A survey of London's remaining professional darkrooms
January 28, 2009 8:05 AM   Subscribe

Love the title: Last One Out, Please Turn On The Light
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:13 AM on January 28, 2009

This is good.
posted by chunking express at 8:16 AM on January 28, 2009

There is something very romantic and sad about a darkroom, especially when you see if fully lit up and decorated. I know the experience of printing your own pictures under the red light glow is going to be something I describe to my kids. They will be bored, but I won't care, it's a magical experience.
posted by piratebowling at 8:21 AM on January 28, 2009

Part of me feels all nostalgic, but mainly I feel that's life. Digital is, and has been, for some time the future. History is littered with whole industries that have died out as technical innovations meant that an expensive and specialised skill was subsituted for something cheaper, more convenient and often better.

I mean in many ways it is sad in the way the village blacksmith or cobbler have died out, but at the same time it's not like they've gone extinct because society's given up something great for something inferior.

While I remember my brief time using a dark room as fun, there's something more joyful in the way the barriers between taking a photo and seeing the end results have disappeared.
posted by MuffinMan at 8:34 AM on January 28, 2009

I am incredibly nostalgic for analogue things -- I'll shoot film on antique bodies and develop it myself in kooky chemicals, but I reach my limit at the darkroom. When I remember making my 30th straight print in an attempt to get a shadow just right, and compare that to the inexpressible joy of discovering Apple-Z on my first time out with Photoshop, there's just no contest.

Watching the perfect print appear in the tray is a pleasure. Getting that perfect print in a tenth of time at a Mac is a monster pleasure.

I still can't get solarisation to even appear halfway right in PS, though.
posted by bonaldi at 8:41 AM on January 28, 2009

All enlargers and no tubs! Doesn't anyone else find that strange?
posted by cowbellemoo at 8:46 AM on January 28, 2009

Some of these are literally round the corner from where I work. I suppose for a now-specialised industry it makes sense to have a darkroom district.

(what does apple-z do, though?)
posted by mippy at 8:51 AM on January 28, 2009

There aren't any people! The peoples are who give a dunkelkammer its warmth.
posted by whiterussian at 9:00 AM on January 28, 2009

(what does apple-z do, though?)
It's undo. That impressed me more than anything else about photoshop, except perhaps the Stamp tool. The idea that if you'd gone just a bit too far you could back up and try again, rather than binning the print and starting again from scratch, was like hot chips on a cold night.
posted by bonaldi at 9:08 AM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

My whole life is a dark room. One big. Dark. Room.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:14 AM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

The darkroom with the slogan pinned to the wall, 'I want to stay here forever', was dismantled shortly after I photographed it and is now being converted into luxury apartments.

Man, those are going to be some small luxury apartments.

While I appreciate the nostalgia factor, all I could think when I saw that big, expensive looking equpiment was that it's not really a surprise that digital made the inroads it did. It's always sad when a traditional craft or technology goes obsolete, but digital photography really has made it easier for everyone to take and print great photos.
posted by Deathalicious at 9:15 AM on January 28, 2009

posted by JoanArkham at 9:32 AM on January 28, 2009

Also, when photography first began to become popular people thought it would be the death of painting. But there are still a few painters around. Digital is great, but I think it is its own art form and not a replacement for analog.

(Of course, having said that...I've had a half-finished, unused darkroom in my basement for 4 years now. Just never seem to have the time.)
posted by JoanArkham at 9:34 AM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

All enlargers and no tubs! Doesn't anyone else find that strange?

These photos are of the "dry sides".
posted by availablelight at 9:36 AM on January 28, 2009

All enlargers and no tubs! Doesn't anyone else find that strange?

Not in my experience. Many darkrooms have separate dry and wet areas.

And, sheesh! What a bunch of slobs!
posted by paddysat at 9:36 AM on January 28, 2009

Great. It's raining enlargers, film cameras, old macs and pc decktops. I picked up a huge Beseler enlarger because they wouldn't accept it at the recycle center. I turned it in to a lamp that I can hide under in a earth quake. I still shoot film for the magic of color slides.
posted by JohnR at 9:38 AM on January 28, 2009

Apple-z = Ctrl-z
posted by Kiwi at 9:48 AM on January 28, 2009

Wow, these guys are messy. My darkroom was the one part of my existence that wasn't complete bachelor slobdom. It needed to be - there was too much stuff to keep track of, and not enough light to squint at labels.

I had one stack each 8x10, 11x14 and 16x20 in three grades, another in variable contrast, and yet another in variable contrast RC for stuff that needed to get done in a hurry, and yet another stack of color paper.

