Dave Dulaney refers to the chemicals arrayed in the trays before him as “magic water.”
Stick a piece of paper into one tray, and slowly an image materializes.
It’s the way photography had been done for more than a century before smart phones came along. And, it’s the way a small group of enthusiasts still practices the craft.
Dulaney oversees the community darkroom at the Sawtooth School for Visual Art in Winston-Salem, where shutterbugs can still develop their own film, and make prints with “magic water.”
“The darkroom to me really is kind of a magic place,” says Dulaney. “People have a misconception that you can come in here and crank out 50 prints in two hours, but it doesn’t work like that. It’s quiet. It’s Zen-like. You’ve got water running. This is a place where you can slow down.”
Film photography has never really gone away; 35 mm film can still be purchased at almost any big box store or large pharmacy. Photo paper and other supplies can be ordered on Amazon and other online retailers. It’s become more of a hobbyist pursuit, though, as digital photography overtook the marketplace, and Instagram made it easier than ever to share pictures. Nearly a billion rolls of film were sold in 2003, but by 2017, sales had dropped to about two percent of that, according to a Fujifilm representative quoted in a Time Magazine article that year.
But the format has been experiencing something of a resurgence akin to what’s been happening with vinyl records in recent years. Two years ago Kodak re-introduced Ektachrome, a popular slide film it had discontinued a few years before. And photo enthusiasts report that once-cheap vintage equipment has been going up in price on eBay.
“Over the last two or three years, we’ve seen healthy growth, or really re-growth,” says Joshua Steele, director of sales for Roberts Distributor, which handles U.S. distribution of popular black-and-white film brand Ilford. “The resurgence is led by younger people, as well as people who are a little disillusioned with how easy it is, and how clinical it is to take a good digital photo. Not that there’s anything wrong at all with digital photography. But making prints has a tangible, physical archival quality that looking at a computer screen doesn’t have.”
The sort of person attracted to film photography these days is the type who still “drives a stick shift,” says Henry Posner, a veteran photographer and director of corporate communications for B&H, a New York-based photography superstore and online retailer.
“It’s the kind of person who wants a more intimate hands-on experience,” he says. “When you get into the darkroom, you have a wide range of opportunities to customize the ambience of the finished product ... you put a negative in an enlarger and a world of opportunity and curiosity and creativity opens itself up to you.”
No screens allowed
The darkroom at the Sawtooth has about a dozen enlargers, which are used to project the negative images onto pieces of photo paper to make prints. Much of the equipment and supplies there still bear the names of the various local colleges and photographers that have donated over the years.
Across from the enlargers are three trays of chemicals — a developer, which brings out the image on the paper, a stop bath, which halts the developing process, and a fixer, which hardens the image. Next to those is a sink filled with cold, running water, which washes off the chemicals. Film must be developed in complete darkness, but black-and-white prints can be made under red lights, which won’t affect the photo paper. [The Sawtooth darkroom is set up for black-and-white, but not color, for which the chemistry is more complicated].
Dulaney, who teaches both film and digital photography at Sawtooth, has been shooting for more than 40 years. His father worked at an Eastman Kodak plant in Kingsport, Tennessee, which had a darkroom in the basement.
“I went in there when I was 16 and it was incredible,” he says. “This is a craft. It’s not sitting in front of a Photoshop screen, punching buttons. Every print we do here is handmade; it’s one of a kind. This is a place to come in, take a deep breath, and think about what you’re doing. When my first really nice print came out in the developer, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. It’s been my passion since that moment.”
During a recent meeting of the Darkroom Cooperative, a Sawtooth membership permitting use of the darkroom during regular business hours, members were sharing tips and discussing ways to promote the group. Many, including Laurie Merritt of Greensboro, have been shooting film for years.
“I just like the chemicals, the process, watching the magic happen,” she says. “There’s a thrill to the developing, watching the print make something of itself. I like the fact that you have to be patient with it. It’s engrossing.”
Robert Lopez enjoys making prints in a darkroom and talks about his experience with photojournalism — and the road trip that helped rekindle his passion for it — in his writer's block piece.