the literate lens

photography, writing and the spaces between

Magnum and the Dying Art of Darkroom Printing

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of spending some time with Pablo Inirio, master darkroom printer at  Magnum Photos in New York. I was thinking about that interview recently as I heard the news of Kodak’s bankruptcy and pondered the precarious status of “old media” like books, film and silver gelatin prints.

As Magnum’s printer, Inirio gets to work with some of photography’s most iconic images. In his small darkroom, the prints lying casually around include Dennis Stock’s famous portrait of James Dean in Times Square (right) and a cigar-chewing Che Guevara shot by Rene Burri. Intricate squiggles and numbers are scrawled all over the prints, showing Inirio’s complex formulas for printing them. A few seconds of dodging here, some burning-in there. Will six seconds be enough to bring out some definition in the building behind Dean? Perhaps, depending on the temperature of the chemicals.

Of course, this kind of work is a dying art. Darkrooms everywhere have been closing as increasingly, photographers choose pixels and inkjets over film and silver gelatin. Over the last fifteen years, almost every photographer I’ve interviewed has waxed poetic about that “magical” experience of seeing an image develop in chemicals for the first time. You have to wonder whether today’s young photographers will rhapsodize as much about the first time they color-calibrated their monitors.

I was curious to see how the last few years of digital progress have affected things at Magnum, so I checked in with Inirio by phone this week. He was still there, bubbling with the good cheer that, along with his darkroom skills, have made him a favorite with Magnum photographers. In the three years since we met, he said, surprisingly little has changed at Magnum. He had to switch to Ilford paper when Agfa closed, and he hopes Kodak doesn’t take his stop bath away—but otherwise, things are the same. “Collectors and galleries still want prints on fiber paper—they just like the way it looks,” he said. He’s often called upon to print from current members’ film archives, and for the estates of various deceased members, like Dennis Stock and Henri Cartier-Bresson. The prints go to exhibitions, book publishers and private collectors. “I’m still pretty busy—in fact, I’m backed up,” he said with a laugh.

Magnum has been digitizing its archive, but so far, Inirio hasn’t been tempted to transfer his skills to the digital realm. “Digital prints have their own kind of look, and it’s fine, but fiber prints have such richness and depth,” he said.  He thinks darkroom printing will always be with us—after all, he pointed out, “people are still doing daguerrotypes.”

Magnum’s archive represents some of modern history’s best and boldest photojournalism. Its photographers have been at the front lines for over six decades, ever since, in an effort to gain more rights for photographers, the flamboyant Robert Capa brought together an unlikely group of friends in 1947 to start a photographer-run collective. In 1947 alone, the small group delivered work on Gandhi’s assassination, the foundation of Israel and life in the Soviet Union at the start of the Cold War. Since then, Magnum has continued covering world history with passion and visual flair. Last week, members Alex Majoli and Paolo Pellegrin won prizes in the 2012 World Press Photo Contest, for an image of shouting protesters in Tahrir Square and a photo-essay on post-tsunami Japan, respectively.

As an organization, though, Magnum has often teetered on the edge of collapse—either from financial troubles or because it attracts strong personalities who spend a lot of time fighting. The story of the agency’s first fifty years is entertainingly told in Russell Miller’s Magnum: Fifty Years at the Front Line of History, published in 1997 to coincide with the agency’s half century. Miller does a great job of conveying the amazing talent and bravery of Magnum members while also dishing about the agency’s dysfunctional family dynamics. (One of my favorite quotes in the book comes from photographer Ferdinando Scianna, who snarls, “Yes, Magnum is a family. I hate my family.”) My review of the book for the San Francisco Chronicle is here.

Capa’s own memoir, Slightly Out of Focus, was originally published in 1947 and is now available as a Modern Library paperback. As you’d expect, it’s lively and irreverent. I like the way it begins, with the story of how, in 1942, Capa was mistaken for movie director Frank Capra by a ship’s captain while on his way to London to photograph the blitz.. Happy to oblige, Capa regaled the captain with made-up gossip about Hollywood and “Capra”s numerous affairs with leading ladies.

