The Secret Darkroom of Walter Mitty

This post is by Ron Dawson from The Online Photographer

I really want to thank reader Bob Johnston, no relation. His suggestion in a comment the other day was a EUREKA! moment for me. He said of his moribund darkroom, “But I do want to show it to my grandchildren one day.”

Bright lightbulb went off above my pumpkin head.

That is what I would do if I were to set up a darkroom in the future! Not just print old pictures—hold demonstrations for school classes and any other groups that cared to schedule a visit. Don’t just do darkroom; show darkroom. That makes the most sense for the future. I would love it, and I’ll bet it would be popular. I’ve been happily creating imaginary plans in my head the past two days. I bet I could make it a highly entertaining hour.

The two best days

The two most exciting and popular days when I taught photography to high school kids were 1.) the day I brought my view camera to school and let the kids get under the dark cloth and look at each other through it, and 2.) the first day in the darkroom when they made their first print and got to watch it come up in the developer. My view camera had a fresnel lens on the ground glass, so the view was bright and beautiful. On view camera day, there were always a lot of ooohs and aaahs, lots of “that’s so cool!” and “me next! Me next!” and “why is it upside down?” The students loved it. And it let me explain a lot of things while their interest was piqued and the experience was new and fresh.

When it came to getting into the darkroom, most teachers tended to start with, well, drudgery. Of which there was a lot. Exposing film, then developing it, then drying and cutting and sleeving, then contact sheets, and finally, at long last, after everything else, printing. Even then, test strips first. And how can they judge a test strip if they don’t even know what to look for yet?

I turned it around. I figured I would get the kids interested before anything else happened to get in the way—you know, first impressions and all that. So I made a bunch of “perfect” negatives. An attractive landscape scene, full range, well exposed for a Grade 2 contrast, with one negative in the middle of an otherwise clear eight-inch strip. The very first day of class, first we looked at the negative on the light box. Then we went right into the darkroom. I had them load those negatives in the carrier, adjust the enlarger for size, put the paper in the easel, expose for a predetermined time, and then run the paper through the chemicals on their own (ooohs and aaahs again, and “that’s so cool!”). I figured we could get to all the little details (developing the film, test strips, contrast adjustment, etc., etc.) later. The first thing I wanted to hit them with was the magic of bringing up the latent image in the developer, and seeing a little negative turn into a big positive! “Big positive” figuratively as well as literally.  🙂  The print itself made a great little souvenir of the day for them.

Many of them lost interest in darkroom work later in the semester, because for a lot of people it’s as exciting as doing laundry or cleaning out the hall closet. But there were always a couple of kids who caught fire and advanced from there.

I also had a later didactic purpose in mind—to demonstrate how easy it is to make a great-looking print when you have a well-exposed and properly developed negative. This came from my observation, teaching Summer and adult education classes, that certain people get very obsessive about making “the perfect print” when they don’t have anything within a hundred miles of a perfect negative. I remember one guy in particular. The obvious advice for those people was to just learn to make better negatives; but a few of them wouldn’t accept that. They had read too many accounts of “hero” photographers like W. Eugene Smith laboring exhaustively over prints, making print after print after print and trying all sorts of techniques until a masterpiece was born. They thought that’s what good printing was.

However, as my father used to say, you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken sh*t.

The guy who made the light go on for me, and who I’m thankful to have encountered, was the worst printer I ever had in any class ever. An adult man in a continuing ed class. No instinct for craft whatsoever. He had an absolutely miserable negative which for some unfathomable reason he was attached to like a mother bear loves her cubs. It was a terrible picture, technically an abject failure, and he worked on that damn thing day after day. The print evolved from bad to worse as he lost all objectivity. But he thought he was imitating Gene Smith. I soon gave up on giving him advice—it was like trying to penetrate a sheet of quarter-inch steel with a BB gun. Presently I all but ordered him to move on, but that he would not do. A veritable photo-101 Bartleby. Days after I had abandoned him for lost, he came to me with a little problem—how do you apply bleach to the print? He’d gotten hold of some kind of bleach intended for lightening areas of a print, but it came in granular form, and he had neglected to dissolve it into a solution before he began. Using a damp paintbrush, he was attempting to apply the grains of bleach to his print, and was making even more of a mess than the print had been previously, if such a thing were possible.

He was a gift, that guy! He was the father of my nice idea of having the high school kids make prints from prepared “perfect” negatives on the first trip into the darkroom. I owe him a debt of gratitude.

What’s old is new to the young

So that’s what I’d do with a darkroom in the future if I ever set one up again. How many Millennials, let alone younger generations, have ever looked through a view camera or watched an image magically emerge in the developer tray? I would bet anybody who has never seen it would probably be interested in how it used to work, even if they never set foot in a darkroom again in their lives. Nine-tenths of the things we do for the experience are things we’ll never do again. I mean, I hooked a sailfish in the Tongue of the Ocean once.

This is no doubt just a fantasy, but hey, fantasies are important to me. Some of my greatest achievements were accomplished in fantasy! I’ve been the best tennis player in the world, and you should hear me play air guitar. Don’t knock it. (Everyone should just read “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” It’s only a few paragraphs long, and unfortunately the basic concept has been distorted up by stage adaptations and a succession of films. Just read the original.)

So that’s going to be my darkroom fantasy from now on. Thank you, Bob!


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