When I was a junior in college I took an intro to photojournalism class. That was right around the time the news industry was making the transition to digital photography, but we still learned how to develop film and make prints in the darkroom.
I fell in love with the process, and loved seeing the image reveal itself in the chemicals. I only took the one class, which was required for journalism majors, but I’d always wanted to get back into the darkroom.
I finally got the chance in January when I signed up for a class at Sawtooth School for Visual Art.
Digital photography is no doubt far more convenient than film. You’re not limited to 36 frames on a roll. You can see what you shot right away, and if you don’t like it, you press delete and shoot another picture. You don’t have to worry about dust on the negatives. Most any smartphone nowadays can shoot clean, crisp pictures, and Instagram filters can make even lackluster photos pop.
But there’s a sense of satisfaction to making nice prints in the darkroom that you can’t get from pressing a button on your screen. For one, you’re creating something you can hold in your hand, something for the ages that you can put up on a wall. And it’s a process that connects you with the most basic elements of photography. You’re sliding a negative into an enlarger and manually focusing the picture. You start a timer, and let the light burn an image onto a piece of photo paper.
I still have the Minolta X-370 I bought for the college class. For years I used it as my personal camera, and really only put it away around 2011, when I finally succumbed to the ease of digital photography.
But after my wife Lana died from ovarian cancer in 2017, I decided to embark on a big road trip; just drove north with no real destination in mind. I decided to unearth the Minolta for the trip, and bought a couple of rolls of black and white film. I took shots on the boardwalk in Asbury Park, N.J., towns in Vermont, churches in Eastern Canada, places Lana I had been to, or that we had always wanted to visit.
I got those rolls developed at a lab, but I wanted to get hands-on with these pictures, reconnect with a former passion of mine. That’s how I discovered the community darkroom at the Sawtooth.
With a darkroom pass in hand, I found myself dropping in about once every week or two, making three or four prints on each visit. A favorite of mine has been a picture of a train pulling out of High Point. It has nice contrast, but the front of the train was too dark, and I had to “dodge” it — which meant holding a piece of cardboard on a wire over that spot while exposing the photo paper. I made about 10 prints before I was satisfied with it.
But for me, that’s part of the magic.
Lightening or darkening a portion of an image might take a few minutes in Photoshop. But in the darkroom, it requires a good deal of trial and error to get it just right. And once you get it just right, you may never be able to re-create the exact process again.