At Large  June 6, 2023  Caterina Bellinetti

Developing Magic: Unlocking the Secrets of Darkrooms

Zoe Hamill

Photo by Zoe Hamill, photographer and photography technician at Stills Gallery in Edinburgh

Darkrooms are instrumental in movie plots: tiny rooms, red lights, and photographs hanging from a piece of string. But developing a photograph is not as easy as it looks in the movies. It is a nuanced art form that depends on a combination of three elements: light, darkness, and time. Before the digital revolution, the darkroom was the only place where these three elements could be tamed and manipulated. Given that the majority of photographers—amateurs and professionals—are now working with digital cameras, the darkroom seems outdated and almost redundant. Yet, it is still the place where the unique magic of analog photography happens.

Dr. Caterina Bellinetti

The chemical liquids used to develop, stop, and fix a photo. 

For a functioning darkroom, a few elements are necessary: a safelight (a light source, usually red, that doesn’t interfere with light-sensitive materials), an enlarger (the machine that projects an image onto the paper), the chemistry (the solutions to develop, stop, and fix an image on paper), photographic paper, and running water. In a color darkroom, there is no light source—photographic paper is sensitive to all the colors of the light spectrum—so the developing and printing processes are done in total darkness. Once a film roll has been developed in a film canister, washed, and dried, photographs are ready to be printed. 

In order to print a photograph, the film roll is placed in the negative carrier inside the enlarger. The light from the enlarger projects the chosen image onto photo-sensitive photographic paper. A timer controls the duration of this exposure. After the paper has been exposed to light, it is submerged in three solutions. The first is the developer which reveals, in a 90-second span, the image on the paper. The paper is then bathed in a stop solution that, as the name suggests, stops the developing process. Lastly, the now-developed photograph is immersed in the fix, which secures the image onto the paper. After these three steps, the photographs are washed in running water and then hung to dry.

Dr. Caterina Bellinetti

The enlarger with the light on to show how the photo is projected onto the photographic paper

It is not the equipment alone that conveys a sense of wonder, but the feeling that time is suspended, different from the one flowing outside the heavy, light-blocking door. “For me, [being in the darkroom] means time.” Says Zoe Hamill, photographer and photography technician at Stills Gallery in Edinburgh, “You need time to go in the darkroom, you spend time in there, and it’s quite isolated. [...] It’s very mindful in that way.” The repetitiveness of the developing process has a recognizable meditative quality to it; it is a craft. Mistakes can definitely happen, but film is quite forgiving. Even an over or underexposed photograph can be salvaged in the darkroom and turned into something interesting. Losing control in one aspect can lead to regaining it later in the process.

Darkrooms and the knowledge and skills necessary to use them are not as common as they used to be. The downside is that photographs, digital but especially analog, are perceived as the result of a single choice—when to click the shutter—instead of a long process of selection, modification, adjustment, and technical skills. It must be pointed out that not all photographers print their own images. Some, like the French Robert Doisneau (1912-1994), rely on master printers; others, like Ansel Adams (1902-1984), meticulously create their own darkroom in order to have control throughout the whole process. Hamill sees the darkroom “as an extension of shooting film [...] It forces us to slow down, there's an added preciousness due to the cost of the materials and I like that there's a physical outcome that holds a connection to the subject photographed through light and chemistry.”

Zoe Hamill

Photo by by Zoe Hamill.

Recently, scholars and practitioners have been discussing the environmental challenges of the darkroom, such as the usage and disposal of the chemicals and water consumption. While the chemicals can be safely disposed of and recycled, the same cannot be said for water that, with an average flow of 6l per minute, is probably the most significant environmental concern. If digital photography might appear as the greener option, all the tech components, from the manufacturing of cameras to cloud storage, also have an environmental impact. Do these concerns, paired with the cost of shooting film, indicate the demise of the darkroom? 

“People have electronic books, but there’ll always still be books.” Hamill points out, “There’ll be a physical thing because it’s its own thing, in its own right. With analog photography, it might get more or less niche but I think it’ll always be there. [...] There is a depth and dimension to the appearance of darkroom prints that is special.”

About the Author

Caterina Bellinetti

Dr. Caterina Bellinetti is an art historian specialised in photography and Chinese visual propaganda and culture.

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