Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Darkroom vs. Photoshop

I'm getting ready for a show during FotoFest in March. So I'm spending some long days in front of the computer. These images were made with a Holga Camera on Ilford Delta 3200 monochrome film that was exposed mostly at 400 ISO but in some instances at 800 or 1600 ISO. The negatives were scanned and now I'm working on them in the computer. Not the darkroom. So I've been thinking a lot about the differences.

There are some things I can do on the computer that would be very difficult if not impossible in the darkroom. In the computer it is easier to select specific areas to dodge or burn and I can blur a part of the photograph easily if needed. I can push the contrast in a specific area as well. While I could bleach or intensify a part of a photograph in the darkroom, it isn't an easy process and it is quite possible that you might overdo either one and ruin the print that you have been working on for 30 minutes. Another piece of expensive paper for what all darkroom workers say is the most important tool in a darkroom, the trashcan.

When I go into a darkroom to work, I have to mix chemicals. The chemistry doesn't stay fresh for extended periods so when you make them up, especially when you are making up large trays of chemistry, you plan to spend the day in the darkroom. Sometimes it is hard to set aside 6 to 8 hours for printing, and when you finish printing you still have print washing and then toning of the print and more print washing. Once you get started it is hard to find a place to stop until the prints are totally finished and on the drying racks. So your day of printing can easily extend to 12 hours. It is physically demanding. You are on your feet and you are using your arms and shoulders as you rock trays and lift 16x20 prints from one tray to another.

Working on files on the computer has a big convenience advantage over the darkroom. You can sit down and work on your file for an hour or two. Make some notes on it about things you want to follow up on when you bring the file back up, save and leave your workstation. You would think that making a digital print would be much faster but I can seldom make more than 2 to 3 digital prints per day. It was the same in the darkroom. Although in the darkroom after a satisfactory print was made you still had to wash and tone prints, but the actually time of making a print is very similar.

Still there is something magical about making a darkroom print. You know what I mean if you have ever done any printing in a darkroom. You are moving around in a low light and quiet, unless you are working in a community darkroom. There are no distractions...just you and the negative, the enlarger light and the smell of the chemicals. You put the exposed paper in the tray, rock it gently and the magic happens, an image is gradually revealed on the paper. Sometimes you take a deep breath and say, "Wow!"

There is also something luscious and sensual about a silver print on glossy paper that up until now I haven't seen from a digital print. Don't get me wrong, I've seen some absolutely gorgeous digital monochrome prints but they don't have the same surface qualities as the silver print....at least not yet although I'm getting a sample of a new paper to try that may narrow the differences. It is hard to explain because I'm not saying the silver print is better, just different. It is like comparing fabrics....I've also been a good seamstress in my day. A fine linen can hold beautiful colors and have a wonderful crispness and drape but that will be different than a fine satin fabric. Both fabrics are beautiful in their own right, just different. A platinum print, a silver print, a digital print.....all different but all can be exquisitely beautiful.

It really all boils down to a photographer lucky enough to have a darkroom and a digital workstation has two choices in presenting their work. I'm printing this project via digital because I think this is the best way to interpret this work. And I have to admit that sometimes as I make a curve adjustment in Photoshop, I will have to stop and take in a breath and say, "Wow" so maybe the darkroom magic is in Photoshop too.


Anonymous said...

Oh, Billie, will you really ever go back to the darkroom? How you gonna' stay down on the farm, huh?


BillieS said...

Frank, that is a good question. One that I think I know the answer to but I'm not ready to say it out loud.

Heather said...

Once again, I love your pictures. I can't wait for us to move to the new house, so I can setup our new camera properly.