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Do you print in the darkroom?
Some thoughts on the physical experience of making photography. And I want to hear from you if you're keeping the wet darkroom practice alive.
Is the wet darkroom passé?
Of course, the photography darkroom never went away, and many artists still actively use it. But a generation of imagemakers has come of age in a digital era where the physicality of handmade printmaking has been almost entirely removed from the process. I spend most of my time looking at images on a screen, not creating them in a developer tray. And though I love making pictures with my phone camera, my work primarily focuses on thinking and writing about photography online. So, you’ll need to forgive my darkroom ignorance from the outset.
That said, I often think about our visual culture and how digital media continues to change how we engage with it, and this post is an inquiry in that vein. I’m connecting some dots here, hoping some of them resonate. As always, I love hearing from you, so please let me know what you think. I’ve been reading Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class As Soulcraft recently. Do you know this book? It’s not new, but I’ve meant to read it for years. I’m a knowledge worker and not particularly handy, so Crawford’s critiques hit home. Right from the start, on the first page of his introduction, he writes:
The disappearance of tools from our common education is the first step toward a wider ignorance of the world of artifacts we inhabit. And, in fact, an engineering culture has developed in recent years in which the object is to “hide the works,” rendering many of the devices we depend on every day unintelligible to direct inspection.
Now, Crawford’s book isn’t about photography, and you may think it a stretch to link his essays, which are focused on engineering, mechanics, and what he calls the “manual arts,” to the experience of creative imagemaking, but I think there’s a connection. He continues:
A decline in tool use would seem to betoken a shift in our relationship to our own stuff: more passive and more dependent. And indeed, there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them. What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves replacing an entire system because some minute component has failed.
Crawford’s comments reminded me of’s article from 2022, “Have iPhone Cameras Become Too Smart?” In that piece, Kyle talks about how computational photography takes control away from us and may limit our creative contributions to the process. Kyle rightly unpacks the ways the smartphone camera changes our relationship with the images we make. It’s a distancing effect like Crawford describes, and I don’t think it’s a good thing. He writes:
For a large portion of the population, “smartphone” has become synonymous with “camera,” but the truth is that iPhones are no longer cameras in the traditional sense. Instead, they are devices at the vanguard of “computational photography,” a term that describes imagery formed from digital data and processing as much as from optical information. Each picture registered by the lens is altered to bring it closer to a pre-programmed ideal. Gregory Gentert, a friend who is a fine-art photographer in Brooklyn, told me, “I’ve tried to photograph on the iPhone when light gets bluish around the end of the day, but the iPhone will try to correct that sort of thing.” A dusky purple gets edited, and in the process erased, because the hue is evaluated as undesirable, as a flaw instead of a feature. The device “sees the things I’m trying to photograph as a problem to solve,” he added. The image processing also eliminates digital noise, smoothing it into a soft blur, which might be the reason behind the smudginess that McCabe sees in photos of her daughter’s gymnastics. The “fix” ends up creating a distortion more noticeable than whatever perceived mistake was in the original.
Photographers, does that sound familiar?
You can see where I’m going with this. Crawford’s book is focused on the experience of making (and fixing) things and what is at stake when these practices change. Chayka’s essay makes clear that smartphone cameras are rapidly rewriting our relationship with photography, and not always for the better. Immediately, my mind went to wet darkroom photography, something I don’t personally do but have long found fascinating and magical.
My earliest memory of seeing a photography darkroom was in The Great Muppet Caper when I was a kid. I had no idea what that red light was about or why things went south when the Muppet crew burst through the darkroom door. Do you suppose the average spectator knew why that happened? I’m not sure how mainstream or popular darkroom photography was in the early 1980s, but my guess is that people like my Mom were using point-and-shoot cameras and developing their film at the local drug store, not developing prints in a makeshift darkroom at home.
I’ve never made a darkroom print, though a few years ago, James Rhem, a photographer friend here in Madison, invited us to his home for dinner. Before we ate, he took me downstairs to his basement to show me his darkroom. The experience of watching him develop these prints was miraculous, and thinking back on that night, I was reminded that photography is more than the act of looking and seeing — it’s a practice of making and creating physical things. How imagemakers get there, of course, is up to them.