Capa’s larger-than-life personality, and his dramatic life story, were ripe for fictionalizing—and indeed, last week I stumbled on Waiting for Robert Capa, a 2011 Spanish novel that has just been translated into English. The novel tells the story of the love affair between Capa and Gerda Taro, a young photographer who was killed in action in the Spanish Civil War. It’s a story that was also lovingly told last year in The Mexican Suitcase, an exhibition at the International Center for Photography. Apparently director Michael Mann has picked up the film rights to Waiting for Robert Capa. I look forward to reading it and will review it here in the near future.

Like darkroom photography, Magnum itself is undergoing a paradigm shift. As media space for in-depth photojournalism decreases, photographers are looking elsewhere for venues for their work. Agencies like Magnum are having to get creative about projects, partnering with nonprofits and corporate sponsors.  But still, Magnum survives… and it’s nice to think of Inirio toiling away in the Magnum darkroom, continuing a tradition that started in 1947 with the first Magnum office.

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117 comments on “Magnum and the Dying Art of Darkroom Printing

  1. propagandaphotos
    February 17, 2012

    A very interesting post – the demise of darkrooms is a major problem. Its getting very difficult (and expensive) to do anything other than digital these days which is a real shame.

    Another interesting book about Capa that I came about completely by chance in a 2nd hand bookshop is A Russian Journal by Steinbeck. A memorable insight into Capa’s personal bathing habits….

    • I disagree that it is getting “very difficult (and expensive)”. Shooting film and printing in the darkroom is no harder than it ever has been. And it is actually cheaper than it ever has been as well. I have two enlargers in my home darkroom, I paid $75 for the pair. Brand new I would have been looking at close to $2,000 and they aren’t even that old!

  2. Jimi Meldrum
    February 18, 2012

    Keep printing on photographic paper and shooting film! We must not let this die!

    • emmer
      February 24, 2012

      Viva la darkroom revolution! Cheaper paper would be a big help though!! Come on people, there is nothing like the smell of chemical vinegar on your hands!!

    • Bryan Myhr
      September 12, 2013

      All the cows used for the gelatin will die though. Maybe try collodion?

      • Jim Meldrum
        September 12, 2013

        So true! I am bitterly upset that film labs are closing left and right, frequently because their owners complain they are not able to make a profit when they were never intended to make a profit, just contribute, as in the case of one hour labs that are part of lager entities like a grocery store.

    • Steve Ducharme
      October 23, 2013

      (Here’s a duplicate of mu comment on another films demise)

      Can’t speak for the darkroom exactly but I just bought a Polaroid Land 350 and a dozen or so boxes of (brand new) Fuji 100 and 3000 film and I am having a total blast! Always a curiosity to onlookers and at parties, ridiculously affordable and amazingly cool shots and it scans really well if you want to tweak and post. Maybe I’m going backwards but at the moment it’s a lot more fun than forward. I’ve got an SX70 on the way and several boxes of film from the “Impossible Project”. Long live film.

  3. Josh Sisk
    February 24, 2012

    Really interesting post. Do you have that interview you mentioned up anywhere?

    • sarahjcoleman
      February 24, 2012

      Josh: Sadly, no. For various reasons, the interview never made it online. But this post has been so popular that I might try to dig up my notes and do something more with them. Thanks for reading!

  4. Barry Cawston
    February 24, 2012

    Enjoyed the article but I think that there will be something of a revival in traditional darkroom printing as a natural balance to the age of digital. The craft and artifact inherent in the traditional darkroom process will become I think particularly sort after in the Art Market….

    • Bob Perkins
      February 24, 2012

      I just want to note that there are still places where young people are learning traditional darkroom skills. Although many high schools are struggling to justify the cost of film programs, places like Youth in Focus in Seattle (youthinfocus.org), where I work, as well as a handful of similar programs elsewhere, are creating passionate young film photographers (as well as digital photographers) every day!

    • Ed Buziak
      February 28, 2012

      Have to agree with you Barry. I published “Darkroom User” magazine for seven years back in the 1990s, but it was a labor of love (a pleasant one, mind you) although one I was passionate about having hand-processed more than 10,000 films during my darkroom days and undoubtedly a number at least two or three times that in sheets of paper during my 35 years of wet-darkroom work. I’ve been “numerique” for a decade in France through necessity, rather than choice, but I still miss the Zen-like silence when working under the red glow.

