Tech

In the Darkroom

It was the one place I really felt powerful.

Illustration by Beth

I grew up in sunny Southern California, but I spent my teenage years in the dark. From 9th to 12th grade I devoted almost every weekday afternoon to the school photo lab, developing film, futzing with creaky enlargers, and agitating developer until the silver particles on the light-sensitive paper darkened into the grayscale of a black-and-white photograph.

The darkroom at my tiny high school was not fancy—at least one enlarger was always broken, and students left the space strewn with wet paper, mangled negative strips, and torn-up pieces of cardboard. The rest of the campus was just as ramshackle, consisting of a cluster of converted warehouses and office buildings along an alley on the edge of the 10. This essential, endearing grubbiness stood in high contrast to the school’s reputation—although its origins were in hippie-dippy progressive education, the school had become an elite college prep attended by the children of Hollywood royalty.

I was surrounded at this school by the kind of person that is often referred to as a “California girl”—all glossy hair, long, tan limbs, and short cutoffs. The kind of girl who seemed to me, at the time, to be so effortlessly, unselfconsciously glamorous that she would have no need for a Cher Horowitz-style organizational system to keep herself perfectly outfitted at all times.

In retrospect, of course, I know that those girls probably had more in common with me than with any fictional Alicia Silverstone character, but at the time, they represented everything I was conscious of not being. I was more like Lydia Deetz, minus the awesome goth fashion sense (I had no fashion sense). I was terrible at sports and looked awful in cutoffs. I was round in the “wrong” (I thought) places. My social skills were hobbled by my inability to fake-smile, which was often—and not always incorrectly—interpreted as sullenness, and my nerdiness was typically manifested in my extensive and alienating vocabulary of Words That People Didn’t Use But I Knew From Books. Most of the time I didn’t know what to say, and so, fearing ridicule or exposure, I just wouldn’t talk at all, which just had the effect of making me feel like a total alien.

I got my first point-and-shoot camera for Hannukah when I was eight, and very quickly realized that taking pictures was a good way to alleviate some of my already crushing self-consciousness. When you take someone’s picture, you don’t have to worry about what to do with your hands. You don’t even have to make conversation. You get to silently watch another person without seeming creepy. You lift the camera up to your face and you suddenly have a purpose—to take a picture.

My obsession with photography took on a whole different dimension in eighth grade, when I took my first photo class and fell in love with the darkroom. The elfin photo teacher was appropriately named Zelda. She had wild russet hair, horn-rim glasses, and an earthy twang. In the beginning of the course she walked us through the steps of developing our own pictures, but before long she left us to our own rhythms, even letting us blast our mixtapes in the dark.

The chemical process we used to develop negatives and prints has basically remained unchanged since it was invented in the first half of the 20th century, and the tools we used—even the light-bulb enlargers—were the same ones my grandfather had in his basement laboratory in the 1960s. These days, of course, film photography is more expensive and manual-labor-intensive than RAW files and Photoshop. But when you’re working by hand, you get a better understanding of how what you do affects what you make. The best thing about traditional darkroom photography is how it uses a scientific approach to express a creative impulse.

First things first: with all lights off, you wind your negative onto a reel, hoping your hands will understand the blackness that your eyes cannot. You seal it in a canister and turn on the lights. Then you monitor the temperature of the water baths, which are alternated with dips in chemicals. There’s something totally lulling about the mechanical nature of this routine, but you’re yanked out of your reverie by what comes next: that thrilling/terrifying moment when you open the canister up and pull out your negatives. Will there be silver left behind, or just blankness where there should be a string of images? The suspense is killer. You never know if you pulled it off until the very end.

Printing the photos onto light-sensitive paper has a similarly unpredictable magic, the same drama of process, chance, choice. Even after squinting at a proof sheet—the page of thumbnail images you make after you cut the negative roll into even strips—it is impossible to tell what that tiny frame will look like blown up to 8×10. I’d make test strips, exposing the paper through an aperture of F8 (always a safe bet) for 5, 10, 15 seconds on the timer. Then I’d drop it into the developer, leaning perilously close to the fumes to watch the tones appear. I’d consult with Zelda, perched on a stool just outside the darkroom door, and then I’d trot back into the red-lit room to expose my print, moving it to developer to stop bath to fixer to hypo clear to freshwater.

