The Darkroom
Your Traditional Darkroom

New York skyline. When I took this shot it was just another New York skyline. Had I been shooting digitally, I might have deleted it because it didn't say anything new. Now it is one of only a handful of shots that I have of the World Trade Center. Now it is important.
Photos © 2003, Frances E. Schultz, All Rights Reserved

What is the use of having an old-fashioned, "wet" black and white darkroom in the 21st century? Well, it's a bit like religion. If you have to ask the question, you'll never understand the answer. Anyone who loves darkroom knows the answer. Producing a real, silver halide print the old-fashioned way is both art and craft. But there's even more to it than that.

Why do I call the darkroom an alternative process? Regardless of what the digital brigade say, silver is still the mainstream, and will be for many years to come. The reason I call it "alternative" is simple. "Alternative" processes are done for two reasons: 1) they are beautiful and 2) they are very, very long lived. They rarely make commercial sense. Traditionally, "alternative" processes include bromoil, argyrotype (the Van Dyck process), cyanotypes, gum bichromate, platinum printing, and salt prints. These arcane processes are usually far more difficult than conventional darkroom work, but they remain popular because of the "look" they produce, the satisfaction of mastering the process, and the durability of the prints.

Guard dog. In color, this is just a snapshot. In black and white, it is timeless: it becomes symbolic of all guard dogs, all barns, all elderly trailers.

Open Up To The Silver Options
Start treating "mainstream" silver like an alternative process, however, and you are suddenly liberated. You can use any films, papers, chemicals you like. All that matters is the end result. You don't have to worry about the "mainstream." You can say, as did Julia Margaret Cameron, "I focused until it was beautiful." Not "until it was sharp," notice, but "until it was beautiful." She died in 1879. Her pictures are still acknowledged today as among the finest portraits ever made. That's what you're aiming for: immortality.

Don't be afraid to leave the mainstream when it comes to film and format. Ilford Delta 3200 for portraits? Why not? Four by five for sports and action? Sure, if you can do it: some of the finest boxing and motor racing pictures of all time were taken with big old press cameras. Is that the way you see?

Don't be intimidated by people who tell you exactly how to expose and process your films. Experiment. Make deliberate "mistakes." If you get the best results--the ones you like best--by rating the film at twice (or half) its ISO speed and developing it twice (or half) as long, that's fine. It's your vision. If you want your negatives to outlive you (and you might not) then make sure they are archivally processed: one of the great advantages of an alternative process is durability, but I will come back to this later.

Ulysses S. Grant. This picture was probably taken around 1863, 140 years ago, when Grant became a
major-general. This is a modern print, archivally washed and selenium toned. It could last another 140 years or more.

Some Insider Tips
If you like chromogenic films and rely on a lab for processing you need to wash them after you get them home. Machine processed films from amateur C-41 lines are rarely if ever archivally washed. To be absolutely sure of the processing you need to do it yourself. Modern C-41 chemistry makes this relatively easy, and if you have a Jobo CPE-2 and some Tetenal Phototabs, it is really no harder than processing any other black and white film.

It's also worth knowing that cut film, roll film, and those few 35mm films that are on a polyester base will greatly outlast triacetate bases that are used for most 35mm films: they have a life of centuries, not 50-200 years.
The same archival considerations apply to printing. If you want a permanent, long-lasting archive of pictures, don't rely on lab prints, unless you can afford hand prints made on traditional black and white paper. Most amateur labs use color paper or chromogenic black and white paper. Neither will last as long as an archivally processed black and white print.

You can choose any paper you want for printing on. Fiber Based (FB) paper still seems to have an edge over Resin Coated (RC) in accelerated aging tests, but it isn't that great an edge. There is a good chance with either type of paper that a print will last 100 or more years. Dark-stored in controlled humidity, it is just possible that a properly made silver halide print (RC or FB) could still be restored in 1000 years.

The Image Legacy
There is one really important point which the digital brigade seem to ignore. Try to find a lab that will guarantee a digital print. One photographic lab I know of guarantees their prints for 14 years! That means a baby picture will not last long enough for that baby to see it when he or she is grown up...I have a baby picture of my father taken in 1914. It still looks good. I have a tintype of my grandmother as a baby, taken in perhaps 1885. I also have a carte de visite picture of a relative who died in Andersonville prison camp in 1863.

Will there be an archive of the early 21st century? Digital cameras are great because you can wipe out any unwanted pictures without paying to have them printed. It saves a lot of money and a lot of time. But how many of those pictures which are wiped out could be a precious record of a child's early years, or a special family get-together, or even an important historical event?

The computer industry thinks in the short term. Are they actually going to make sure that digital photographic technology advances in such a way that you will be able to read your CD-ROMs in 20 years? Thirty years? Fifty years? I have a collection of copy negatives courtesy of the War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. I can go into my darkroom and print a picture of Ulysses S. Grant, or "Stonewall" Jackson. Will anyone be able to print a picture of George "Dubbya" Bush from a CD in 140 years? Will they be able to copy the CD? Or even read it?

This archive is the great advantage of silver halide photography. This is why we need to value it, and start regarding it as an alternative process. It is our past, and our future. There is no alternative to either.