      Just a few days ago I decided to re-publish as many articles that are still relevant having been originally published in the old Darkroom User magazine… they will probably all have to be my images and articles as certain writers I used back then would want paying again a decade or more later. So far I have put two articles up, on “Agfa Rodinal” and (this morning as it happens) “Bulk-film loading”. Click over to… http://darkroomuser.wordpress.com/ if you are interested as there will be many more darkroom articles to follow on a wide variety of subjects in the coming weeks ;~)

  5. Shannon
    February 24, 2012

    Agree with Barry. There seems to be a resurgence in film use in general thanks in part to toy cameras (Holgas, etc) – and potentially that same interest in hands-on work in the darkroom.

    • Toby Deveson
      February 28, 2012

      The smell that comes out of the tank as the water goes in for the first time…to me like freshly baked bread.

      • Toby Deveson
        February 28, 2012

        whoops replied to wrong post! apologies :)

  6. Scheryle Simmons Reuss
    February 24, 2012

    developing film is one of the best highs ever.i hope it will always be around.

  7. Marco Bell
    February 24, 2012

    Great post! I just translated it to spanish. You can find it on my photoblog: http://marcobellphotoblog.tumblr.com/post/18202136330/magnum-photo-y-el-moribundo-arte-del-laboratorio#disqus_thread

  8. jose
    February 24, 2012

    Mr Ansel Adams didn’t scratch a picture that way….
    He used to wait for the right moment. (or even comeback and try it again)
    And even not having the choice (surpluss) we have enjoyed concerning films, papers and chemistry… his negs and prints show us what means concerned!!!

    • sarahjcoleman
      February 27, 2012

      Jose: Well, Ansel Adams did once famously remark that “the negative is the score; the print is the performance.” Although his negatives were amazingly well exposed I believe he did do a fair bit of manipulation in the darkroom too.

      • tim bell
        September 20, 2013

        Right you are-look up the “zone system” he developed-I use the same principles in my fully digital work now.

    • Toby Deveson
      February 28, 2012

      To not manipulate a neg in the darkroom would in itself be a crime – careless and lazy – there is no way a negative can lead to a perfect unmanipualted print each time. Dodging and burning are basic and necessary – As Sarah says below, “the negative is the score; the print is the performance”

      An artist will naturally seek improvement and perfection. A straight print would never fulfil. Infact the few times I have had a “perfect print” I have felt cheated and unsatisfied – like I have missed something.

    • Edward
      September 21, 2013

      Interesting that you have such an opinion. I’ve personally seen Adams negs and I can assure you that, even though he was a great photographer, it was his printing skills that made his reputation. I doubt that there is such a think as a “straight” Adams print. He also created detailed notes about how to print each neg.

    • Michael Clark
      November 10, 2013

      You’ve got to be kidding. Look at the variation and development of the series of over 1000 prints that Adams printed himself over several decades after he photographed “Moonrise, Hernandez, Mexico” in 1941. The prints considered definitive weren’t produced until the 1960s by which time Adams, in addition to the various dodging and burning “recipes” he had experimented with, had applied several chemical processes to the negative to darken the sky. He raised dodging and burning to a high art form in the middle 20th century.

  9. Uwe
    February 24, 2012

    I actually wonder how someone can possibly understand if they never had their hands on film?

    @propagandaphotos Agree. Russian Journal is an excellent read.

    I dare to say that the number of darkrooms has increased. Because it is not easy to operate economically viable many may find some space in their own premises.

    I am not yet convinced that darkroom work itself is on the demise. I agree that the days of film in PJ are over.

