Into The Dark Room: On Craft

In our digital age, it is quite possible that there are photographers that have never even stepped foot into a dark room. 15 years ago this would have been nearly impossible. Many photographers these days take too much advantage of digital technology. They think that digital photography is the apex of photography as it has been known.

They feel that all previous types of photography are inferior, and that digital photography is blazing the good trail towards a better photographic world. I would like to plead with these photographers to tone it down, just a bit.

Long before CCDs ever recorded photons, long before image stabilizing lenses, long before Adobe Photoshop, there was a fair and truly magical place known as the dark room. It wasn’t always the most exciting place to be (it’s quite dark, sometimes pitch black) It didn’t smell the best, and it required an oft forgotten virtue called patience. It required practice, and methodical, almost meditative determination. This place, the dark room, was the nurturing womb of good photographs.

Photographers these days typically know too little about craft. Craft is the backbone of good art. If you take the best pictures in the world, but have poor craftsmanship, your photographs will never achieve their full potential. What is craft? Craft is dedicating the extra energy required to elevate your work to its highest order. It means different things. Here’s what it isn’t. Sloppy boarders, dust on prints or sensors, imperfect color balance. Craft is not cutting corners. In drawing, if it takes you 20 attempts to draw a perfect hand, you have to draw it 20 times. 19 times doesn’t cut it. In the dark room, if you have to print a film negative 10 times because it requires technical burning and dodging, so be it. 9 times is a cop-out.

Black and white film printing requires a serious work flow. Film development is an art in itself. I would urge all photographers to try shooting large format photographs. 4×5 is handy, and not too expensive. You can’t shoot at a rapid pace with 4×5, it’s too technically intensive. You have to slow down, breathe, think, and execute. Then look for a local dark room, and find instructions on how to hand develop 4×5 film. You need perfect chemistry, perfect temperatures, perfect agitation, and perfect technique. You’ll gain a new appreciation of where our art has come from, and where it’s going. Printing in the dark room takes away the crutches we are so used to in our digital world. Try to slow down, and reflect on craft.

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