Then there were the easels...three each fixed border and one adjustable and the proofer... and the dodgers and burners I spent a long time making and categorizing... and my stack of VC filters, the lenses, the grain focuser, the color head and the time-o-lite.

I needed to grab any and all of that at any given moment. When I printed color, I had to do it without a safelight. My darkroom looked like a damn Ikea ad, it was so tidy.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:55 AM on January 28, 2009

Maybe I go to the wrong digital printer (pro), but I still have to see an image pop out as beautifully as my old prints from Plus-X and Tri-X on Oriental paper do -- deep blacks, sooty grays... Film grain looked better, too, but I blame the digital source for that.

posted by matteo at 10:29 AM on January 28, 2009

As much as I love digital and how much of my process is tightly involved with our modern tools, this really made me miss printing. Even though I am pretty young and have always used digital and analog tools side by side, I was fortunate enough to have a formal training in the wet darkroom. I really think that for all serious photographers it's an experience you cannot replace with anything else. Something about staring at prints for hours and hours and shaping light with your hands (or the nearest available piece of cardboard) just develops your eye and gives you a true appreciate for what the printed image can be in a way that working in Photoshop can't.

When I get together with some of my other photographer friends we sometimes talk about how you can always tell when our fellow young photographers don't have that background - you can see it in their prints. Maybe next time I see a Beseler out on the curb I'll take it home.

Also, when photography first began to become popular people thought it would be the death of painting. But there are still a few painters around.

I think most art historians recognize that it was photography that freed painting from the representational and is largely responsible for the huge variety of work that now falls under the "painting" umbrella. Since painters no longer had to sit around all day and paint family portraits they were free to do whatever the fuck they wanted. I think digital is doing the same thing to modern photography.
posted by bradbane at 10:43 AM on January 28, 2009

I think the point is that this is an industry simply ceasing to exist - dark rooms that cater to advertising and other forms of professional photography. Most of the bureaux that I was familiar with seem to have disappeared. Metro (mentioned in the linked site and the first place I ever heard of exabyte storage, perhaps fifteen years ago. I'm not saying they had it, but they were certainly planning for it) also now gone.

I do find it a bit shocking. I started work (after a protracted studentdom) twenty years ago, and learned typesetting with a typesetter who'd lost his job in the first wave of late 80s redundancies. He'd learned on hot metal in the early sixties, and worked his way through optical type, Linotype systems and had now moved across to DTP (which I think he saw as a glorified John Bull printing set, not really fit for serious typesetting).

So for over twenty-five years he worked in the collossal London typesetting industry - based mostly in Bankside and over Blackfriars Bridge (close to the end of Fleet Street) - huge companies, processing many miles of galleys every day.

Within three years of my starting work, it was all gone. Killed by the Mac. Apart from the Mickey Mouse nature of the new technology, I don't know that my mentor minded - he'd had a wild party of the 70s and 80s and thought it had been a good innings.

I'm not saying it's sad, or wrong (that's how the world works, after all), but it's quite awe-striking seeing something that involved so much industry and craft (and phenomenal amounts of money) and companies that had seemed so unassailable just disappear.
posted by Grangousier at 10:50 AM on January 28, 2009

Speaking as someone who spent his high school years in the darkroom (at school and at home) I have a lot of love and respect for anyone willing to keep a darkroom open. I live in the hometown of Kodak and even here there's only a couple of labs still open. Luckily we have a local community darkroom (part of a center that includes facilities for photography, ceramics and printing) and I can still drop in and print. I cross my fingers they all stay in business.
posted by tommasz at 10:56 AM on January 28, 2009

Not in my experience. Many darkrooms have separate dry and wet areas.

Oooooh. My local community college just had one big room with enlargers on the edge and the wet stuff on islands in the middle. Segregating them makes sense, I guess, but I expected to see a nonzero number. For me, seeing the gentle sloshing waves of chemical baths in the safelights was way more interesting than the shabby and unimpressive enlargers.
posted by cowbellemoo at 1:02 PM on January 28, 2009

A friend of mine, a professional photographer, just got let go from his last darkroom job. He does not plan to look for another print photog job. For further, um, closure, he is charge of overseeing the breakdown and storage of this last darkroom he worked in.
posted by telstar at 1:14 PM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Damn, telstar. If I favourite your comment, can it be interpreted as an expression of sympathy for your friend?
posted by Phanx at 1:37 PM on January 28, 2009

Funnily enough, I'm actually heading to a B&W printing class right now. Toronto still has a few darkrooms for rent, and the Universities each have some too.
posted by chunking express at 1:55 PM on January 28, 2009

Wow, looking at these made me smell the chemicals. Like crayons evoking childhood.