  10. Kaushal Kumar Singh
    February 24, 2012

    What ever the situation I will keep shooting film till the nearest lab keeps it developing.

    http://kaushalsingh.wordpress.com/

  11. kilroy metters
    February 25, 2012

    the solitude of the darkroom was something i enjoyed and now sorely miss…..shooting,developing and printing were the holy trinity…..plus being in “the darkroom” with your honey could also be special but in the end its the finish product that counts not the means to that end

  12. Joe Holmes
    February 26, 2012

    Great post. Where can I see more of those marked-up guide prints? If they’re from a book, I’d love to pick up a copy…

    • sarahjcoleman
      February 27, 2012

      Thanks, Joe. The guide prints are not from a book. They’re exclusive to this blog post. Pablo shared them with me when I met him at Magnum a few years back.

  13. Nasir Hamid
    February 26, 2012

    Thanks for such a great post. There isn’t enough behind the scenes stuff like this for so many iconic images out there.

    I love to shoot film and I’ve been stocking up on it just in case it becomes harder to find. I need a bigger freezer!

    Photo blog: http://www.simplyoxford.com

    Long live film.

  14. Sweeney
    February 26, 2012

    Ansel Adams has time to wait for the perfect light, which he knew how to use it. Photojournalism is on the fly. I konw both, and as an assistant spent two years in the darkroom. processing and printing, didnt love it at the time but until digital it was the best way to learn b&w printing. Would like to start it again, the equipment is in the attic getting dusty! Maybe some day.

  15. gary gumanow
    February 27, 2012

    Saying that it’s dying in your title just continues the perception that it is. But it very much still alive… at least in my darkroom. Nice post.

  16. JULIO ROTONDI
    February 27, 2012

    Darkroom, it never dies.

  17. Toby Deveson
    February 28, 2012

    Brilliant artcle, fantastic to read it and heartening to find people who feel the same as I head to my own darkroom to start printing for an exhibition in London. Please consider yourselves all invited – details on my website ;)

  18. James E. Meldrum
    February 28, 2012

    For Joe Holmes and others with similar interests:

    Check out the following book which has marked up prints like those on this blog showing exposure times for dodging and burning. Like all of you, I haven no intention of giving up either film or my b/w darkroom any time soon.

    Black & White Photo-Lab
    Processing and Printing

    Juline Busselle

    Silver Pixel Press, 2000

    ISBN: 1-883403-67-7

  19. Gary O'Brien
    March 3, 2012

    The marked up prints are quite interesting. When printing in the digital realm, the masks on adjustment layers look very much the same – many layers for many subtle, nuanced tweaks of the image.
    I’ve read that W. Eugene Smith would make a copy negative of a ‘perfect’ print, then print that negative. With the layered file, that perfect print can be reproduced over and over, and even re-interpreted. I’ve seen several different versions of some of Ansel Adams’ iconic images, printed in surprisingly different ways.
    Great discussion, and great article. Thanks for your hard work on this blog.

    Gary O’Brien
    Photographer
    Tucson, AZ

    • Carlos
      March 4, 2012

      Gary please go home with your digital rhetoric, VIVA FILM FOREVER!

  20. Coline Termash
    March 7, 2012

    Reblogged this on PRONAOS.

  21. Pingback: «Агентство Magnum и уходящее мастерство ручной печати» « Leica Camera Russia Blog

  22. Thomas Bertilsson
    April 12, 2012

    Wonderful article. Mr Inirio should be respected in the darkroom world as a very rare and dedicated personality, who goes way above and beyond what’s normally achieved in a darkroom. Printing negatives that were exposed in less than ideal lighting conditions, often quickly and on the fly, without proper metering. It’s just incredibly difficult to make such negatives look that good! A few other printers come to mind; Sid Kaplan who printed for Henri Cartier-Bresson, or how about Gene Nokon who taught Yusuf Karsh a thing or two about f-stop printing? There’s a marvel in Toronto by the name of Bob Carnie, who is a really talented and amazing darkroom printer, but it’s a bit of a dying breed.
    My hope is that articles such as this will spur an interest in the art of printing silver gelatin in a darkroom. There are lots of people shooting film these days, but not very many who do anything other than scanning that film and then work with them in the digital domain. Nothing wrong with that, but we need more printers to keep raw materials for production of silver gelatin papers viable and available.
    If you’re curious about darkroom printing – find a way of doing it! It is tremendously rewarding, and one of those labors of love that keep getting better every time you do it.

