darkroom dreamin on a winter’s day

Nude 1936 – Print by Cole Weston

Toronto. To paraphrase the Mamas and Papas 1966 song, “California Dreamin” – and it’s not winter yet.

In the days of film, all the magic took place in the darkroom under the dim glow of the ruby or later dirty orange bulb/filter with soft music gently playing in the background.

The camera let you choose the lighting, subject and frame. The film determined if it would be monochrome (B&W), colour negative, or transparency. ISO (ASA), shutter and aperture would generally determine proper formation of the image on the negative. The film could be developed in total darkness using a light-tight rubberized bag or a special day light loading tank. But it was in the gloom of the darkroom where the true artist shone.

The image for this post is the cover of the book “Darkroom 2” by Lustrum press and edited by Jain Kelly. Both Darkroom (1977) and Darkroom 2 (1978) contain essays and illustrations by well-known photographers of the mid 20th century. The post image, Nude 1936, was taken by Edward Weston. Weston’s son Cole printed this version years later and described his process in the Darkroom 2 book.

Monochrome. Black and white prints have been around since the beginning of photography. Under the glow of the darkroom illumination, a particular frame was chosen to be printed. Most photographers became quite adept at reading negatives and deciding which frame was best to print. Some folks preferred to contact print film strips and mark the promising frames.

The art came in deciding the choice of paper surface, paper grade, developer, etc. Should the print be toned? High-key? Dark and moody? Size? In the darkroom you could dodge or burn a print to get localized corrections, making some  areas lighter or darker. Most photographers standardized on a particular developer, choosing the paper surface from a small subset of papers. In the early days, films were orthochomatic making dim red light invisible to both the film and the paper. Later on, panchromatic and colour films demanded total darkness while being developed and the newer papers used a dirty orange safe light.

Colour negative. Prints from colour negative film demanded special colour paper and total darkness during development. The surface choices were very limited. For a while,  commercial prints had a pattern to hide the poor resolution of early colour prints. The best we could do was to adjust enlarger filters for true white balance and exposure for good shadows and highlights.

Transparencies. By their very nature, transparencies were positive images. Kodachome was so complex you had to return it to Kodak or a few other large labs for processing. Other transparency media used large molecules and allowed local or even personal processing. Bottom line, the best that could be done was to follow the maker’s processing instructions and then use a slide projector and screen to view the results.

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