also a 4×5 large-format view camera), then developing them in my basement bathroom. I got used to the smell of developer and fixer, and spent many nights going to bed with my hands all “pruny” from having my hands wet from rinsing prints and hanging them to dry.

I spent hundreds of dollars on antiquated equipment: enlargers, trays, filters and gels, safe lights, timers, paper, loupes, and more. I also spent hours working on just one roll of film, where I’d gone out in a day to shoot a certain kind of picture I wanted, then took the film to a shop to get it developed as soon as possible, then rushing home to print off the kind of image I had in my mind.

I sometimes look back on that experience and wonder if I spent all that time and money wisely: I could have easily done just like most other people and become a “just add water” photographer: spend $650 on a nice Canon digital camera, and get some business cards printed saying “Ron Stauffer Photography.” But I’m glad I didn’t. There are far too many people who do that, and I’m glad I started from the very beginning, learning the basics.

I learned several lessons from the darkroom, ones I still think about often, perhaps even on a weekly basis.

I learned to embrace and even enjoy the dark of the darkroom. As its name implies, a darkroom is obviously dark. But unless you’ve actually spent time in one, you might not know just how dark it is. When you develop film and transfer it to and from canisters and reels, you turn of all the lights, even the amber-colored safe light. It’s so dark you can’t even see your hand in front of your face. You have to learn to navigate by feeling. For someone with sight, that’s hard to do. There were many times I thought I had threaded the reel just right, only to find out I didn’t, and had to try again, and again, and again, all in complete darkness.

This can be very frustrating, especially because it can get hot and muggy in a darkroom, and fidgeting with an obnoxious roll that isn’t fitting just right and you’re hearing crinkling sounds because you’re doing it wrong can really try your patience. And you can’t just open the door and walk outside and take a break and come back later. Once you crack open that film, you’re committed.

I learned to appreciate the silence. It’s a healthy thing, I think, to learn to be completely quiet and not be bothered by that. I’ll spare the preachy talk about how our society is too loud… and just skip to the fact that you have to learn to appreciate the silence. …to not be bothered by it. It becomes comforting in a way; you start to hear the ambient sounds you wouldn’t hear otherwise. You hear the gentle winding sound of the mechanical timer or the dripping of the faucet, and the sound of the bathroom fan you turn on so the chemical smell doesn’t make you faint. Plus, there are times when you really want to “hear” what you’re doing, since you can’t see it. When you’re aligning the little holes on the film strip to the spikes on the reel and start winding, you can hear whether it slips off or not. This is important, and is hard to do without utter silence.

I learned to appreciate being alone. It’s very lonely in a darkroom: you’re by yourself in a very confined space, and most of the time it’s deafeningly quiet, and it’s very dark. Spending 2-3 hours like that all alone can spook some people out, or they might be afraid of it, but I learned to embrace it. You have to come to peace with you are. You catch yourself humming, whistling, laughing at jokes in your head, or talking to yourself. And that’s okay.

I learned the value of working for a very long time on one specific project. For example, as I mentioned before, if I had a certain kind of image in my head, I’d have to A) come up with the idea, B) get the right film and camera for the shot, C) find the right opportunity with the right lighting and the right people or props, D) take the shot, then E) develop the film, F) cut the film into strips, G) go into the darkroom and process the shot. That’s at least 7 steps, and you’re not guaranteed to get the result you want. Especially with film, where you don’t know until you actually develop the film. Sometimes I’d labor over composing the right shot and find out that there was light leakage and the whole film can was ruined. That’s downright depressing. All that work for nothing.

But, sometimes… just sometimes, you slave over the hot water in the tubs, and finally see that image staring back at you, exactly the way you wanted. That is a MAGICAL moment, and the excitement after all that work, to see your finished product, is extremely satisfying. It’s the fruit of your labor. It’s the reward of something you’ve worked for.

Not an especially great photo, but one of the first B&W shots I ever took.
Not an especially great photo, but one of the first B&W shots I ever took.

These days, I don’t have any more darkroom equipment. I donated it all back to PPCC, where I learned how to do it all. I’m by no means the photographer I want to be, but I’m proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish. It was a journey worth taking.

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Ron Stauffer

Ron Stauffer is a husband, father, believer, web guy, marketing guy, musician, and man of many secret talents. He lives in the Boulder, CO area with his wife and five children, and is frequently told he's too young to have as many kids as he does.