    Thomas Bertilsson
    Photographer
    St Paul, Minnesota

  23. Jono
    April 24, 2012

    Can anybody explain the printing notes? I can make out fractions but do these represent burning and dodging times? If so, how would you action all these adjustments when making a print?
    I develop my own film and recently purchased all that I need for the dark room – but have nowhere in the house to set it all up :( I can’t wait to do my own printing!

    • Thomas Bertilsson
      April 25, 2012

      I’m a hack compared to Mr. Inirio, but use print maps just like his in my darkroom when I print. You have to, because there’s no way to remember it.
      Notes in the map could have to do with contrast grades as well as times for dodging and burning, although I’m doubtful Mr. Inirio used variable contrast papers when he made those prints.

      It’s all about having a critical eye when you print. Tonal values are chosen carefully to support the content of the print, and making what’s important stand out while toning down what isn’t.
      You have to remember that a lot of the negatives that someone who prints for Magnum uses are often exposed in less than ideal lighting, probably not metered perfectly (or at all) because it’s a matter of capturing a moment that will disappear quickly. You could even be dealing with push processed film, which is a printer’s worst nightmare to eke shadow detail out of. In short, many of the negatives are just incredibly difficult to print. If you have the time to set up lighting in a studio, or carefully meter a scene you’re photographing, a lot less darkroom gymnastics are required to reach desirable results. While you should always maintain a highly critical eye, and never settle for anything less than the very best you can achieve, what you see in the article above is pretty extreme by my experience.

      My respect for printers such as Pablo Inirio, Gene Nokon, Sid Kaplan, Keith Taylor, Bob Carnie, etc grows as I accumulate more darkroom knowledge myself. It is nothing short of amazing what they can achieve, and as artists we should all aspire to their level, or perhaps even aspire to being better, to forward the art of darkroom printing, and safeguard it for future generations to enjoy.

      • Jim Meldrum
        April 25, 2012

        Tom, I have to agree with you 100%.

      • Thomas Bertilsson
        April 26, 2012

        I forgot to mention that often with difficult negatives there are lots of techniques employed to eke the very maximum out of them, such as flashing the paper, building masks, tweaking the paper developer to adjust print contrast in between individual paper grades. You can use techniques of diffusion for effect, and use burning- and dodging tools to flash just parts of the paper, etc etc etc. There is a lot to know about silver gelatin printing that most people don’t even know about (including myself).
        If you’re truly interested in the mechanics, as well as the art of printing, I highly recommend Ralph Lambrecht’s book ‘Way Beyond Monochrome’. It is a fantastic piece of literature that discusses nearly every aspect of b&w printing.
        I will also say that it is very hard to relate all of the text to real world results until you actually start printing in the darkroom. Hands on, get down to business and just start printing. Find a way of doing it, and experience the joy and magic of watching your efforts appear before your eyes in the developer tray.

  24. sarahjcoleman
    April 25, 2012

    Hi Jono, I’m not sure how Pablo does all of his burning and dodging on these prints during the exposure time. I do recall that he had a lot of handmade dodging tools of various sizes, and theoretically one could hold three or four of them at the same time. Even so, it must require an enormous amount of concentration to create a series of prints from these specs!

    Good luck setting up your darkroom at home!

  25. margarethollandadams
    September 6, 2012

    I teach an advance B&W printing class at the corcoran we mix chems from scratch,
    and I really love being able to give an example of a true printer.

  26. pegappp
    September 9, 2012

    Wonderful post.

  27. sarahjcoleman
    September 9, 2012

    Thanks so much! This has been a very popular post. Thanks for reading, and please send the URL to anyone you think might be interested!

  28. Farah Mahbub
    October 21, 2012

    Reblogged this on INCOGNITO and commented:
    … here is a reminder of the good old days … sometimes I miss them … the care free attitude and the luxury of time that came with it … on a good day I managed to print five final prints. Now I would not even dream to go back to a darkroom to print … mostly because I do feel differently for water so precious and time even more precious.

  29. Peter Bruce photo
    March 16, 2013

    why does hollywood still shoot movies on film,when they could cut cost and not. simply itis better and always will be
    Peter Bruce Photo

    • Jeff Moore
      May 17, 2013

      Because you cant replicate the feel of film with pixels !