People will always need a place to get prints made from those tasteful nude photos they did a few years back... right? I'm holding out hope that not ALL things go digital. Some things need to be a process, disciplined, painstaking and therefore beautiful.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 2:23 PM on January 28, 2009

Also, the best darkroom I ever worked in had a revolving black metal door so there was no way in hell the light could get in. It was like developing film in a submarine. I still miss it sometimes.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 2:24 PM on January 28, 2009

Nothing beats watching the image appear in the developer. Nothing.
posted by captainsohler at 2:28 PM on January 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

This makes me wish I had the time to still develop my own work. :(
posted by Maztec at 3:08 PM on January 28, 2009

I learned in a real darkroom too, in high school.

And I loved my film camera, even though by any reasonable standards it was a piece of crap. But I never took any pictures with it, because it was expensive and inconvenient, and then I just had a bunch of physical media that was a pain to store or show people.

Eventually trying to take pictures of the results of a jack o' lantern carving party is what pushed me over the edge. I wasn't good enough at my camera in low light to know how to expose them to show the shape of the pumpkin and the light from the inside. But there was no practical way for me to do trial and error either with a dozen pumpkins.

Since switching over in 2003, even with the not-as-good-as-now camera, I see almost no disadvantages to shooting digital. I take more pictures, they come out better, I learn new things faster, I can make prints easier, I can put them online way way easier.

Unless you take a shitload of pictures digital is maybe more expensive, but once you have the body, it's just as much to take 25 pictures of something as 1 shot, so though I get a lot a higher percentage crap, I get a lot more good pictures in total.

So: I don't miss the darkroom at all. I am glad I don't have to buy toxic chemicals, breathe their fumes in a room of my house devoted to their use, and then dispose of them afterwards. Watching a photo emerge was a thrill, but only because it was such a pain in the ass to get there.
posted by aubilenon at 4:20 PM on January 28, 2009

Damn, telstar. If I favourite your comment, can it be interpreted as an expression of sympathy for your friend?

Sympathize away, but that makes three friends whom I knew to have profitable photog bizzes or well-paid photog jobs in the 90's now no longer in the business. I wonder what would keep a darkroom going these days? Curiosity? Nostalgia? Specialty historical printing (from sometimes century old film) was what that last survivor was doing, but apparently there's not even any call for that these days.
posted by telstar at 4:24 PM on January 28, 2009

Too bad, but that's the way of the world, I guess.

I've always wanted a darkroom but never have had the space for it — I guess now is the time to get the equipment, before the majority of it gets scrapped and the remaining stuff become prohibitively expensive (this seems to be how dying arts work; see letterpress setups).

I've yet to find a digital workflow that gets me anywhere near the subjective quality that B&W film and prints do, though. The control offered by digital editors is phenomenal (I'll do the sky with a G filter, those hills with a K2, and nothing on the rest...), but the output sucks. You can spend an awful lot of time and money playing around with inkjet printers or building profile targets for lightjets or Frontiers, and still get something that looks "dead" compared to a real silver halide print, even one on RC.*

Color chemical photography is gone, except as something that takes place inside lightjet machines (which are very much black boxes — you dump in so much of mix A, a bit of B and C, dump out the spent ones when the machine tells you to), but I'm not really mourning it. However I think tank-and-tray B&W will limp along for the foreseeable future, although the range of films and papers will probably decrease dramatically.

There just isn't enough mass-market interest to get digital printers as good at doing B&W as they've gotten at doing color, and chemical B&W is easy enough (relative to color processing) that it'll remain a tempting alternative for people who want the quality or artistic control.

* To be fair, I have seen some impressive results from inkjets, using 4 or 6 shades of carbon-black pigment in place of the stock cartridges and using fully-profiled workflows, the whole nine yards. In some cases you'd be hard-pressed to tell the good ones from silver prints. However, at least to me, the effort and frustration involved in getting a workflow like that going, for a hobbyist's level of volume, is vastly greater than just setting up a chemical darkroom. Given the low interest in B&W printing compared to color, very few printer manufacturers seem to help with this process (and some are actively hostile, by "chipping" ink carts and the like), leading me to think this balance may remain in silver's favor for a while.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:51 PM on January 28, 2009

Yeah, the low number of knobs and buttons available to the color process means it's best left to digital. (Tho I look forward to cameras with upgradeable or changeable sensors.)

The black-and-white silver process has a ton of knobs, levers and buttons that digital photography can't really compete with yet... and once the large format view camera is brought into play, it's game over, chemicals win. You're looking at eighty-plus grand worth of equipment (not including the cost to hire the expertise to set it up and maintain it) to compete with a few hundred bucks judiciously spent on eBay.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:00 AM on January 29, 2009

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