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. ♦