“She kicked away one of the boxes and lifted a stool over the junk in the hall and sat down. You get a call from someone you’ve not seen for many years. Someone whose voice you never ever expected to hear again. It was true, she had been on the phone for a long time, perhaps an hour. Then she had started vacuuming. What are you doing here? Have you emigrated? He laughed at her confusion. No, the Swedish passport police had indeed shown great suspicion, thoroughly examining his papers and asking a whole lot of questions. As they talked, his face slowly appeared as if in developer, light coloured eyes, brown or grey, she couldn’t remember, mouth with finely curved angles, sensitive or teasing; she had slept one night with this man, just one. How many years ago? Eleven, he replied”.
This passage from A Winter In Stockholm (Agneta Pleijel) would make digital photographers rather numb. Almost like Henri Cartier Bresson says that one can’t learn how to make love by looking at a painting in the Louvre. The romantic charms of darkrooms have found a place in everyone’s heart who’s spent time there and its impossible to understand what it means to be there unless you’ve done it yourself.
I spend the weekend attending a darkroom printing class in Apex Delhi (Academy for Photographic Excellence), refreshing my film developing and printing skills. It had been long since I did anything in the darkroom and I thought it would be a good weekend spent playing around. The workshop was divided into two days, one about black and white films and shooting a roll of film and the second one spend making some prints.
Mr. Amitabha Bhattacharya headed the workshop, a fine old gentleman who’s been working as a photographer for more than 20 years. One thing you must understand about any school in India is that they generally have no idea about photography or whats happening in the real world. Most photographers are technicians and they truly excel in mixing chemicals but they miserably fail when the conversation approaches anything beyond technique. The same was the case here, so the darkroom part was a lot of fun but the first day of the workshop could (sorry, should) have been avoided. Also the quality of their equipment is terrible and outdated, so you would end up being transported to a poor man’s workshop back in the 1940’s.
Working in a darkroom is a lot of fun. Because the light is selectively used, it makes you focus a lot more on whats happening and everything else seems to fade. The smell of the chemicals, the hands on process is real and makes you feel connected to the final images a lot more. Later, I spoke to my friend Manoj Jadhav who is one of the best people to talk about film and its nuances with the crucial question : Whats the difference between a darkroom print and a digital one.
Discussion started from the point that digital printing has gone so up (now we have 9 colour printing which even makes 9 shades of black) that for 35mm pictures, you can’t really make out the difference. Also nowadays you can digitally print on Bromide paper for much higher quality. But as we go up in format, like medium format, large format or bigger OR and work towards finer grain, a digital print can not match the grain quality. So technically, its not possible to make large format prints with low iso film in the same quality on digital as can be made in the darkroom.
In the end of it all the question remains, is the darkroom really useful or is it just a romantic idea? After you’ve spent some time in the red lights you realise that firstly the process here is really time consuming and taxing. Its much more difficult to manipulate images in the darkroom as it needs more experience and you’re on a time limit when exposing pictures to light or chemicals. Photoshop on the other hand is much more easier and forgiving, all mistakes can be handled with a simple “undo”. All that said, its a experience like no other and anyone who’s been in a darkroom would agree. Time flies by and you lose yourself in the process. Learning how to print is a really amazing experience and one should really try it, specially for people who work in multiple formats. Who knows tomorrow you might have to make a large format print for your new project!