Out of the Dark Ages :: Looking Back at the Darkroom (Pt. II)

(Read Part I)

Starting out, when it came to processing double-weight photo paper the choice was the popular Kodak Dektol along with similarly branded chemicals. Years later someone suggested trying photo chemicals from Sprint Systems. The founder, the late Paul Krot, was both a highly respected teacher at RISDE (Rhode Island School of Design) and the creator of chemistry that did an amazing job of bring out deep rich blacks in the darkroom. It was a pure joy to watch the images appear as the developer tray was rocked back and forth. If you were into archival processing Sprint Systems had it all. Strangely, none of them had that strange overpowering smell that emits from most photo chemistry. For example, their stop bath had hints of vanilla rather than the reeking acetic acid. Each plastic tray was shaded differently making it easy to see in the soft sodium light the process. It went developer, stop bath, fixer, and into a water holding tray with slow running water.

After a short while the good prints were carefully placed in the vertical slots of a print washer. Photographer and marketer Fred Picker had this way of promoting his products as being the very best. And, if you owned a Zone VI washer then you were the envy of most local photographers. Generally, the prints would be allowed to soak overnight. The following day would be “Wash Day.” A big dial thermometer was placed at the top dipping down into the water. Fiddling with the hot and cold-water faucets until an acceptable temperature was reached. The agitated water flowed through the washer and then out the other end into the sink drain. At all times prints were completely submersed. At the proper time the paper was removed and run through the Spring Systems End Run Wetting Agent & Stabilizer containing anti-static agents as well as helping air dried paper remain as flat as possible. Once out of this tray solution a soft rubber squeeze slide across photos on a 1/4” sheet of 20”x24” glass. The idea was to remove as much liquid as possible without damaging the print emulsion. From there prints were placed face up on fiberglass screens to dry.

On occasion dried prints required spotting those little white dust spots using Spot Tone while wearing cotton gloves. From there they all went into the dry mount press to flatten and then retire into a special archival print box.

Some negatives proved more challenging than others. While doing a photo study of the poor and hospital care in Mexico permission was given to photograph under the watchful eye of Dr. Aldrete. One evening a surgical gown was loosely tossed on me after being told to grab my cameras. Dr. Aldrete was delivering a baby and thought it would provide some interesting images. In the room, lying on a stainless steel table with the mother-to-be surrounded by nurses all dressed in white. One big overhead light shone bright and directly down on her. A big white sheet lay on top of her body. The idea in mind was to capture not only the birth of her baby but also the expressions of the staff hidden in the shadows. In order to accomplish this Tri-X was pushed to 800 ISO.

The following day this roll of film was processed in the bathroom of the hotel. The temperature of the sediment filled water ranged anywhere from 64˚ to 78˚ at any given time making it difficult to maintain anything. Examining the processed negatives they were slightly overdeveloped. When it came time to print one of the shots from the delivery room more exposure from the enlarger was required to bring in detail both to the mother and the sheet that covered her. Of course, more exposure also meant loss of detail in the shadows. A little select burning in these areas helped but not enough. “Flashing” was the answer. First you expose the print based on your calculations and tests. Next, the negative is removed from the carrier. The enlarger lens was stopped down to the smallest aperture. The enlarger was turned on where the paper was exposed or “flashed” very briefly providing additional light to the paper. On the wall in the darkroom was a customized reference test chart previously made displaying the effects of flashing coupled with various lens openings and different amounts of exposure. The final print turned out to be quite nice after an additional 30 minutes of spotting.

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*Companies that included Zone IV and Kostiner sold print washers. But, how many readers know what individual received patents on his original design that was copied by these other companies? Here’s a hint. Who comes to mind when you think of print permanence or archival print output?

The correct answer is Henry Wilhelm of Wilhelm Imaging Research. Wilhelm made the first East Street Gallery washers in his basement and ultimately had to spend a week in jail as a result of this!