The darkroom in the age of post-film photography

‘The darkroom in the age of post-film photography’, Artlink, Vol 25, No 1, 2005, pp 28 — 30.

We just don’t know how precipitously the drop off in the production of traditional photographic film will be. In both amateur and professional photography the few multinational corporations that control the industry have collectively marshalled their marketing strategies to capitalise on recent advances in digital technology. In the areas of image capture and image output they are busily creating new demand for digital photography as a contemporary fad, as well as shifting existing photographic demand to digital products. Film manufacturers are deleting specialist film types from their inventories at an accelerating rate, and a drop in demand for film of 15% per annum has led to the unceremonious closure of Kodak’s Australasian film manufacturing plant in Melbourne.

Of course there will always be a residual ‘niche’ of enthusiasts for film-based photography. But within the globally aggregated economies of scale of the photographic industry, any niche has to be a pretty big one to commercially justify continued production. Luckily for these die-hards, Kodak International is continuing to invest in film production to supply huge, but less readily manipulable, markets in China, India, Latin America and Eastern Europe. Customers in these markets don’t yet have the financial discretion to shift to digital, but their steadily growing wealth means that they are set to increase their appetite for film at double-digit rates for at least the next couple of years. One thing is certain though, a commitment to the range or diversity of the materials available for image production won’t be a factor as the manufacturers crunch the numbers, because it never has been.

But even if it remains possible for the foreseeable future to import film, paper and film cameras from those parts of the global economy assigned the role of late adopters, it is certain that in countries like Australia all photographic culture, will quickly become entirely digital. (Recently I was showing a prospective student around our darkrooms, and told him the number of enlargers we had, “what are they?” he asked.)

So every art school has to invest in as many digital cameras, video cameras, computers, scanners, inkjet printers and software applications as it possibly can. Every art school has to teach its student colour management so they can control their own data and communicate effectively with the technicians who will most probably be realizing their final output. At the same time every art school has to strive to embed it’s image-making in a broadening technological and media context. Why then should art schools also re-invest in expensive darkrooms, with all of their attendant costs of increased occupational health and safety standards for air circulation, silver recovery and chemical disposal?

For a while at least there was a certain logical flow in teaching from the darkroom to the computer lab, because software developers had reverse-engineered their user-friendly interfaces back to familiar darkroom concepts, such as burning and dodging. But these design conveniences are becoming increasingly attenuated, and often now serve to merely confuse the profound shift in the conceptualisation of, for example, colour space, that is required in thinking digitally. In addition students need to fundamentally rethink the still image not just as an updated version of the photographic print, but as one type of new media object continuous with many others, which might include different types of physical output, or different screen-based events.

But nonetheless, for many students, working in the darkroom remains an enriching and productive process, for all those ageless reasons: the alchemical magic as a latent image appears, the direct haptic control of the image as fingers and fists are used to mould and modulate the cone of light under the enlarger lens, and the instantaneous feedback as decisions made have an immediate impact on the image as it produces itself. Most importantly the quiet concentration of enlarger printing, shared either convivially in the communal darkroom, or in the intensity of the solitary late night printing session, is compelling for photographers who understand themselves to be working in a studio-based environment similar to other areas of their visual arts study. In the end there is something very satisfying for a student to be able to shoot film, develop it, and print it, all in one day, all relatively cheaply, and all knowing that they had physical control over every phase of the process.

It is this sense of a profoundly personal involvement with an intimate image making process that can continue to create a vital pedagogic role for darkrooms, beyond a mere nostalgia for traditional materials and techniques. In Photomedia at the ANU School of Art, for example, we designed our new darkroom complex to open out, via a skylit area, onto an informal, open space filled with computers for working with still and video digital images. In this shared communal space the digital and the darkroom invigorate each other, and our ink jet research facility is only a short walk up the corridor.

The distinction between film-based and non film-based photography is often shorthanded down to ‘analogue’ and ‘digital’, or ‘wet’ and ‘dry’. Perhaps the words wet and dry are the most compelling. The part of the darkroom process which is now becoming most interesting for many people isn’t the act of enlarger printing — the analogical projection of a field of tonality or colour from a negative matrix — but the chemical contagion of developers reacting with sensitised paper or film. It is the sense of chemicals physically trapping light that seems to be at the core of the widespread ‘post-photographic’ interest in alternative techniques, contact printing and photograms.

For instance handmade emulsions such as silver- bromide, cyanotype and vandyke, which have always been a marginal part of the art school photography repertoire, are gaining renewed vigour. And even more arcane emulsions, such as milk prints (made from the milk protein casein, dichromate and pigment) are also being researched. These emulsions are no longer simply an ‘alternative technique’ to the silver-gelatine norm. The photographers working with these techniques can now see how their materiality and processes can become integrated into meaning in new ways. The specific materiality of the emulsion itself, the manual process of hand coating, followed by the inexact exposure in the sun that is required to make the emulsion receive and tenuously hold onto an image, all become integral to the content of the print. F or instance, in the case of the milk prints of the ANU artist Denise Ferris, the emulsion, which is literally a ‘poisoned mix’ of milk and dichromate, is conceptually and materially linked to the lactic, liminal look of the images, which is also conceptually and materially linked to their subject matter — the tender but conflicted nature of maternal desire.

It is well known that digital photography desacralized the negative: it is no longer a single unchanging point of origin for the picture, but a mutable file of data.  And in contemporary contact printing, too, the inter-negative from which the image is printed under sunlight is also no longer a purely optical matrix. Some inter-negatives are now being inkjet printed, and digitally modified to bring the greatest tonal range out of that particular hand-made emulsion. For instance for Carolyn Young’s cyanotype take on the Kodachrome clichés of  ‘the great peaks of the world’, she digitally applied customised contrast curves separately to their high, mid-tones and shadows. The three layers were then merged down, reversed, and inkjet printed as an inter-negative. Other inter-negatives, such as Denise Ferris’s, are also digitally composited from a variety of sources.

Fundamental to the relationship between the digital inter-negative and handmade print is not only the power of contagion and touch in themselves, but the fact that their outcome is never exactly repeatable. Each time the process is performed something changes, and something happens for the first and only time — the emulsion is mixed slightly differently, the exposure is different, and so on. Each print is a unique outcome of a manual process. Each print is a physical object to be experienced in its own visual obduracy. This is not nostalgia for some lost artisanal past, or a desire for some auratic re-enthralment, it is a quite contemporary interest in seeing the results of human bodies, and human actions, directly and palpably working themselves out against images and things, both digital and analogue, wet and dry.

Experts with sophisticated and specialised colour management skills, and control of expensive printers, can now replicate the look of the traditional photographic print, and we should be training our students to be masters of that environment. But there is so much more that we could be doing with still images in the digital realm. Not only pushing the image into virtual data spheres, such as the web, but also bringing the image back into the haptic realm of the body.  The darkroom will continue to be a laboratory for this kind of visual arts research for some time to come.

Martyn Jolly

Head, Photomedia
ANU School of Art

Captions:

Denise Ferris, Home Decorum (Detail), 2003
Cassein contact print from digital negative

Carolyn Young, Almyer, 2003
Cyanotype contact print from digital inter-negative

Carolyn Young, The Matterhorn, 2003
Cyanotype contact print from digital inter-negative

Carolyn Young, Milford Sound, 2003
Cyanotype contact print from digital inter-negative

Carolyn Young, Paddock, 2003
Vandyke contact print from digital inter-negative

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