Sanctuary; The Calm Pleasures Of A Traditional Darkroom

Leonard Bernstein's Mass is the next thing I want to buy for my darkroom. It might seem an odd choice, but for me the darkroom is not only a place of work: it is also a place of sanctuary. We quite often get letters from people who are returning to the wet darkroom, or are setting one up for the first time. What is the appeal? After all, you can now just sit down in front of a computer screen. You can process your photos anywhere. Life goes on around you: TV playing, family demands, phone calls, interruptions. And maybe that's the reason why people like the darkroom.

My current sanctuary: the print side and the film side. There is something about the tonality of these prints which reflects the peace and quiet of the room.
© 2006, Frances E. Schultz, All Rights Reserved

It is a quiet place. No one can disturb you if you are "blacked-out." It is you and your art: nothing else. It is a place where you can really concentrate on what you are trying to convey in the picture. What is more, you are in full control of the environment.

Setting up your sanctuary-in-the-dark isn't that difficult either. It is best if you can dedicate a space to it, but it is not actually necessary. A small second bathroom can often be transformed in a matter of minutes to a perfectly good darkroom. For details, see Shutterbug's July 2001 issue for my article "Blackout: Darkroom in a Pinch."

If you don't have the gear now, or if you've dusted some off and find it too worn for good use, check out these sources for darkroom equipment:
Shutterbug ads: Adorama, B&H, and Calumet almost always have comprehensive listings of darkroom equipment. Delta 1 makes sinks and sells water filtration systems.

Look for other ads and check Shutterbug's classified ads, too.

Websites: One advertiser, www.midwestphoto.com has lots of used equipment. An advanced Google search "darkroom, equipment, U.S.A." will yield a veritable treasure trove.

For darkroom construction search "darkroom, construction." I stopped looking at page 85. There are books, magazine articles, anecdotes, plans, and more.

Camera fairs: A great source for used darkroom equipment. Check the Shutterbug listings. Swap meets and garage sales are also a good place to look.

Join a camera club: Meeting like-minded people can be a great source of inspiration and information. Often people there are updating or changing direction and want to sell off their existing equipment. Occasionally you will find someone who will give darkroom equipment away: "free to a good home."

Online auctions:
I personally don't go in for these because I have heard too many stories about unscrupulous sellers. But I may be being overly cautious. Most are probably perfectly OK. But as always, let the buyer beware.

One of the very best things about having your own darkroom is that it allows you much greater flexibility than having to rely on someone else to do your processing. For example, suppose you want to try large format. It's much easier to process your own large format negatives than it is to find someone to do it for you, and better still, you have full control. You can change developers, or development times, or dilutions, or anything else you think will give you better results. But don't be alarmed. Developing large format images is actually less critical than 35mm or roll film. Why else do you think that 4x5" Speed Graphics survived so long in newspaper offices?

Then there are alternative processes, or just simple contact printing. You don't even need an enlarger or a purpose-built light source. You can use the sunshine, or a sunlamp, or even a bare light bulb on a string, such as Edward Weston used.

Color processing? Consider a JOBO CPE-2 or some other processing machine. We do E6 slides in ours, and C-41, too (Ilford's XP2 Super). Our nearest E6 color line is around 60 miles away, or a few yards away in our own darkroom.

And there's something else. I don't do "wet" color printing anymore (though I am tempted to do the occasional Ilfochrome, formerly Cibachrome, for display). Scanning and printing are easier, and with color, just as good (except Ilfochrome). But with black and white, there's just no contest: traditional "wet" prints are simply a thousand times better. Nor does my enlarger suddenly lock up and project "Fatal Error Message 666: Your Computer Has Been Possessed By The Devil." I'm not sure if I've seen that one or not, but several have come close. Enlarger viruses? Well, there's rust, I suppose.

Besides, as I said at the beginning, the darkroom offers me something I can't get when I am seated at the computer: peace, quiet, and the chance to listen to my favorite music without anyone being able to walk in and interrupt. Not even the devil or Microsoft Windows. See what I mean about a sanctuary?

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