I’ve been wanting to do this scribble about my darkroom for a long time, it’s been sitting there at the back of my head for months now, so thought I’d have a go at it.
Since I went back to shooting film some years ago my goal has always been to establish a full circle analogue workflow. Of course that required setting up a darkroom to make prints. I mainly shoot color, so I would have to make myself a darkroom that could handle both Color and bnw for it to make any sense. Since studying photography I’ve always dreamt of having my own real color darkroom and not just an enlarger in a closet.
When I first started taking pictures, color darkrooms where very common. Most photographers had a small darkroom for color prints in the back of their studio. I even had a tiny setup in my dorm bathroom, when I was about 19, making colorprints processed in Jobo drums. Back then nobody seemed to process their own color film. I was always told it was to difficult to master properly and it was dirt cheap to get a lab to do it. Today it’s the complete opposite — nobody does prints anymore, but it seems like everybody is doing c-41 processing i their kitchen sink. But doing color printing is actually not very complicated to do, I just think that most analogue enthusiasts think it’s an insurmountable task because there aren’t many sources of information available on blogs and YouTube. Therefore scanning seems like the only choice there is.
Anyone who shoots film will know that the process of scanning can be a frustrating and time consuming task. There simply isn’t any really satisfying solution — the technology of digitizing film has been more or less stagnant for more than a decade. The obvious thing to do is of course to choose an even more labour intensive process, the darkroom.
My main goal shooting film has always been to bypass the computer, more specific bypass any screen. For me the satisfaction of shooting film is of course the look of film, but it is just as much the handling of something physical. It is tactile. Mastering the analogue process is certainly a craft. And the analogue process is not an abstract process — it’s a mechanical, physical and chemical process unlike the digital process which is, for me anyways, a complete abstraction.
To me there lies a great satisfaction in seeing my photography printed. For many years now it has been standard to view and appreciate photography on screens that are, of course, being backlit. Very few acknowledges that it changes the images and the way we view them. Also, viewing content on screens, especially phones, makes me impatient — it tells my brain to speed up, want more, in order to be entertained. Therefore I really cherish printed work, that being either books or prints. And when you print an image and hang it on the wall or on the fridge it becomes a part of your living space and not just something that is stuffed away on a hard drive or a SoMe feed.
Being exposed to excessive amounts of photographs every day I have to ask myself why and how do I want to produce even more photographs? Being process driven I personally often seem to migrate toward labour intensive ways of doing things. For 12 years I shared a wooden boat with some friends, I ride italian vintage bicycles, and if I owned a car it would definitely be an old Saab.
It all started last summer when I managed to print at a friends darkroom. He was kind enough to open his newly finished brilliant darkroom north of Copenhagen to me. Even though he was doing bnw printing and processing large format paper negatives only, he also had a small color enlarger. So I bought a Jobo drum on Ebay, my old ones where all lost, some chemistry and paper to give color printing a go. I was all set for colorprinting. I managed to do a handfull of prints but since I hadn’t done any printing for fifteen years and I only spend two days at it, they didn't quite match up to what I was going for.
Then, by chance, a couple of weeks later I got offered to buy a bulk of darkroom equipment including a Durst 1200 and a small tabletop paper processor. The timing was nothing but perfect. At that time a good friend and I, who unfortunately no longer share the space with me, had been planning to start an office like workspace. We wanted to process some film, scan negatives and maybe even do some small scale bnw printing. We had a room available in a basement in Copenhagen, so we just decided to go all in on building a darkroom and making the workspace a computer free zone. Who needs an office anyway?
With all the equipment I had just acquired we where all set and ready to go. I had never dreamed of having a well equipped darkroom up running this fast.
Now I had all the basic equipment needed for printing. The room just needed a bit of cleaning, some light sealing done and lastly installation of a water heater for hot water. Everything went pretty smoothly until we started the machines. The power supply went up in smoke on both our color enlargers almost immediately. I was devastated — patience has never been my strong suit. But there where solutions even though it took some time. When I finally got the enlargers up and running, with much appreciated help from Cph Silverlab, I found out that the real challenge was going to be the processing machine.
Processing machines are a hassle — they are cumbersome 90’s tech machines with too many gears and rollers that need heavy maintenance. So when I started up the machine it was dirty. Unfortunately that resulted in stains and scratches on the prints. It needed thorough cleaning — days of cleaning. It had been kept away unused for years so it needed a big overhaul. But after a few days I finally managed to get clean and scratch free prints. This is the first colorprint that I printed — shot in Ängelholm in Sweden.
I also quickly realised that running a print processor is somewhat like having a tamagotchi or a pet. It needs your attention all the time. If it’s not turned on every other day the chemistry goes bad and you are left with stains or scratches on your prints — again. It needs thorough cleaning all the time. But besides that the machine is an absolute bliss to work with.
After getting a proper workflow up and running I wanted to avoid scanning for some time. Therefore most of my work from 2018 and 19 has never been scanned. I found that the completely analogue workflow felt pretty natural almost immediately. When I’ve processed my films I make contactsheets just like in the old days. It really feels good to be able to make real color contactsheets again — they are mesmerising to look at. For me contactsheets are by far the best way to keep track of my images. I highly appreciate having a physical record of my work, it helps me to maintain a proper overview.
Somehow it all made perfect sense, as I quickly realized that the materials where designed for this workflow. Film was simply not designed for digitizing.
I quickly got into the old routine of printing. It was a nice experience to see how fast I adopted my old ways of doing things. And the joy of looking at real photographic prints every day is great. As you get used to wetlab prints you begin to clearly see and feel the difference from digital prints. What strikes me the most about C-prints is of course the quality of the prints. C-prints has another look to them. The difference between C-prints and pigment prints is somehow comparable with the difference between digital photos and digitised film photos. By that I mean that they render colors differently — not better just different. Pigment prints are definitely sharper and do often have more clarity but do also look more artificial to my eye. They also have a different feel when you touch them, it simply feels better to touch and handle the wetlab prints. And because the image is produced by layers of emulsion rather than pigment ink that is drawn onto the paper, C-prints has much more depth than pigment prints.
But to be honest I find discussing one over the other kind of futile — just like its pointless trying to argue how digital is better than analogue or the other way around. They are different tools for different purposes and it’s all about doing what one enjoy. Having had the privilege to work in the darkroom for more than a year now, I am convinced that it is a lot of work, hassle and sometimes frustration. But I absolutely love the process and the satisfaction of producing real photographs that leave no digital footprint.
Thank you for reading!