Some thoughts on the physical experience of making photography. And I want to hear from photographers keeping the wet darkroom practice alive.
I am 74 and a student at our local university. I am taking Intro to Black and White Photography (for the second time) this semester. I was in the darkroom today making prints for our next assignment. For a changeup, we're making contact prints from digital negatives. I think I have a new favorite, a b&w print from a color image I took in the Mariposa Grove CA about 9 years ago. There is no comparison between the two. The darkroom black and white is much more impactful. Heck, just plane more beautiful. A nice color image, well composed but nothing special, is now transformed into something that could adorn any wall in any venue.
I am looking forward to taking Large Format photography next semester. Where 35mm and medium format slows me down and requires thought and concentration, I'm thinking 4 x 5 photography will do the same but exponentially. In general, I would say digital photography does not teach discipline. Film imposes it.
First of all- I love the Great Muppet Caper reference - this was probably my first introduction to the concept of a darkroom as well!
I teach analog courses in black and white, historical processes, and analog colour photography (our school has an old Kreonite). Students generally love learning these processes ( even if they are more challenging to master than digital).
I also keep up an analog printing practice within my own art practice and love printing large analog colour prints when I can access the darkroom at the Banff Centre. I find I think differently about photography when I am making a print in the darkroom and often get new ideas that I don't get sitting in front of a computer. I'm not sure if it's the peripatetic action of walking between the enlarger and trays or being more attentive to the chemical process of creating an image, but the mindset is different. I also seem to embrace serendipitous events more readily in this environment and am more playful in my approach.
I use both analog and digital photography within my work and don't really see a hierarchy but like having different tools for different things. I think each tool (method, process) has a language and history that can feed into the overall meaning of the work.
One of the most important things a photographer needs to know is what a good print looks like. Working in a darkroom will hone that knowledge and the skill needed. I spent 40 years of my life spending time doing just that in my darkroom. I no longer miss the darkroom time but the print education learned is now transferred to my computer and printer. If you’re a young photographer find, and study, great prints. Most importantly, discover why they are great!
I’ve been a fully analog photographer for 30 years. I appreciate the query on darkrooms, but I want to clear up a few misconceptions. You say “film photography is infinitely more expensive than digital”. Wrong. I can’t disagree that film photography requires money, but the gap with digital is closer than you think. Digital workflow requires significant and ongoing investment in computers, cameras (I’ve been using the same film camera for 15 years), printers, paper, ink, etc. The entire process relies on tools with built-in obsolescence and constant upgrades. All require $, just as analog processes do.
Second, your essay and subsequent comments assume that darkrooms are slower, clumsier, more ponderous than digital workflow. That may be true for some photographers, and part of their charm. But for me personally, the darkroom workflow is actually more productive than digital, with better results. Using two enlargers and an RC processor I can regularly print 60-70 negs during a regular darkroom day. I do this weekly. If I had to scan, spot, retouch, and print that work digitally, I could not match that pace.
The digital workflow is admittedly better for saving and replicating established image edits. If you want to make 25 copies of a print, it’s far simpler. But that doesn’t interest me. I only make one or a few prints of any given image.
Other darkroom features—craftsmanship, meditative space, and historical roots—are just icing on the cake.
Shut down my darkroom after..40+ years. It's too grueling physically for me, personally. If I'd built a market for silver prints at the $1K+ price point I'd do it again. Not a healthy respiratory environ unless you have top notch ventilation. I agree that digital is...psychically "empty" in a way. But even the scanned film image has a texture that's missing in digital capture or hard to duplicate properly. I like both "Shopcraft" and Crawford's "Why We Drive". Those are deep ideas beautifully expressed. I do think photogs who did film for years have an understanding of photographic technique that's different, deeper. Good pigment prints on velvet-type paper are much more beautiful than C prints, Ciba, etc. so that's good. I have two books (from Aperture, I think) just titled "Darkroom". The chapters are each on a photographer and their darkroom. Gowan, Callahan, all the 60's 70's biggies. Those must be crazy rare now as I can't even find images of the covers on Google Images! When I get them out of storage I'll send you shots of the covers. Nice post!
I have wrote you about half a dozen times over the years from everything to the darkroom I run in Austin Texas and have also submitted images and ideas to you.
I never ever even get a clue or a answer from you Andy.
I don’t take this personally but you ask for peoples thoughts and images often but rarely respond or say thanks.
I’m this day and age of substacks and self promotion many of us darkroom people stay a few notches below the radar but I assure you darkrooms are alive and well.
My darkroom (15 years open to the public!)is almost always booked and there is no surprise that people cherish the actual physical print they bring home or share or put anywhere but in a portfolio box or on a wall but never on a hard drive or on the cloud.
I have been a professional / fine art photographer/ educator for 45 years. I spent years in the wet darkroom working with silver printing and platinum and palladium printing as well as being involved with photo gravure. Today these are considered historical processes.
