This post was originally published on Substack and is being republished here with permission from the author.
I remember watching my Dad build a darkroom in the basement of our home when I was a wee one. Sometimes, when he made prints he would bring me into the darkroom with a box for me to stand on, so I could see into the sink. Witnessing the magic of those images appearing from blank paper rocking back and forth in the tray was nothing short of magical! And to be perfectly honest, that magic is still with me today.
A few years later, when I was around seven, I saw my brother with one of our Dad’s cameras outside making pictures. I asked Dad if I could do that, too. He loaded up a twin lens camera with a roll of film and showed me how to make a light meter reading and how to apply that reading to the camera. Then, he sent me out the door to make photographs. After I shot the 12 frames, I returned it to him. The next day he brought to me a contact sheet of the 12 images I made. I was hooked! I asked, can I do that again? But Dad said, “NO! I’m not going to be your darkroom slave.”
The next day Dad showed up with a box of 4×5 film and some empty film boxes. With the empty film boxes we made a pin-hole camera and went into the backyard to expose the 10 sheets of film. Back in the darkroom he showed me how to process the film and make contact prints. Then, he handed me a roll of film and a stainless steel film processing reel to practice rolling the film onto. After a many practice attempts, he set me up with his camera again, showed me how to load it and said, “With permission you can use my camera but you must develop and print your own film from now on.”
I was always looking for ways to be in the darkroom when he was working in there. While in there together he spoke of the zone system and the photographic classes he took from Minor White prior to my arrival on this earth. So, you can imagine, I found myself captivated with every aspect of photography, at a very early age!
I never saw our time in the darkroom as a lesson (he was good at that). We never spent much time on the technical side of photography, concentrating primarily on art and design. He said, anyone can learn how to take a photograph. But, not everyone can make a photograph into art. Many times, I would ask to use his camera. He would ask, what are you going to make a photo of? I would answer, he would hand me a pad of paper and a blunt drawing device and tell me to go draw the subject first, then I’ll let you use the camera. From his perspective drawing is the single most important tool you have in making a great photograph, or any art form for that matter. I think he was right.
From that point forward I always had access to or had my own darkroom. Early on in my career my photographic assistant gigs frequently involved my ability in the darkroom, learning new skills along the way from a variety of commercial photographers before digital came along. I also made large color separations during a brief stint operating a 40”x40” Log-E reprographics camera, a camera so large you worked inside of it.
Fast forward to today. Two years after settling in Bosquecito, New Mexico I have a fully functioning darkroom and have finally processed the 300+ rolls of film shot while living on the road. Now, after more than a decade of making photographs around the Great Basin Desert, plus our little 40-month road adventure, I now have a space to go through the mass of imagery created over the years. I am totally immersed into sorting, organizing, pairing and cataloging everything photographic I have ever made. Daunting? Yes! But, it so much fun going through everything finding treasures overlooked.
After being so excited to have the darkroom up and running, and finally getting all caught up processing film, I experienced a major downer. Out of the 312 rolls of film, 170 didn’t make it. I purposefully experimented with several kinds of films since I had noticed a particular kind of film needed to be processed immediately, or it had quality issues. Hitting the road meant I was not going to be processing the film straight away. I thought I had found one kind of film that didn’t show the problems after prolonged time without processing. Unfortunately, I was wrong! Only one frame out of 170 rolls of film made it. Prior to 18 months the film showed no issues, but after that, the film is mostly unusable, so everything I shot on the road with 120 film is garbage. A profound and harsh loss is what I’m experiencing right now, a deeply profound loss…
OK! Let’s look on the bright side now, I did shoot one hundred rolls of film through my panorama camera with absolutely no problems! They are looking fantastic! Also, Trish and I attempted to make portraits of each other once a week during our road trip. We were not that punctual but still ended up with 42 rolls of film on the subject which came out perfect as well.