The first thing you notice as you open the door is the smell. It smells like old urine, but not quite. Then another, a stronger smell hits your nose. You can feel it in your sinuses. But you get used to it by the time you turn on the red light. You see stained tile, and a spackled white wall. There is a center console and that is covered with the usual detritus that follows me around. There is a old pipe lying right in front of you, on top of a yellow box that says “DO NOT OPEN IN LIGHT”. There is a pipe fixture right next to it with so much salt deposition on it that it looks like it belongs in a coral reef. You turn to your left and you are in the Darkroom.
There are dark bottles marked with different coloured tape everywhere. Some are on the shelf, some on the floor, and some on top of a huge drawer. You open the drawer and it has no shelves inside it. It has wire strung up near the top, and there are long rolls of negatives hanging from it. Congratulations, you just destroyed a month of work. Those negatives were not supposed to be exposed to any light. Congratulations. You just witnessed on of the worst feelings you can ever have as a photographer in the darkroom.
I always think of traditional photography as blue collar work. You muck around in the dark, dealing with stuff that could kill you if you looked at it funny, and making stuff that brings you joy. Something like those yokels you see in town fairs making sculptures with entire tree sections using just chain saws. I always think of myself as a modern day Weegee. Running around campus smoking, with a huge camera, documenting all the messed up stuff that goes on. I see people doing drugs, making out, stealing, fighting, arguing, chatting about the strangest things. I take their pictures and go away. And then I go to my darkroom.
In complete darkness, with Yusef Lateef or Erik Satie playing in the background, I pull out negatives from their holders. While wearing latex gloves, I dunk them in a tray full of 1:1:200 Pyro-Galliol. Agitate them constantly for the first 30 seconds. Then agitate them intermittently for 5 seconds every 45 seconds for 6 minutes. Then into a stop bath containing 3% glacial acetic acid for 30 seconds. And into Sodium Hypo-Chloride, with constant agitation for 2.5 minutes. Wash in tap water for 1 minute. Finally, I dunk them in a tank of 1% Sodium Sulfite for 10 minutes, and to finish it off, wash everything in running water for half an hour.
It is relaxing being in such an environment. Everything is quiet, everything is dark. If you follow correct technique, there are no surprises. Everything turns out as you expect it. The only variable is you. Surrounded by all those chemicals, working in dark, while music is playing in the back, you think a lot. You can't afford to think about what you are doing, because it is mechanical. If you think about it, you will goof up. So you think a lot about other stuff. You think of the weather, of the dinner you are about to cook when you come back. You think about what happened at that one night when you had one drink too much. You think of what happened in class, when that one wise guy decided that he knew better than the professor. You think about home, you think of all the places you could call home. You think about people in your life. You think about people you know who died, people who you haven't seen in years, people you will see the next day at breakfast. And then the alarm rings, and you can turn on the light.
A lot of people ask me why I spend so much time in the darkroom, why I have my bed there. I think by now, you know why.