I have shot every format possible including 8/10, 4/5, medium format, 35mm and down to the spy camera Minox. Today I am shooting digital and have been since the onset of pixels. I teach photography and many folks who take my classes in person or online use smartphones. No matter what format you may use and how you decide to finalize your imagery is a personal choice. There is no one way better than another. Like most folks looking to become better photographers getting sidetracked with technicalities is the trap most fall into. The idea is to get beyond that and learn how to best express yourself in conjunction with truly understanding composition, which is the most important aspect of any art form. Composition is also the most difficult for most.
In the end the difference is how you interpret your immediate environment and learning to express yourself eloquently and succinctly. Distilling your image down to the essence in a harmonious manner is the key. I have lots more to share as I just am in the process of setting up my site on Substacks,, keep your eyes posted for Photo Creative Insights. I will be posting my first newsletter in a day or two. In the meanwhile you can read a few of my blog posts that you can find on my teaching website...www.photocreativeworkshops.com. Keep it rolling and don't get bogged down in photo technicalities.
I started doing darkroom processing in 1967 and continued until sometime in 2003. I don't miss it at all. I missed a lot of life in the dungeon. I learned a lot but it hurt my health. I have over 100,000 negatives from pictures that I made. I have just begun scanning a few. Many days I would shoot 10 rolls of bulk Tri-X that I developed every night. It was impossible to keep shooting more photos and print them. I think I have a Garry Winnogrand disease.
I only take photos for fun and to document my story, but I have always loved the photographic dark room, it seems a place where magic happens. It is interesting that photography was such a manual process, until digital photography became the standard. I can understand how people still want to work with their hands and craft photos in the dark room. As David Sax says “we crave experiences that are more tactile”.
I actually just started a Darkroom printing course at my local community center. A small group of local photographers run a Darkroom in the community center and I figured it’ll be a great way to get into the craft.
You cannot equate an image on a screen with a print made in the darkroom. I've been a photographer for over 40 years and I'm still making darkroom prints because I can control every stage of the process to create a real print that will be unique. No digital process can imitate a photographic print made in the darkroom from a negative. I also make cyanotypes, lumen prints, salt prints and lith prints. All of these processes require time and knowledge. Anybody can knock off a digital print or just view their shots on a screen but that is a very limited practice but sadly, one that the vast majority of people are quite happy with. The world is awash with images, we are bombarded with images that have no more value than a 9 dollar bill. When was the last time you really took the time to look at a photograph? Not a picture in a book or on a screen but a real photographic print? Photographs on paper have a depth and a quality of detail akin to a painting if you look properly. An image on a screen is flat, there is no depth, no life. Even a printed digital image is better than viewing it on a screen, it becomes a different entity.
I used to work in the darkroom, but all the great papers went away. There's no point in spending all the time for a final print that is not all there. Still shoot film though.
I missed your Instagram post so have added a quick comment there. But to elaborate here, when I returned to the UK in 2018 I had been using film for several years but never had access to a darkroom. When we came back, I searched for a darkroom in the area and was so thrilled to find Kiln Photo, https://www.kilnphoto.co.uk/, which I have been a member of ever since. There are two things in particular that resonate for me in this newsletter.
One is that "it’s a practice of making and creating physical things." I spend too much time at the computer. I wanted to stand and contemplate and make in a non-digital fashion and the darkroom has enabled this. It has its own frustrations, but so does fully digital work.
Secondly, it is a meditative process. It allows time for thought, for contemplation. I also find it helpful emotionally. When I returned to the UK in 2018 it was because my mother was terminally ill. Being in the darkroom, going through the gentle, repetitive and yes, meditative process of developing a print brought me to a place emotionally that helped me cope in the final two months of her life and afterwards.
I now work with both film and digital photography, and although the price of film and paper is becoming increasingly prohibitive I will maintain this as long as I can.
I found this piece fascinating. I greatly admire those who value the analog experience and can do it well. And I appreciate the section on the tactile experience because of the sterility that digital (and now AI) can bring to our work. It's the reason vinyl has made a comeback and that the print product will never go away fully.
That said, I'm not a darkroom person. My general lack of mechanical ability — and the anxiety that accompanied it — plus the lack of ventilation in the darkrooms I spent time in during my teens and 20s (bronchial issues) was almost enough to make me give up photography for good. What brought me back was digital because it eliminated those concerns and allowed me to focus (in more ways than one) on the thing I loved about the art form: composition, which I define as "shooting what I see and capturing images that tell or hint at stories in the process."
Hi Andy, I discovered that the point to me is exactly the fact that I need to do photography as practical and physical as I can. Being 47, I came from the film photography era. I loss interest in photography when digital became popular and affordable, there I discovered that I need a physical contact with the process and the material (film and prints). We are pushed ahead fast by the system we ourselves created but this is too distant to our inner timing. I think we should switch from "fast and practical" to "it-takes-what-it-takes and rewarding", at least for our free-time stuff.
Many years ago I had the privilege of printing the work of Harvey Wang for the Smithsonian Museum of American History. I highly recommend this DVD that covers part of the transitions from darkroom to daylight.