Nostalgia for Darkrooms


Photo credit JanneM:

Once upon a time, I was a teenager who had a garage darkroom. I read Margaret Atwood by that red light. The pages of my copy of The Handmaid’s Tale are curled up at the edges from being turned by damp fingers, and there’s still the smell of photography chemicals.

When I took photography classes in college, I loved composing images, but what I really loved was working in the darkroom. In those days before digital, you had to keep a little notebook so that you could remember the exposure times you used to get a print just right. It was complicated and messy, and I bet the results were rarely as perfect as with today’s awesomest digital camera.

I know that digital photography is so much more practical: you don’t need the darkroom and all the chemicals. You don’t need expensive photo paper or film. You can track the processes you used to improve an image easily. You can share photos in an instant.

And many digital photographs are beautiful. They can be art in other folks’ hands. (Although this, too, is up for debate, as this blog post, which ought to be titled, “Is Art Photography Dead?,” suggests.) But when I take pictures of my son with our digital camera, I cannot let myself think of them as anything other than snapshots. I have turned off the “art photography” part of my brain.

I had to because otherwise my heart would break every time I took a photo.

I miss the sound of film advancing in my camera. I miss winding film on those horrid little metal reels inside a black nylon bag. I miss the darkroom smell of chemicals and sawdust. I miss the cheap 1990 boombox that played static-y public radio in the days before iPods. I miss watching an image emerge in the developer. I miss pulling prints out of the water bath and hanging them up to dry.

I miss these things like places from a country I’ve chosen to leave and to which I know I’ll never return.


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