Sunday, December 14, 2008

More Basics

All week long I've been thinking about the photographer processing her very large prints in the darkroom when I was there last Sunday. I don't think I did her justice with my very brief description of the process. It had much the look of a ritual. She came out of the special projects area with a rolled tube of paper and carefully slid it into a tank of developer. The tank was maybe 48"x10"x10", just large enough to accommodate the paper roll. Once immersed, she loosened the roll and began pulling one end out of the tank, rolling it in the opposite direction now. When the roll was complete, she carefully lifted one end up and flipped the paper before re-immersing it in the developer. Again with the unrolling, re-rolling, flipping and re-immersing, at least three times before moving to the stop bath and fixer.

Altogether, she probably rolled and unrolled that paper seven or eight times, always careful not to kink or crease the paper. I used to describe handling 16"x20" prints as a wrestling match but it was nothing to the physical effort I saw in that darkroom last week. Which is why I think so many people do not recognize photography for the craft that it is. Aside from the vision necessary to frame and capture an image, printing a good photograph is no easy job. Even photos that are considerably smaller require thought, effort and care. If you've never spent time in a darkroom, you are not likely to know that.

Digital printing is a different process, done with different tools that, based on my limited experience, produces the same results. Ten years ago digital prints were clearly inferior to darkroom prints. No longer. So the only difference between the two is how the photographer gets to the print. That and the fact that digital print-makers can mix images far more easily in a single print with digital photography.

I'll probably be doing a bit of both in the coming years. I have far more ready access to photoshop and a computer than I do to a darkroom. But last week reminded me that I will always enjoy the physical experience of darkroom printing.



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