I recently read that the photographer Alfred Stieglitz didn’t get his first real darkroom until he was well into his sixties. It just goes to show that you don’t need a fancy lab in order to make a decent photograph. You don’t need running water. All you really need is darkness, preferably total, which is surprisingly hard to find.
Best place to look is in the basement, but even in the basement there are basement windows, air vents, coal chutes. Closets are fairly dark, but there’s always the danger that someone will open the door and snatch away the overcoat you’re using as a dark cloth. Said someone won’t apologize for fogging your film; instead, you’ll be admonished, once again, to give up your crazy hobby before you turn into a bat.
Where I grew up there were only three dark rooms, excluding the various local coal mines. The best belonged to Jimmy Stagg in Carbonville. Jimmy had an Omega D2 enlarger AND running water! It was the coolest lab I’d ever set eyes on, and I would have gladly spent a lot more time there if only Carbonville had been within easier walking distance of my house.
My boyhood pal David Brown had a darkroom that doubled as a root cellar. You entered via a tunnel that branched off the furnace room. The entrance was covered by a large sheet of cardboard, above which David had installed a red light which in theory would deter his little brother George from barging through the cardboard barrier. Inside, David and I would kneel on the dirt floor, captivated by an image projected onto an easel from his Arnold D Sunray enlarger. Occasionally a spider would emerge from the darkness and amble across the easel, pausing briefly in the spotlight like Jimmy Durante bidding goodnight to Mrs. Calabash, wherever she is, before moving on. Which wasn’t a big problem so long as the spider didn’t linger in any one spot for too long. Indeed, some spiders—in particular the hairy ones—served as useful dodging tools.
Like me, David was an enthusiastic shutterbug, although his passions tilted more toward the scientific than the artistic. He was easily sidetracked and absent-minded—even at the age of twelve. Following a printing session he’d leave his chemicals in the trays, where they’d either be lapped up by his cat Dektol or else they’d evaporate. David insisted he could tell from the shape of the crystalline residue which tray contained dehydrated developer and which contained dehydrated hypo. As for the contents of the various bottles he’d forgotten to label, David would resort to the taste test. He was a regular Julia Child of the darkroom!
By and by David lost interest in photography and moved on to concocting nitro glycerin. I acquired his enlarger, which I set up in a corner of the basement bedroom I shared with my two older brothers. No one was very satisfied with this arrangement, least of all my brothers. For one thing, it was only after dark that I could make pictures, and no one appreciated me working while they were trying to sleep.
In junior high I became acquainted with Fred Babcock, who had something or other to do with the yearbook or newspaper at nearby Carbon College. I don’t remember exactly what Fred did; I only remember that he had a key to the World War Two-era surplus barracks that served as the college’s science building. Tucked away inside the building was a well-equipped, windowless darkroom with running water, tanks, trays, safelights, enlarger, and drum print dryer.
Fred wouldn’t give me the key, but he would let me into the building in the evening. I could work as long as I wanted, provided I was gone before daybreak—at which time I’d slip out a back window onto the football field and hightail it for home.
So I became a teenaged creature of the night, comfortably cocooned in darkness, bathed in amber light, soothed by the sucking sound of the print washer siphon and the dulcet sounds of KRLD’s “Night Flight.” Thanks to a fortuitous ionospheric bounce, KRLD in Dallas, a thousand miles distant, came in clearer than our own local radio station, 250-watt KOAL—a mere three miles away in Carbonville.
At some point during the evening I would succumb to adolescent temptation and retrieve what was known as “the negative” from a Velox box on the uppermost shelf. Fred had told me about it, which was good, because if he hadn’t, I wouldn’t have known of its whereabouts or even that it was a picture of one of our local girls, partially dressed, posing on a blanket in the foothills north of town. Technically, it left a lot to be desired. Focus was less than critical and even the surrounding rocks and juniper trees showed signs of movement. Imagine a grab shot of a fleeing Sasquatch, taken during an earthquake.
No matter, I set about trying to make a decent print of it. I grabbed a nearby box of 8×10 Kodabromide and went to work. In all, I probably made two dozen enlargements until I got one in which the subject looked more like a semi-clothed coed than a startled Sasquatch. Each discard went into the trash can, face down, and everything was just fine until one day when the janitor emptied the trash can into the dumpster, and suddenly my prints were facing upward!
Word of his discovery soon reached Mrs. Allred, who taught photography at the college. Further investigation revealed that it was her personal stock of Kodabromide that had been appropriated for pornographic purposes. So Fred Babcock lost his key to the school darkroom and I was summarily ejected from darkness into the blinding sunlight.
After I left home for college, I appropriated a spot in my landlady’s basement for a darkroom. It was easily my worst darkroom ever—even worse than David Brown’s root cellar. I shared the space with a furnace and a maze of pipes and ductwork. Fragments from the crumbling concrete walls would fall into my developing trays. It was dank and gloomy and I was woefully underequipped. So when an opportunity to work in the university’s main photo lab came along, I jumped at it.
BYU’s Rogers Studio produced head shots for the yearbook and peddled portrait packages—all of which in those days were black and white on silver-gelatin paper. I labored in a room along with six other printers, each of us manning a wall-mounted, motorized Beseler MXT enlarger. In the middle of the room was a huge sink containing chemical trays and a huge undulating print washer. At the end of the wash cycle, wet prints would be passed through a light-tight opening to the drying, trimming and spotting room. We on the wet side never saw more of those on the dry side than an occasional hand. It was a factory, a factory in which I was a nameless cog, pulling down a whopping one dollar per hour.
Idle conversation was frowned upon, although I occasionally exchanged pleasantries with the person standing next to me, who was descended from and named after a Mormon prophet and Utah senator noted for his crusade against pornography. One day Reed Smoot the Second told me about something shocking that had happened to him at a residence hall social—a seemingly innocent parlor game that had degenerated into a (gasp)kissing game!
I was shocked as well. To encounter someone even more sexually repressed than I was at the time was indeed usual. I figured Reed was destined to remain a darkroom drudge forever, but no—he went on to grow some facial hair and became an acclaimed Hollywood cinematographer.
Turns out I’m the one who has remained in the dark lo these many years. Every apartment I ever lived in had a bedroom window that was covered over with cardboard and duct tape, with “bear tracks” of sodium thiosulfate residue leading from the bedroom to the bathroom. During my sojourn as a hermit in Heber Valley, those bear tracks led from my cabin to the Homestead resort. There by the light of the silvery moon I would toss my prints into the swimming pool and myself in after them, becoming a human agitator. The artist’s so-called “chlorine period.”
Over the years I have toiled as a custom printer in a number of commercial labs, and for a time worked in a portrait studio in San Marcos, Texas, where I slept in a loft above the studio and spent my days processing and printing sheet film. I was a young man surrounded by ancient equipment, befriended by an equally ancient lab assistant, Senor Acosta, who slept on a cot in a back room. As far as I could tell, the old man’s only connection to the outside world was the steady stream of portraits, head shots, group shots, graduation, engagement and wedding pictures we cranked out day after day like doughnuts on a conveyor belt.
Acosta was a man of precious few words, but I still remember his signature phrase, which may or may not have anything to do with the photography business:
“Smile now, pay later.”