It wasn’t long before I was spending all my free periods in the photo lab with the other obsessives, living and breathing the tortured desire to make something good. I’d go home each day with pruney, vinegar-stinking fingers (we were supposed to wear gloves but it was inevitable that at some point you’d find yourself elbow deep in some kind of liquid). On days when the lab stayed open late, I’d stay after school.

Printing photos can be repetitive and sometimes infuriating, especially when you can’t get an exposure right, or some errant piece of dust on the negative mars an otherwise perfect print. But it was so insanely satisfying to watch my portfolio of prints pile up, to hear Zelda’s excitement about a particular image, to have classmates ask my advice because I knew what I was talking about.

I had always been an excellent student, and I had taken pride in that. But this was different. For the first time, I felt powerful. I could use light and chemistry to make something appear where before there was nothing. I could create art out of life—my own life. Outside in the bright California sun or in the fluorescent-lit classrooms of my high school, my physical and social shortcomings were exposed for all to see. But alone in the dark of the photo lab, I could turn off the high-beam of self-scrutiny. I stopped comparing myself to anyone else, and I stopped caring what other people thought of who I was or what I made, because I was doing it for the pleasure of creation alone. All those pictures I shot, those negatives I developed, those prints I made: I was inventing myself. ♦

43 Comments

  • sea_animal November 29th, 2012 7:36 PM

    YES. I feel you, girl. Except my fingers always end up smelling like chicken… I don’t even know.
    This was great. I’m in 12th grade now & I know it’s the thing that I’ll miss most.

  • MissKnowItAll November 29th, 2012 7:36 PM

    This is perfection. Even though I never had problems socializing, I would often isolate myself from my classmates for the serenity of the art room. Instead of talking to people that inevitably irritated me, I surrounded myself with sheets of Bristol paper and canvases. I sort of developed this romantic obsession with this girl who took the same art class as me. Her name was Amy Rose and she was everything I wanted to be. She fit into the “tortured artist” stereotype I so desperately wanted to achieve. She wrote poetry on the margins of her papers. She had cotton candy pink hair that she always had in a messy bun. She always had a sketchbook at hand. And when she actually talked to me, I was ecstatic. She asked my opinion on her oil paintings. She asked me to model for a few portraits. It was amazing to find someone who shared the same obsession as I did. We dated and eventually broke up, but she helped me invent myself. That art room where we spent hours drawing each other, is where I became me.

    • 062131 November 29th, 2012 8:39 PM

      I just wanted to say I loved reading your story. It sort of read like a movie.

      (And this collage is insanely good.)

    • mollywobbles November 29th, 2012 8:53 PM

      wow, such a beautiful anecdote, thank you for sharing <3

    • nikkiduck November 29th, 2012 10:44 PM

      This is such a beautiful anecdote. Thank you for sharing! <3

    • karastarr32 November 30th, 2012 8:52 AM

      PLEASE TURN YOUR LIFE INTO A MOVIE I WILL WRITE THE SCREENPLAY IF YOU WANT. Sorry for the caps just loved your story so much xx

    • rookie_luver December 4th, 2012 10:22 PM

      where did you go to school in CA (i live in cali and of corse go to school there)

  • kendallakwia November 29th, 2012 7:36 PM

    The darkroom is a wonderful place. Unfortunately, my school’s darkroom is being shut down…it has also been declared a biohazard. I hope schools keep building darkrooms for their students, because its basically impossible for teenagers to use one otherwise, as it’s so expensive. Vive la darkroom!

  • thebrownette November 29th, 2012 7:40 PM

    LOVE this<3 i really wanna try darkroom development but i'm homeschooled!

    • DreamBoat November 29th, 2012 7:59 PM

      I’m just about to read this article (I’m sure it’ll be amazing), but wow, another homeschooled Rookie? I thought I was the only one!! THE CRAY THINGS YOU LEARN IN THE ROOKIE COMMENTS

      • Faith November 30th, 2012 2:15 PM

        I’m homeschooled too!

        • Lillypod December 2nd, 2012 5:04 AM

          meee tooooooooooooooooo xxxxx

    • i-like-autumn November 29th, 2012 8:12 PM

      I’m a cyber student. Sometimes it sucks not to have access to things like darkrooms.

