Out in the Dark Ages :: Looking Back at the Darkroom (Pt. I)

The response to “What Have Been Your Favorite Film Cameras” has been quite exciting. A group of photographers posted their comments online while others chose to send e-mail. Keeping up with this interest let’s reflect on darkrooms in the home. My first was a 10’x12’ converted bedroom. On each window were hand-built wood shutters that closed from the inside to prevent out light from outside shining through. A wooden sink made out of stained plywood had plenty of room for 11”x14” trays and a Zone VI archival print washer. To prevent leaks and mildew the sink had 5 coats of Marine Spar Varnish. The only water that managed to get on the floor was due to operator error and never leaks. (More on this later.)

To provide running water a plumber took care of all the connections. He even extensively tested everything to make sure that it would work flawlessly at all hours of the day or night.

In order to accommodate additional storage chalk was used to mark the walls for open bookshelves that were to run around the room at half height. Once the design was finished a carpenter built them right there in the darkroom using the marks as a guide. Shelves held an Osram sodium vapor safelight, GraLab timer, photographic paper, and a variety of chemicals and assorted photo accessories. An additional shelf under the sink was later added to hold empty trays and whatnots.

Because Tri-X film was the primary film of choice a semi-compensation black-and-white film developer known as “D-23” was used for processing. Richard Albertine turned a bunch of us on to it claiming that he picked it all up from Minor White. We figured if it was good enough for Minor White and Richard it was good enough for us. The downside was that you had to mix it all up from scratch using Sodium Sulfate, Elon, and Kodalk. It also meant that the results you would obtain were best at 200 ISO. This was a two-bath development process that was 3 minutes for the first bath and 3 ½ for the second at 68˚F. Film was loaded on Nikkor stainless steel 35mm reels and placed in Nikkor stainless steel tanks. One tank held 4 reels and the others could handle up to something like 11 rolls. This meant that there were a lot of stainless steel film reels in this darkroom since you always had to keep the reels loaded in a tank to prevent sloshing even if they contained no film.

How hard was it to load these film reels? In the beginning it was a bit challenging. Assuming you had bends provided by unsuspecting friends or darkroom wannabes you could load these things with your hands behind your back after you got the technique down. And, you could do it without crimping the film! People were always amazed the first few times you demonstrated this in daylight with dummy film.

Facing the opposite wall was the enlarger table. It held an enlarger, Saunders 16”x20” easel, exposure timer, a Microsite film focuser, can of Dust-Off, cotton gloves, anti-static brush, and a Seal heat press. Underneath were fiberglass screens for air drying images. These easily slid in and out just like racks found in a kitchen oven. The enlarger was directly bolted to the table and was steady as a rock. The first enlarger I used was an on-loan Leitz Valoy 35mm with negative carriers filed out so that a thin black border would always print around the edge of a full-frame 35mm image. As it turned out all of the photo training provided me early on was from purists who absolutely refused to crop an image. They all followed the rule that you compose and shoot given the full viewfinder. The lens on the enlarger was a 50mm Nikor.

Eventually, the enlarger was reclaimed by its owner and then replaced by an Omega D2 fitted with a Cold Light fluorescent head. The D2 could also hand a variety of negative formats up to 4”x5”. A Nikor 75mm enlarger lens was used. This was the preferred lens for printing with 35mm because the sharpest part of the glass is the center and that’s exactly what was used when printing this film format.

When it came to fiber-based photo papers Agfa Brovira 118 Matte was preferred. Years later a switch was made to Ilford Galerie and Oriental Seagull.

Note: Please post any questions you might have.

Continue to Part II