  30. Jeff Moore
    May 17, 2013

    http://www.silverprint.co.uk/ In London say Film and Chemicals sale up by 100% in the last two years .

  31. Randy Moe
    June 7, 2013

    Building my new, with cheap used equipment, LARGE darkroom as fast as I can. Finally I can afford all the stuff I ever wanted! Just wait, as the idiots throw it all away, the inevitable comeback of analog will surprise the tossers.

  32. Paul Kiss
    June 14, 2013

    A friend sent me this link in an email (as I still have my darkroom & love very much to print now & then… I’m not bad at it!)… after finally getting time to sit down & look properly at it I thought I would post my email reply to him here:

    Begin forwarded message:

    From: Paul Kiss
    Subject: Re: Magnum and the Dying Art of Darkroom Printing | the literate lens
    Date: 15 June 2013 12:32:24 AM AEST
    To: Mark Munro

    Looking at it now…. fascinating images, and glad that they can be enlarged. The notations on them are mind-boggling. Look at the nuances in Audrey Hepburn’s face… that’s getting right down to it. Funny, but I’m starting to think that achieving similar (at least half-way similar) is actually easier on a computer than in the darkroom! I start with the scanned Tiff, get it overall right in Camera Raw (just seems easier than in Photoshop), then in Photoshop itself I do the finer things with selections & layers & working on finer things like faces & so on. Costs money in the darkroom, and patience, which I find I don’t have a lot of anymore, and a general unwillingness to spend a whole day’s daylight in the dark. Doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it now & then though. You know, not so long back I might’ve said the opposite, that I can’t do on the computer what I can in the darkroom…. but with time you learn how, like anything ;)))

    http://anntornkvist.blogspot.com.au/2008/12/ninety-hours-in-darkness.html

    • sarahjcoleman
      June 14, 2013

      Thanks for this, Paul. I think your points about the cost of darkroom printing and also the reluctance to give up daylight are very apt — also there is the environmental factor to consider with darkroom chemicals. But it sure was a lot more romantic than tapping on a keyboard!

      • Thomasb
        June 14, 2013

        I think the environmental aspects of darkroom use versus digital photography environmental foot print needs to be fact checked.
        Do you know how much it pollutes to make a digital camera, printer, computer screen, and computers? They use chemicals that will kill you within minutes of exposure. And, cameras and equipment is obsolete about every two or three years, adding techno trash to an already insurmountable heap of it.

        Chemicals used in photographic processes are, for the most part, benign in comparison to things like household cleaners and laundry detergent.

        I am very grateful for this thread, because it highlights that the art of darkroom printing is actually still alive! And I, as a darkroom printer feel very lonely in this digital world. Can we keep the topic surrounding that, and not how easy it is to do the same thing on a computer? Please. I beg you. There is very little left to be happy about as a darkroom rat.

      • Paul Kiss
        June 14, 2013

        I hear you Sarah…. and I hear you too Thomas Bertilsson ;) Wasn’t really my intention to rave on about how easy it is. I can tell you this: as long as I have in my possession all the negatives I’ve made up til now, irrespective of whether or not I make any more in the future, I will ALWAYS maintain a facility in which to print them (and I should point out that my ‘darkroom’ is actually my kitchen, thoughtfully set up so that I can easily/safely/cleanly convert everything for printing cooking, which are in fact very similar activities don’t you know… not that I do much cooking).

    • sarahjcoleman
      June 14, 2013

      Good point, Thomas (about the relative toxicity of darkroom chemicals, computer manufacturing chemicals and household cleaning fluids). Do you know if anyone has ever studied this? I believe you but it would be interesting to see a comparison study. When I’m less tired I’ll take a look online. But that’s a digression. For my part, I’m happy to keep this thread going as a discussion for darkroom printers. From the passionate responses it has engendered, and from the way the URL continues to be tweeted, forwarded and reblogged, I know there are many of you out there!