      Autumn
      http://www.i-like-autumn.tumblr.com

      • DreamBoat November 29th, 2012 11:23 PM

        I’m a cyber student, too! Sometimes it really sucks I can’t see my friends as often and not have access to those things, but the schools where I live (really small town) are really inadequate and don’t even have darkrooms or classes on photography :(
        Plus it’s a pretty judgmental place, and the humans here kind of really suck.

        My Tumblr is http://hellolittledaisy.tumblr.com/

    • Rose November 30th, 2012 2:09 AM

      Check out high schools and community colleges nearby; they might have afterschool or weekend classes you could take. Good luck, and keep taking pictures! xo

  • ELeigh November 29th, 2012 7:46 PM

    I love this! I just spent the afternoon in the darkroom :) I ,like you, love it!

  • I.ila November 29th, 2012 7:57 PM

    Thank you so much for this! I was worried there were no other Rookie editors who loved the darkroom (the last photography essay sort of worried me). I discovered black and white film photography last year, and i’ve made so many friends and had so much fun through it! I love the power that it gives you, through manipulating all your pictures. And i’ve learned so much!

  • DreamBoat November 29th, 2012 8:10 PM

    Rose, this was beautiful.

    I cannot fake smile or laugh, I say big words that people don’t know, and sometimes I just feel so awkward and feel like everyone dislikes me.

    I love art and photography and acting and feeling like there is just MORE, you know? Like I have this power to do what I want in art or photography.

    You have totally inspired me to try work in a darkroom! <3 <3 <3
    THANKS ROOKIE AND ROSE, I LOVE YOU GUYS

    http://psychedelicdaisy.blogspot.com

  • marineo November 29th, 2012 8:14 PM

    “My social skills were hobbled by my inability to fake-smile, which was often—and not always incorrectly—interpreted as sullenness, and my nerdiness was typically manifested in my extensive and alienating vocabulary of Words That People Didn’t Use But I Knew From Books. Most of the time I didn’t know what to say, and so, fearing ridicule or exposure, I just wouldn’t talk at all, which just had the effect of making me feel like a total alien.”

    word for word how I would describe myself…

  • litchick November 29th, 2012 8:24 PM

    I relate to this so much! I learned digital photography, not film, but I loved letting everything go and just focusing on the pictures.

  • Eryn November 29th, 2012 8:24 PM

    I LOVE this.

  • Ariella95 November 29th, 2012 8:29 PM

    My school teaches film photography too! When I first started with it, I though it was outdated and boring compared to digital photo, and I was so frustrated because I kept mixing up the steps in the darkroom. Once it took me two hours to make one print! But now I love working in the darkroom, and I definitely prefer it to Photoshop.

  • 062131 November 29th, 2012 8:37 PM

    I started using film a while ago but I’ve never developed anything. Not using digital already gave me an impression of control – even though I can probably control more stuff more easily on a digital camera. It probably has to do with not knowing how it will come out, and taking more time to think about it and get things right.

  • purrr November 29th, 2012 8:55 PM

    I miss my school’s darkroom very much. I have a couple of BW rolls of undeveloped film lying around so I can develop it when I visit. I have the fondest memories of my photography class, and it’s funny but I was the one who was always in the darkroom.

    Sometimes I would actually take a nap on the floor and if I heard any footsteps I would just yell I HAVE NEGATIVES DON’T OPEN THE CURTAIN so no one would disturb me, haha.

    I remember once I was printing off photos with a classmate of mine, and in the red light she kept asking me extremely uncomfortable questions about my last break-up. I kind of drew up an analogy between the red lights of the darkroom and the hell i experienced during the awkward conversation.

    http://sanctifiedyouth.blogspot.com/

    • EmilyJn November 30th, 2012 12:26 PM

      Me and my friends nap on the floor of our darkroom as well!!!

      • purrr November 30th, 2012 8:28 PM

        YAY I guess I’m not the only weird constantly sleepy girl :)

        It’s seriously the BEST place to nap because
        a) it’s dark
        b) no one comes in because they’re afraid to ruin your work.

        This kind of reminds me of my uncle who rented out an art studio when he was in his 20s and since he was so poor he had to secretly live in it!

