At Large Column
Dreaming of a smelly darkroom
Monday morning I awoke from a sweet dream thinking about a female coworker, and not in “that” sort of way, if kinky images are popping into your mind.
This dream involved the many years I spent working in a photographic darkroom, and it reminded me of a recent conversation about that outdated job with Christie Campbell, a fellow photographer/reporter at the Observer-Reporter.
She remarked in the office when that subject came up a few months ago about how much she enjoyed the work, while I said I didn’t miss being around the smell and touch of the caustic chemicals and the time it took to make pictures come to life in the dark.
I was fooling myself, so this dream would teach me.
It took me back to 1987, when we were still using cameras to shoot 35mm film to create black-and-white news and feature images for the newspaper.
The job required us to rush back to the darkroom, wind the film as if blind around a finicky wire-rimmed spool and secure it into a light-sealed canister. Then the sealed film had to be bathed in a developer, stop bath and then fixer chemicals, all timed to begin and end the process in accordance to the speed of the settings on the camera.
Once dry and in a room lit by a dim red bulb, a selected negative would be slid into a bulky enlarger, where a white bulb would project the image from a preselected distance onto photography paper. Skill was needed to correctly make the image’s blacks perfectly black and grays the appropriate shades of gray, while also maintaining its white areas a crisp white.
If the test run wasn’t spot on, we’d use our fingers and hands to block out the light under the enlarger, or use dodging instruments we crafted out of a long, straight strand of a wire coat hanger with a round piece of cardboard the shape of a quarter taped to its end. Then the photography paper was run through a similar bath of chemicals to bring a photo to life.
This really was making miracles happen with a magic wand.
And it wasn’t the end of the business of getting photos into the daily newspaper for a photographer, like me, whose photos were a 20-minute drive from darkroom to newsroom.
I had to deliver the prints in person to editors, unlike today, when high-quality digital photographs quickly toned on a computer with Photoshop are dropped into their hands within seconds via email or a content-management system.
No, I didn’t miss those old darkroom days until a dream took me back with a broad, sleep-induced smile to my old darkroom in Monongahela.
In slumber, the photographic chemicals that were there 25 years ago miraculously still worked perfectly.
I was so happy, and making plans to relocate that darkroom to my house to keep it alive, knowing this digital age would kill that way of doing business.
And, then it was time to go to work in the real world and tell Christie Campbell that she was right all along about old-school photographers missing the old way of making still pictures.
Scott Beveridge is a staff writer and photographer for the Observer-Reporter.
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