It was pitch black, or at least it seemed that way when I first entered the room through the black curtain. I smelled the chemicals immediately. I liked the way it smelled, wet and full of potential and creativity.
My eyes began to adjust to the dark and I could see the red light high up on the wall and a row of enlargers lined up on the left, each in it’s own partitioned cubby. There was a metal table in the middle of the room with high edges to hold in the water and inside were plastic trays filled with developer, stop and fixer. Someone was standing over the trays, rocking them back and forth while black and white images revealed themselves on the paper.
The corners of the room were enveloped in utter darkness. Things were quiet except for the sound of timers clicking on and off or of water running. There was a hushed collective meditation as students worked away on their projects, isolated and yet together. It was the most exciting room I had ever been in. In this room, magic happened, art was made and inexperienced students became photographers. I would become a photographer.
The few times that I saw that room with the lights on, it looked wrong. You could see where the black paint on the walls was chipping, the four walls closed in and it seemed smaller in there, the harsh light revealing flaws and age. But when the lights were off, the room was massive and the walls disappeared. Everything looked soft and beautiful and timeless.
I stayed in that dark cave for hours, sometimes late into the night, placing the film into the negative carrier, moving the enlarger lens up and down, focusing, placing the paper into the easel, setting the timer, watching the light click on, using my hands to dodge and burn, taking the paper over to the sinks and immersing it in the tray filled with developer, rocking the tray from side to side and patiently waiting for the image to appear, stopping it in the middle tray, then fixing it in the final tray and finally moving it into a bath of water. It would float in there for a bit, the image warped by the motion of the water and then I’d take it out, dripping, and place it in a tray and walk out into the bright light, blinking. I’d run the print through the drier and hang it up, taking a step back to look at it critically and decide what to do differently. Then I would go back through the curtain and do it all again, over and over, until it was right.
The darkroom was a special place, virtually unchanged for decades. Last year I returned to the college where I studied photography. I wanted to walk the halls that occasionally appear in my dreams, imprinted in my mind after seeing them almost every single day for four years. I went back to the third floor, where the photography department was, and I couldn’t wait to see the dark room. I wanted to walk through the black curtain, smell the chemicals, and feel that rush of memories and emotions from the twenty year old me.
I looked and looked, but I couldn’t find it. It was gone.
I checked every room, thinking maybe I remembered it wrong, that it was on the other side of the hall, that it was further down, but no, it really was gone. There was now a digital photo lab where the wet labs had been, full of giant printers and computer stations.
A new technician was there. He was really nice and we chatted a bit about how things had changed. Students brought in their computers, now a tool as important as their cameras, plugged into the printers and printed off their prints. All the “developing” was done in the computer. Of course they did, that’s how I create my photographs now too, but somehow I thought that the wet darkroom would still be there, that it was a permanent place in the school and that students would still start there, like I did.
Nothing is permanent though, everything changes, and the older I am, the sadder that makes me. I have hope that darkrooms will survive, here and there, as passionate and artistic photographers revive the great, and now ancient, art of printing and developing photographs with silver compounds, emulsion, light and chemicals.
PHOTO DETAILS: This is Chris Cook's darkroom at Goldenshot Fine Art Ltd, in London. Richard Nicholson photographed London's remaining professional darkrooms from 2006–2010. The published series is called Analog - Last One Out, Please Turn On The Light and has been featured in numerous magazines and articles. I found it mentioned on Swiss Miss.