  • numoon_vintage November 29th, 2012 9:16 PM

    i love the illustration

    http://www.numoonvintage.blogspot.com

  • AleneMarie November 29th, 2012 10:16 PM

    Yes, yes, yes! This is exactly I feel right now! I am working on my portfolio right for colleges and I have been working in the darkroom quite a bit. I had a roll of film become completely ruined and I was so heartbroken I cried, but this just makes me want to go out and try again so that I can create something. Thank you Rose, this article is what I needed today <3

  • clarabell November 29th, 2012 10:41 PM

    “I became yearbook photographer because I liked the idea that I could sort of watch life without having to be part of it.” Biran Krakow from my-so-called-life. (i thought it related well)

    • Rose November 30th, 2012 2:15 AM

      YES. I think I internalized this.

  • nikkiduck November 29th, 2012 10:42 PM

    This is probably one of my favorite things that I’ve read on Rookie!

    I can relate so much to the art room being a sanctuary, and the thrill of discussing and bonding over art with your classmates.

    Unfortunately, my high school didn’t have a darkroom, and my university’s is closed indefinitely, so I’m not sure if I’ll ever get to experience this thrill. I do love photography though (it’s what I’m currently going for a degree in!) and I love the idea of using it to invent yourself :)

  • livvivk November 29th, 2012 11:17 PM

    my school traded in its darkroom for a woodshop in the 90′s, so im forced to spend hours on the bus to the city every friday,sat,sun to get to a darkroom but it makes going to the port authority 100000 times more bearable

  • Mary the freak November 30th, 2012 1:47 AM

    This. this article was perfection. simply wonderful.

    I bought my reflex camera about three months ago, and you are right, photography makes you feel so powerful. just… the lense in front of you and the opportunity to create something beautiful and to ban an niche of the world to blank paper.

    I wish our school had a darkroom.

    http://birdiewearsatie.blogspot.com/

  • Ree November 30th, 2012 3:26 AM

    This is a really beautiful article :-)

  • SincerelyWrong November 30th, 2012 3:42 AM

    I loved the fragment “Words That People Didn’t Use But I Knew From Books”; I can so totally relate, although I get most of mine from my mother, the English Major with a vocabulary the size of Alaska.

  • alice_tweet November 30th, 2012 4:00 AM

    I love shooting film so much! I have only just started developing in the darkroom and it is SO FUN. I really like doing rayograms too, they can be really effective.

  • ivoire November 30th, 2012 5:01 AM

    This is really nice. I have a dark room in my own house, which the previous owner used a lot. This piece makes me want to make my own negatives and things! And such a talented writer too (:

  • blaine.e November 30th, 2012 1:14 PM

    “When you take someone’s picture, you don’t have to worry about what to do with your hands. You don’t even have to make conversation. You get to silently watch another person without seeming creepy. You lift the camera up to your face and you suddenly have a purpose—to take a picture.”

    I don’t think that paragraph could be any more more perfect or relatable. This whole thing is so stellar.

    When I really started getting into digital photography as a hobby, it felt so amazing because I made a transition from ‘that weird girl’ to ‘that girl who takes pictures’. I used my camera as a way to relate to people. I just took my first film photography class, and it’s even better than digital (in my opinion), because there’s something so beautiful about taking a blank roll of film or piece of paper and being in control of what goes onto it. I can’t wait to learn more about film photography, and it’s a skill that I really want to continue with and build on. The darkroom is a magical place, and I wish that more people got to experience it.

  • Isabelle97 November 30th, 2012 5:22 PM

    Wow,so many people here with the same interests as me! :) Defs makes up for going to a school with twelve students, non of which have much in common with each other. I love photography so much and right now i’ve got a roll of film in my camera that’s been distracting me from homework all week xD

  • runningfilm November 30th, 2012 6:42 PM

    I’ve been immersed in the photography world for years, but this year (senior year) was the year I could finally learn the darkroom. This article describes every feeling I’ve ever had about photography and film, except that my hands always come away smelling like, as my AP Stat teacher so lovingly refers to, “a meth lab.”

  • rafikisan December 1st, 2012 12:24 AM

    I loved this article! I take black and white film photography at an art center in Hollywood (you don’t have to go to a high school to find a dark room). I understand how important mix tapes are to the creative process :) We have dozens in the dark room.

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica April 27th, 2013 11:06 AM

    This is great! Photography intrigues me.