  33. Paul Kiss
    June 14, 2013

    And, I must admit, I did prefer Agfa paper too :)

  34. jbaphoto
    September 12, 2013

    I still do this as my only way of making prints. My womb room has three enlargers, 10×8″ and 10×8″ DeVeres and 35mm Leitz. The wet side has a set of deep film dev tanks using D76d mixed in May 1985 and replenished ever since.

    • jbaphoto
      September 12, 2013

      Opps. second enlarger listed should read 5×4′

    • sarahjcoleman
      September 12, 2013

      Good for you, John! Out of interest, why have you chosen this path?

      • Thomas Bertilsson
        September 13, 2013

        I am not John, obviously, but my approach is very similar to his (I think).

        I don’t own a digital camera. The reason is that I just like darkroom work better. It makes me happy. Digital doesn’t. It’s entirely personal, so I don’t knock those that enjoy digital work flow. But it bores me to tears.

        In the darkroom I can aptly focus on what I want to express, without distractions. The output is what I want my prints to look like, so for me it’s also a matter of ‘don’t fix what isn’t broken’, and just continue doing what I enjoy instead of forcing something that I do not enjoy. It really is as simple as that.

        In the darkroom I’m happy. To watch it all come together in front of my eyes, by doing something tangible, is magic to me. It’s equally great every time. My negatives have been carefully exposed and processed so that they fit the tonality of my paper and paper developer. That takes a lot of the grief out of printing, because it really is a system. When all of the individual pieces click together like cogs on a wheel in a transmission line, it’s just beautiful and I feel like I’m in total control of the work flow. That gives me tremendous satisfaction.

      • sarahjcoleman
        September 26, 2013

        Thanks for this, Thomas. It is interesting to me because I used to enjoy darkroom work a lot, and once the digital revolution happened, it took the fun out of photography for me. I’m slightly old-fashioned and technologically challenged, and these days I just take digital snaps of the kids (as artfully as possible, of course!) But you’ve inspired me to think that I should dust off the old analog camera and do some darkroom work again!

  35. doncraigphoto
    September 12, 2013

    “You have to wonder whether today’s young photographers will rhapsodize as much about the first time they color-calibrated their monitors.”

    Really? We all know this isn’t a good analogy. In fact, it’s a cheap shot. There is a place for both film and digital photography, and I certainly hope that film continues to be shot. But, “developing” digital images has only a small amount to do with monitor calibration. Optimizing your photos, and your vision, requires a solid understanding of the development process, be it film or digital.

    Thanks for the article. Well worth the read (cheap shots aside).

    • sarahjcoleman
      September 12, 2013

      Point taken, Don, and thanks for the feedback. It was a shorthand way of saying that there’s no direct equivalent of that slow emergence of a print in developing fluid, the process that so fondly remembered by the film generation. I hope you’ll check out the rest of the blog and continue reading — I have lots of interesting content lined up for the fall!

      • Jim Meldrum
        September 12, 2013

        The problem is that whether we like it or not, film labs are closing left and right and there are fewer people doing their own printing. I love doing my own printing but I can’t help but wonder how long it will be possible to do so.

  36. Morgan O'Donovan
    September 12, 2013

    And if you want to get into 5×4 then MOD54 is around.
    http://www.mod54.com

  37. Foukographer
    September 12, 2013

    What’s fascinating also and very revealing about our change of practice is the importance given to the ‘Single Killer Shot’ over the overall quality of a series. Nowadays, most of us spend much less time editing a single image and end up showing a series of shots.
    Look at the pics edited here, the man probably spent a whole day on getting ONE picture right. But these images here are definitely iconic. So iconic it hurts.

    • Thomas Bertilsson
      September 13, 2013

      I don’t wish to sound negative (no pun intended), but how do you know how much time the printer spends on getting one print just right? You are assuming. As a printer for a place like Magnum, I would rather expect a rather copious volume of requests coming through, leaving little room to work for a whole day on a single negative, (but then again, I am assuming too).

      I know many darkroom printers who work with batches. They make proof prints of many negatives, live with them for a while, mark them up, and then go into the darkroom to print work prints. Looking at those for a while, a final stint in the darkroom gives the final iteration. The volume can be very large, but it takes longer.
      Then I know darkroom printers who go into the darkroom focusing on their most difficult negative/print. After they’re happy with that one, they’re properly in the groove, and can crank out the easier ones at a much faster rate.

