Saturday, 3 August 2013

In the Darkroom

In the digital age, of instagram, phone photography and the near infinite memory capacity of most digital cameras the art of film seems antiquated. 

In his little history of photography, Walter Benjamin recognizes something new and strange in the photograph, speaking of an early portrait of a fishwife he describes it as “something that cannot be silenced, that fills you with an unruly desire to know what her name  was, the woman who was alive there, who even now is still real and will never consent to be wholly absorbed in art”.  

In the early days of its inception, photography was lauded as offering a new reality or truth that could not be perceived by the eye, a window into the optical unconscious. Photography had yet to become the common currency of our everyday lives, used on television, in print and on the internet as well as for our own private recording of events and memories. Those first photographs were incapable of capturing human images, who moved to quickly for the camera’s long exposure times. Daguerres’ Boulevard du Temple from 1838 is eerily empty, the traffic and pedestrian’s moved too quickly to be recorded, on the lower are the only people still long enough to be recorded – a man getting his boots polished.  This aspect of time in photography, meant that there was a stillness, a drawn out aura to the photograph that has been lost to efficiency and speed of today’s technology. As Benjamin puts it, the length of time of the exposure mean that the subject grew into in the picture, in contrast the snapshot. There seems to be a permanence to the photograph that has been lost, also reflected in the physicality of the medium, early daguerreotypes were heavy metal plates encased in velvet-lined books, they were cumbersome one off objects meant to be treasured and preserved.
With the development of photographic technology came the reproducibility of images, challenging the aura of the traditional art object. Benjamin defines aura as “A strange weave of Space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close the object may be.” 

Whereas the first introduction of photography seemed to challenge the aura of the artwork, present day digital photography invests those earlier chemical processes with a new aura all of their own. The photograph created in the darkroom, through the stages or processing and printing is closer to the skill and learned craft of painting now than to the simple point and click (although even that is done away with in phone photography) of a digital camera. Even though you can in theory make an infinite number of prints from one negative, as I have learned through my own practices in the darkroom, each individual print has some slight difference, this one has a water mark, that one is develop da few seconds longer, another has a slight scratching on the negative that can’t be wiped out. It is this physicality that is lost in digital processes. Not that I am advocating a complete rejection of digital, I use instagram myself. But it is interesting to watch how the old tensions that sprung up between painting and photography upon its invention now apply more to the analog vs. digital technique.  Unfortunately unlike painting, which does not look like it will become extinct any time soon, darkroom developing is more likely to die out as an obsolete technology, going the same way as the cassette tape and the cd.

Part of what I love about developing my own photographs, is the extreme slowness of the process, unlike with a digital image, that you can so quickly shoot, upload to a computer and then edit or adjust to wipe out any flaws or to bright, sharpen or crop, with darkroom developing, first you have to develop the film. I lack the patience to be really fiddly and a lot of my images come out crooked, with watermarks or scratches on the negatives, but even before you get to the printing stage, its necessary to get the development process right. I recently developed a roll of film and thought I had completely messed it up, the developer was too high a temperature and when I pulled the negatives out of the wash, they appeared almost two-tone, completely black and white with very little gradiations of tones. I was really upset – a whole roll of film wasted! But when I got them into the darkroom to begin printing, I discovered that the extreme contrast actually made for much more interesting pictures. I am a complete newbie at all of this, and have been teaching myself from books and just from playing around, and even when I am offered advice by the others in the photo center, I rarely pay much attention. For me it is the getting my hands dirty, the playing with chemicals in a dark room, that has the same joys or making art when I was a kid. The results are not very technically correct, but I am less interested in producing a perfect picture then in just playing around. While I watch the other more experienced members of the photo center go back and forth between enlarger and developing trays, over and over again printing the same image until they have it just right, I tend to toss out print after print from different negative, the blurry ones, the ones with too much contrast, with people’s heads cropped off, or with too much exposure. You can probably tell that I take photographs this way too, ignoring the light meter and often just clicking away aimlessly, all the more delighted when I get a random really good shot.  

While these mechanical processes seemed artificial and mechanical to early critics such as Benjamin, and mastery as a photographer required a mastery of technique rather than artistry, so too now the darkroom is more aligned with the patience and skill of a painter, the hours spent learning to render the shape of an eye or how to capture light and shade, so the photographer in the darkroom spends hours laboring over achieving just the right degree of light, the right temperature of the chemicals and handles it all as gingerly as if they were painting a delicate watercolour. As I’ve learned myself, those chemicals are no joke, they require patience and respect when handling them. 

I’ve included some of my better results below, so you can see the differences between prints and the physicality of them. I’m afraid the RC paper I use doesn’t scan very well, but all the better to pick out the scratches and light leaks, and occasional watermarks.

Samita, printed at different exposure times.

Kevin, with scratches on the right side of the negative.
The issue here was with the extreme light when taking the photo, had to do some doging and burning to get Mike on the right to show up at all.

Jenn, a little blurry when printed at 8x10

Karina, came out nicely first time!

Dilia, had a lot of trouble with the exposure as the negative was so grey

I really like the gradiation from white to black in this one

From the ruined negatives, too much contrast but I kind of like it!