Wednesday, January 18, 2012

That smell

Anyone who has spent time in a darkroom knows that smell. 

Developer. Fixer. Stop.

Acidic with a hint of sweetness. And plastic. And something else that you could almost taste; it grabbed at the back of the throat.

What happened in the darkroom was black arts. Knowing the arts, knowing their power and methods, separated the snapshot from the art shot. That's not to say what happened in the camera wasn't important, but the darkroom was where the magic occurred. There the idea manifests and is manipulated in ways that drugstore chemists could not replicate.

I haven't been in a darkroom for something north of twenty years. For a few years I paid professionals to work on my negatives. Then I lost touch with all things photographic. By the time I returned in earnest the whole digital thing was emerging. First with photo CDs; later digital cameras.

Digital cameras changed everything. Not only did their tiny computers make pictures better but you could ride the learning curve at a tremendous pace by snapping and learning and deleting and snapping again. And then digital editing software changed everything again by making it easy to apply the black arts. Picasa made everyone a wizard.

Racing up learning curves and free wizardry. What's left of the magic and art of photography? Can anyone make a great photo? Is photography diminished?

Maybe we're right back at the beginning; back at the fundamentals. Visualization. Composition. Technique. Sure a thousand monkeys could take a couple of good shots given enough time, but you gotta understand the basics, either intellectually or instinctively, to make a good shot; or be lucky.

Perhaps what the digital revolution has done more than anything is to make the art of photography more accessible. What blogging has done for writers the digital image has done for artists. It's now easier to make one's own art.

That doesn't mean it will be good art, but it will be one's own.


  1. Great questions. Great thoughts. Great art. I'd say you've mastered the black arts...even in this age of digital, not everyone can make a photograph a work of art. You can.

    1. Thx, Erin. Like most things I'm still studying but I'd like to think it's an area where I've moved to graduate level work; ever the student.

  2. As a photojournalist from the 80s, I spent a *lot* of time in newspaper darkrooms to the point I could guesstimate print exposures pretty closely after holding a negative up to the light.

    I'll be honest; I don't miss the chemicals, which I'm pretty sure weren't all that good for me.

    Digital has made photography accessible, but it's also made it somewhat unreal. I'm growing a little weary of the all the wildly hyper-saturated color pictures which are passed for reality in the fly fishing space.

    It's often pretty stuff, but it doesn't much resonate on any emotional level, and it also (I think) frees the photographer from making decisions in advance, which results in (to my way of thinking) highly stylized, emotionally empty photos.

    At least that's what I'm thinking today.

    1. Yeah, I don't miss chemicals either, too much maintenance and I like things that are low maintenance. That smell, like most smells, drags back some poignant memories. My darkroom skills required the hunt and peck method of exposure times.

      It took longer to save those photos above than it did to doctor them up. And it required no thought. That's the problem. The composition is a bit traditional but I took the time to recognize what I liked about what I was seeing, underexposed to get some highlight detail (and bracketed it just in case) and when I get around to printing it I'll try to avoid the saturation slider though I will pop up the contrast a bit and do some digital dodging and burning (I like that they use the traditional terms).

      I have a photo of a tree against the brilliant skies in Yosemite. I've been accused of recoloring the sky -- it's stunningly blue -- and most folks don't understand what a polarizing filter is or why it makes the sky appear so blue. That stuff matters to me and I suppose it matters to others but not to most.

      Maybe I'm just a bit of a photo snob.

    2. TC, you are spot on that each individual exposure definitely demands less planning in the digital era. At its worst, it devolves into a spray-and-pray approach, rather than slow-and-calculated. I believe this part of your point is responsible for all those emotionally empty photos. The ease of digital picture-taking and post-processing enables laziness, but I don't think digital is solely to blame. By itself it is a simply a tool, which can be used for better or for worse. It's only a serious problem when it becomes a crutch that inhibits the development of more fundamental skills.

      So, if the results are distasteful, I don't think the problems are the new tools per se, but rather lack of education. For someone who's new to wielding a camera, I see a need for basic and accessible guides to fundamental principles and thought behind photography, rather than more step-by-step operational guides.

      I personally post-process my digitals as black and white, wistfully wishing I still had days to spend in the darkroom like I did as a student, going through such satisfying mechanical motions, producing something tangible and real, a physical print. That is the art of the process and that's what I miss the most. But I am not a professional and I don't have the time to go back there, so I love that I can still get similar results that satisfy my personal need for expression.

      Like you said Steve, it may not be great art, but it's mine, and I'm proud of it. And I think it's great that getting to that place is more accessible for anyone than ever before.

    3. Daniel, splendid photos on your site -- you've definitely got a talent.

  3. Good thinking, TC.

    Nice to do things the old way, Steve. Hell, I still prefer vinyl, mostly for the accompanying artwork that's gone forever. Overtones with e-media, perhaps.


    1. I think the only old thing left in my repertoire is my brain.

  4. I too don't miss the chemicals. Plus I used to paint, turpentine, linseed oil, the smells were overwhelming.

    Now I take pictures, processed in Photoshop, and try to make paintings out of them, still in Photoshop. After 20 years of using PS, I still feel like a novice. Far too much info.

    At least when the heat kicks on during the winter months, I don't have to worry about the room exploding.

    Go look up my friend Bob Long, Jr. He uses Photoshop like traditional darkroom processing, dodging, burning all the bells and whistles.

    Enjoyed the read, Steve.

    1. Thx, Ken. I'll look at Bob's work. Yeah, things not exploding goes in the list of good things.

  5. Photography is still a hard thing for me...even with all of the tools that can make us all "wizards". I think that a good photographer still understands the moment is more important than just snapping away like a lunatic (like me).

    Great read!

  6. Thx Sean. I'm going to be taking some photos in Colorado in July. Available?

  7. Great photos. I like the idea of incorporating different colors and effects. The effects are similar to that of the applications from iPhone, Instagram.