Sensing the Darkroom

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It’s become pretty apparent to me that my exploration of both 19th and 20th century photographic processes is informing the way I think and write about visual culture. I’m spending hours this semester developing and printing my own film (hello 20th-century analogue photographic techniques) and I’m starting to feel like I’m theorizing with and through my photographic endeavors. I knew this would happen, which is why I decided to get back into analogue photography after a hiatus of a nice number of years, and it’s exciting to see what I thought would happen is happening. So here are some of my meditations on the developing and darkroom processes:

Whether it be a Hasselblad or Holga, $25,000 or $30, the camera operates according to this basic principle: it’s got to enable light capture on a photosensitive surface. So we privilege the camera eye, that mechanical extension of the photographer’s own vision, that is responsible for the all important image. But it’s easy to forget how crucial darkness is to the photographic process, particularly in analogue photography. For much of the developing process, light is your greatest enemy. For a medium that seems to privilege vision and sight, analogue photography estranges the sensory perceptions of the sighted. It’s the space of the film loading room, often a little dark closet, that I’m most thinking about as estranging the senses. I remember the first time I experienced the darkness of that room.  I was 18 and I remember thinking, this is what macat chosech (the plague of darkness) was like, a darkness so heavy, inflicted by Hashem on the Mitzrim (Egyptions) to “let my people go.” And it’s startling to enter that room. You know it gets very dark but its a darkness that’s almost unimaginable even though you’ve experienced before. It’s a darkness that seeps through the space, invades the corners, making you unable to see anything before you or after you, much like the kind of darkness of the 9th maca (plague).

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And the darkroom, the place of printing, is a darkened room but never as dark as the space of the film loading room. The space of the darkroom is a beautiful one with the glow of the red safety lights and the light of those green numbers on the clock staring at you and the blackness of the space enveloping you and the smells of the chemistry running through you. That darkness is both weighty and dense–a darkness that pours into every corner, like the film loading room–but filmy and diaphanous with vaporous red and green lights punctuating the space.

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