The Terrors Of The Darkroom

on July 27, 2021

I have headed this column with a bug-eyed monster looming out of the darkness...but do not worry - he is still in there trying to load a 72-exposure roll of film onto a stainless steel reel, and I don't expect him to be out for an hour.

Modern digital workers miss out on a lot of fun. Well, not fun exactly...let's call it character-building experiences. These were sometimes delivered while shooting with roll film and invariably so when using sheet film. Then they were reinforced when the exposed film was taken into the darkroom and developed. Those who survived the experience sometimes went on to printing the resultant negatives or state prison. You had a choice, and some people took a long time to make up their minds...

The first terror of the darkroom was the light leak. You were warned about these and told to sit in the sealed chamber for five minutes to let your eyes become sensitive - then you were to go hunting light leaks. Presumably you stopped them up with black putty or wooden wedges or something proprietary and expensive. In reality you plugged them up with a wet towel or your foot and carried on. Even motel bathrooms could be made into light-tight developing chambers with all the chemistry and odours that you would inevitably make. It was wise to pay your bill the night before and clear out fast in the morning. Also never go back there again.

In reality, darkrooms were design far before they were construction, and you could buy volumes of plans for them. A very great deal of the establishment in there could be of your own construction, and plywood, epoxy paint, and slightly illegal wiring was the order of the day. Big commercial darkrooms could indeed be big, dark rooms, with vast troughs and vents, drying racks, and very complex safe lights. Home darkrooms were a bathroom or laundry fortified against the rest of the family for a couple of hours. Really fortunate amateurs got to plumb and wire a shed or spare room and this could be a surprisingly professional workspace.

The safelight was what made the darkroom into a temple of science. Of course with panchromatic films you couldn't use fumbled in the dark. But later when you were printing you could grope in dim red or orange light. With a little science and the right bulbs, a monochrome printing setup could be surprisingly bright, and you felt better doing long printing sessions.

When colour printing came in, the lights went out again...until the specialised Kaiser and Duka lights were thought up. These put out an orange sodium vapour-like light that matched a dip in the sensitivity of colour paper. Not as bright as the monochrome safelights, but you no longer needed to injure yourself on the edge of the bench.