Old Darkroom Sparks Memories

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I visited an old photo darkroom recently. It hasn’t been used in at least a decade, maybe longer. Digital cameras began replacing film in the early 1990s, as newspapers and other print media figured out it was a way to both save money and speed up the process of producing a photograph. At the small daily newspaper where I worked in East Texas, we plunked down $20,000 in 1992 or ’93 for our first Nikon digital camera. A similar model today might cost $500 at most. An entire generation of photographers has arrived, never knowing the thrill of watching a print come to life in a tray of smelly chemicals, the image illuminated only by the faint yellow glow of a safelight.

All the tools necessary to develop rolls of film and make prints were still in that old darkroom, stacked in piles and on cabinets. Stained plastic trays gathered dust on a shelf. An enlarger was perched on a shelf in the corner, 8×10 print boxes stacked on its base. Film reels lay abandoned on the floor, along with yet another enlarger for making color prints. The desiccated crust of photographic chemicals clung to the vats in which chemicals were once mixed: Fixer, D-76 for developing film, Dektol for prints.

The place still possessed that darkroom smell, which I was first introduced to more than 40 years ago in the basement of the Longview newspaper. There I developed sheets of 4×5 film and rolls of 120 negatives shot by other photographers, and learned how to make prints. For the next 20-plus years, I held jobs that required at least a part of my workweek was spent in a darkroom, until digital arrived. Sometimes I miss having a darkroom in which to retreat, music playing in the background as I methodically cranked out prints for the next issue of whatever newspaper I toiled for. It was a form of therapy, an escape from the world. But I can’t say I miss have fingers stained a subtle tinge of yellow from the chemicals, or the inevitable bleached spots on my clothes from sloshing prints from tray to tray, even though I always wore an apron. I finally sold my personal darkroom equipment in the mid-1990s, when it became obvious digital was here to stay, and film was largely confined to art photographers.

As mentioned, I recently moved once again, buying a house in a quiet subdivision in North Austin. I methodically unpacked a couple of boxes stuffed with three-ring binders of photo negatives, boxes of prints, even a half-dozen carousels of slides. If you remember slide carousels, then like me you’re eligible to join AARP, not that I recommend it. Nobody gets out alive when they join AARP. Just saying.

As I dutifully stacked a yard-long collection of three-ring binders on my closet shelf, accompanied by a couple dozen old print boxes filled with photos, I thought of my children. If I can’t figure out what to do with all this stuff, they will have to deal with it at some point.

I’m loath to chunk those negatives, contact sheets and boxes of prints. They represent the modest contribution I have made to capture a slice of East Texas in those pre-digital decades. So, I will likely keep carrying around these shelves of old negatives and prints until I can talk some archival collection repository into taking them.

At long last, the old darkroom is slated to be cleared out in the next few months. The negatives and photographs will end up in the university’s collections, the enlargers and other darkroom equipment hauled to surplus. A couple coats of fresh paint should eliminate that darkroom smell. I will continue to spend nights at home making prints the modern way, on a big-screen Macintosh attached to a photo printer. I manipulate the images in Photoshop with lights out, to better see the true tones on the screen. So in a sense I’m still hanging out in a darkroom, just without the smell.

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