As usual, when working through ideas like this, I ask open questions on social media. I put out a call on my Instagram and was delighted to see so many photographers comment that, indeed, they were keeping this practice alive. Not surprisingly, many of these darkroom practitioners were photography teachers. That’s encouraging news: educational institutions are training a younger generation of imagemakers to learn how to make pictures this way. The question is: will it stick?
As I was writing this post, I remembered David Sax’s book, The Revenge of Analog, from 2016. It’s relevant here for various reasons, namely that Sax believes we’ve entered an era where analog experiences are making a vibrant comeback. He writes:
The Revenge of Analog is occurring now precisely because digital technology has become so damn good. Digital computing has been with us for the better part of the past half-century, personal computing for the past three decades, the Internet for two decades, and smartphones for one. Today, a digital solution is almost always the default: the most efficient, widely used, cheapest, and obvious tool to get the job done. With a few finger taps, you can just as easily order a warm cookie to your house as set up a massive data center in the cloud.
Because of this, digital’s overwhelming superiority initially renders the analog alternative largely worthless, and devalues that analog technology significantly. But over time, that perception of value shifts. The honeymoon with a particular digital technology inevitably ends, and when it does, we are more readily able to judge its true merits and shortcomings. In many cases, an older analog tool or approach simply works better. Its inherent inefficiency grows coveted; its weakness becomes a renewed strength.
I don’t know enough about darkroom practice to know if it works better than digital. And I welcome those of you who do this work to explain why if you do! But Sax is onto something. He continues:
This is why the Revenge of Analog matters, and why the rising value of analog goods and ideas I write about in this book is just the beginning. Surrounded by digital, we now crave experiences that are more tactile and human-centric. We want to interact with goods and services with all our senses, and many of us are willing to pay a premium to do so, even if it is more cumbersome and costly than its digital equivalent.
That much makes sense: film photography is infinitely more expensive than digital. But for many imagemakers, the darkroom is a sacred space and one they’re not letting go of easily. And while many younger photographers do darkroom work, I wonder if it is the older generation mainly keeping it alive. Still, there is a clear and unique value in the physical experience of making photography offline as there is in seeing photography in physical form. I’d much prefer to hold a photography book in my hands than swipe an endlessly scrolling feed of imagery on Instagram. So it is with many photographers, I suspect — they would rather practice their art by hand in a darkroom than spend even more time hunched over a computer.
After seeing my Instagram post, a photographer friend, Harvey Wang, emailed me with a few thoughts about his darkroom practice. He writes:
For me, it has been a pleasure looking over my contact sheets and finding things I either never printed or only made rough prints of in the past. I have a real attraction to the physical print, made by hand with chemistry. The darkroom process and pace were a significant part of my early love of picture-making. I know that if I do not make prints, these moments and places will never see the light of day. So many photographers my age probably have the same thoughts— what will become of all these negatives and contact sheets after I am gone...
Many of you are likely familiar with Harvey’s excellent film, From Darkroom to Daylight. We screened the movie at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in Madison in 2015, and the response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. People are passionate about the darkroom! And they should be. It’s part of what made photography special: the technical skill required to practice it wasn’t something that everybody in the world did in their spare time. And there is a genuine craft to making darkroom prints.
Harvey’s email moved me because it was so personal. For him, darkroom printing is a meditative experience and also, it seems, directly linked to feelings about his mortality. That makes sense. Physical objects tend to last longer than digital artifacts. That’s why printed photography is so important, essential even. Prints last.
I want to hear from you: Do you make photography in a wet darkroom? What does it mean to you, and why do you continue the practice when digital technologies are available? You can reply to this email or leave a comment below.
I’ll leave you with this: A talk Harvey gave at B&H in 2016. If you haven’t seen From Darkroom to Daylight yet, do see it. And book folks, I think it’s sold out, but if you can find a copy of Harvey’s book of the same name, grab it.
That’s all for this week. I look forward to hearing from you — Thanks in advance for sharing your darkroom stories. I’m eager to read them. Take care!
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