“Darkroom Day” at LaPete Labs

Yesterday I threatened to make a post about the meetup at LaPete Labs, so here we are.

Analog photography is entirely possible without a darkroom – a fact that enables my continued efforts at film processing– but other tasks simply cannot be done within a light-tight changing bag.  Enlarging and printing photographs is one of them.  The paper used is sensitive to light and it remains so through the entire process up until chemical fixing.  However, one still needs to see what they are doing so unlike film loading some light is required.  Cleverer people than I solved this paradox by designing paper sensitive to the yellow-blue range of light and providing illumination with a red safelight.  I spent hours in the safelit gloom last Sunday, along with several fellow dedicated meetup members.

Bill LaPete’s rental darkroom claims to be the last of its kind open to the public in Massachusetts, so I counted myself as fortunate to both have heard of it from the meetup group and to utilize it and Bill’s resources for just a day.  Nestled amidst the upscale restaurants of the rapidly-developing Fort Point neighborhood in South Boston, walking into the unassuming space gave tactile sensations of artistic craft lost to the digital age.  We ourselves would be the printers, not our whirring cartridge-devouring inkjets.  My negative binder, stripped of all color shots, was comprised of black and white rolls I’d developed and scanned over the last year.  I’d gone over every roll and made mental notes on which shots were deemed “keepers” and inkjet printed at home, to establish a meaningful comparison between the digital and analog workflow.

To be precise, my goal was comparing my “hybrid” workflow with the traditional analog workflow used for over a century before the advent of digital scanning and printing.  Realizing that every shot in my binder had already been scanned and worked-over, I quickly went out a few days before and shot some 4×5” large format, purposefully not scanning anything or doing any viewing besides with a light table and magnifying loupe.  When I got to the lab I made my first print ever, a contact print from those four sheets of film onto 8×10” paper.  I already knew the drill from reading an Ilford publication on printmaking, so I just needed to adjust to the darkroom setup and paper developing times.

Charles River Views on Ilford multigrade IV RC 8x10" pearl
Charles River Views on Ilford multigrade IV RC 8×10″ pearl

From that contact print (above), I made the decision to enlarge the first shot (top right) and leave the others based on composition and exposure, to give myself the easiest time.  Ilford suggests that one narrow down exposure by progressively covering your paper as it is exposed, doubling the time between each one to simulate one-stop differences.  Bill’s technique was to cut up the paper into strips and do it separately, and I was in no position to argue.  I made a few sliced-up test strips of the exposure before fine-tuning it on full-sized sheets, the better to see each region of the image.  I changed the contrast by swapping out the colored filter in the enlarger head, and made my final print (below).

Toyo 45AII, Nikkor-W 150mm, Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros
Toyo 45AII, Nikkor-W 150mm, Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros

Later I shifted to 35mm, discovering that my favored developing technique for a certain emulsion produced dense negatives that scanned fantastically, but that required several stops more development in the darkroom – over a minute of exposure!  I had accomplished my main goals of completing an all-analog workflow and printing other “keepers,” so with the time remaining I set out to “rescue” shots that scanned poorly.  Scratches vanished, noise was eliminated and after over a year I saw the picture as I had meant it.  With some “dodging” – in this case frantically waving a filter on a stick over that bright chandelier, I made something I was satisfied with as the day was brought to a close (below).

Olympus 35 SP, Tri-X @ 1600 ISO
Olympus 35 SP, Tri-X @ 1600 ISO

I came away with five “final” prints from a day’s work and over a dozen sheets of paper.  Some others at the meetup spent hours perfecting one shot, while I simply tried to get the technique down and move through varied samples.  My takeaway is that I need to shoot better black and white pictures.  Something I’m proud enough of to spend hours honing.  I shoot black and white as a last resort sometimes, maybe due to the digital workflow wreaking havoc quantizing the greyscale into 8 bits, but knowing I can make it to a darkroom with my precious shot gives me extra incentive to try and get it right.

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