The Darkroom Days

In the old days, you had to fumble and stumble in a near pitch-black room full of chemicals to produce a photograph. And that was half the fun of it. A time-consuming, expensive process. You were never sure if what you printed was up to scratch because by the time you got to the stage where it was safe to turn the light on, your image was ‘fixed’. If it wasn’t what you’d hoped for, you had to start all over again.

The ‘wow’ moment of seeing an image magically appear in a bath of developer had me hooked from the off. Or perhaps I was high on the fumes. Either way, I loved it. I won’t go into a long narrative about the aesthetics and merits of black and white photography, seek out those with a superior command of language and a greater grasp on the subject. And for me, it’s all about a feeling that I’d struggle to describe. Let’s try breathtaking, bewitching, hypnotic.

“When you photograph people in colour, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls” ― Ted Grant.

There’s that, and the fact it’s easier and cheaper than colour for the amateur to produce themselves! Forgive the quality of these shots. They are over 30 years old, originally printed onto heavily textured paper and re-photographed onto digital. I’m impressed with how well they’ve aged, the mounts have begun to disintegrate, warping the photos, so I’ve done my best with them without dismantling the framing.

After Higher Education, the next logical step was to study for a Degree. So I applied. Along with 500 others. For just 30 places. Oh boy. Rearrange; of, depth, out, my! I was up against students who had already completed some kind of Photography, Art or Graphic Design Foundation, with impressive portfolios. And li’l ol’ me, fresh-faced from college, not yet knowing who I was. Despite the odds being so heavily stacked against me, I was put on the Reserve List and amazingly offered a place after someone dropped out. But because the term had long since started and I had missed so much, my placement was kept open for me to join the following year.

Unfortunately, it never came to pass. A change in personal circumstances coupled with crippling doubt and a crisis of confidence, conspired with the fear of how I’d manage financially (requiring a move across country) and the whole lid came down with a bang. I made peace with it quite quickly, rolled that path up and packed it away. I set off on a diferent path, bagging myself a job in a little photographic mini-lab shop, developing and printing customers’ films. (This is 3 decades ago, long before digital photography).

Our equipment was archaic. Other photo-process shops had machinery that did EVERYTHING for the operator. No real skill required. Our coal-fired contraption needed expertise and experience to produce anything worth looking at. But because of that, our standard and quality put other processors in the shade. My darkroom studies provided me with enough knowledge to hit the ground running. All colour-balancing, contrast control and focusing was done by eye. Even now I never accept a computer’s decision on colour correction. I want to recreate what I saw and felt (which is not always what the camera saw, its eye not working like a human eye). The downside of the job was having to view all that the general public chose to photograph and some of it was a bit grim or left little to the imagination! But we had stickers for that. The upside was a daily dose of chemical fumes to make me feel at home and mitigate some of those images.

Another service we offered was re-touching old photos by hand. Today you just hit a button in Photoshop. We mainly touched out scratches or lens dust marks that had impaired a photograph. Luckily I’d arrived with a useful skill set. I made myself a niche whilst I was studying, it combined art with photography, my two main subjects. I would chemically sepia-tone a photo and then subtly hand-paint in some colour using special dyes. The colour would be barely perceptible, but so effective on sepia-toned prints. As each hand-tinted photo was a one-off and mostly used as exam pieces or given away, I have very little in way of examples to show. And as above, these are now over 30 years old and are photos of photos that were originally printed on very heavily textured paper, so I hope you can see what I’ve described.

Alas, my photography ‘career’ was thwarted as rumours started to spread of my boss’s vague and suspicious financial activities. I bailed. My manager had already bailed, leaving me in charge some months before. A short time later a notice appeared on the shop door; ‘All creditor enquiries to…………..’ and I heard that my boss had left (fled) the country. So that was that. The first of a loooooong line of companies that appear on my CV as ‘no longer in business’. And my first real clue to the fact that I’m jinxed!

My love of photography though has never diminished. My knowledge has. I was very late in accepting and partaking of the digital age and I bury my head in the sand regarding the technical aspects. I always did! Making a technically great photograph doesn’t necessarily make a great photo. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!

I have dabbled with ideas over the years and tried to pursue avenues of photographic creativity with the pipe-dream of it being a source of income. But on more than one occasion I’ve had my thunder stolen (not maliciously), leaving me feeling crushed, stuck and unable to continue. Pipped to the post. Or someone has shouted louder, again leaving me in a wake of self-doubt and inability. Their voice deafening who I am and stifling my confidence. I’ve even given others the advice ‘don’t NOT do something because others ARE doing it, even if they’re doing it better’. Though better can be very subjective! This is why The Lockwood Echo has been such a relief to launch, finally a platform for some creativity that was mine. ALL MINE! (Insert evil laugh here…….).

If you’ve enjoyed this, maybe you’d like to take a wander through my main Gallery. I’m adding to it as I dig back through material finding long-forgotten memories. Another major reason for my love of this artform.

8 comments

    • I discovered the subject quite by chance, needing to fill my college timetable with a compulsory recreational activity and determined not to do sport! And working solo in the darkroom was the perfect hobby for an introvert 😉 I loved the process. Thankyou for commenting 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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