      I agree the pictures are iconic. The bloopers never made it public, though… :)

      • sarahjcoleman
        September 14, 2013

        Thanks for this, Thomas. I don’t think Pablo Inirio is printing in batches. I spent some time with him, and he told me that for the most part, he’s making prints for exhibitions, private sales and book publications. When he prints from a dead photographer’s estate (Cartier-Bresson, for example), he examines an original print very closely to determine what the photographer’s intentions were with the print. I’m guessing that Magnum printers who want an edition of a print made might go elsewhere. Inirio’s darkroom is fairly small and specialized.

  38. Bob
    September 13, 2013

    Film photography and the darkroom are good therapy … at least for me. I have used film since I was knee high to a grasshopper … well not really, but since jr. high anyway. I appreciate this article because I too am a darkroom printer. I strive for archival fibre prints that are acceptable to galleries and collectors. So I appreciate people who still admire and more importantly use film. We need to support the companies, i.e., Ilford, that offer the products.

    http://stcyrphoto.blogspot.com/

  39. josephine shields
    September 13, 2013

    Almost every Thursday night from September through July, I have a class of 6-10 students who meet. This is the Brookline (MA) Adult Education Creative Darkroom. We are one of the few (maybe only) public darkrooms still operating in the Boston area. All I can add is that the fine art of black and white printing is well and thriving in this group of highly creative individuals whose ages range from 20-somethings to 88 years. My students talk about the ‘magic’ of the darkroom and work with a lot of alternative processes and scour the planet for old cameras.
    We participate in community arts festivals and we encounter so many people who don’t grasp the fact that there is film and paper and cameras that don’t do everything for you. And that one may have to ‘work’ to produce a print. Yes, film and paper are alive.

    • sarahjcoleman
      September 14, 2013

      Great! Thanks for sharing, this sounds like a great community and a great resource.

    • Jay Goldman
      September 22, 2013

      If your students are looking for old cameras, are they aware of the ‘Photographica shows’

      http://phsne.org/shows.html

      PHSNE (Photographic Historical Society of New England) has many members with knowledge of alternative darkroom work and older cameras.

      http://www.phsne.org

      In November and December our meetings will be in Newton Highlands near the Newton Highlands stop on the D line, which is very convenient for Brookline residents.

      • sarahjcoleman
        September 26, 2013

        Thanks for this, Jay!

      • josephine shields
        September 26, 2013

        Thank you Jay. I passed the info on to my students. Tonight will be our first class of the semester and I am sure that there will be a discussion about this thread.

  40. david blanchard
    September 14, 2013

    Ilford is opening a new black and white processing lab in California! http://www.ilfordlab-us.com/ Even though I work mostly with digital for convenience, I still much prefer film and working in the darkroom. And two Sierra College campuses (Rocklin and Grass Valley CA) still have darkrooms and teach students film and darkroom processes.

  41. Chris
    September 14, 2013

    I don’t think darkroom prints are a dying art. In fact, my stepdaughter has just started a class in her high school on black and white film and darkroom printing. I’m setting my darkroom up as we speak. (had to tear it down to move to another state). So there is a new generation who may in fact enjoy it just as much as us old farts do.

    • sarahjcoleman
      September 14, 2013

      Thanks, Chris. Your last statement may be true, and certainly, the number of people who’ve responded to this article shows that people care very much about darkroom printing. But because of the behavior of large industrial players like Kodak and Agfa (who can only survive if they dominate the market), I think the evidence suggests that although silver gelatin will survive, it will become an artistic/alternative process, along with the other alternative processes like collodion and tintype that are experiencing something of a revival. But survive it will, in some form. I wish you and your stepdaughter happy printing!

  42. romeoshagba
    September 15, 2013

    Reblogged this on Romeo.Shoots.Photos .

  43. nadiacjones
    September 17, 2013

    Reblogged this on the-wild-literary and commented:
    How fascinating. Old trades are just as fantastic as new ones.

  44. Gary Haigh
    September 22, 2013

    As an amateur photographer I can and do still print in the darkroom. It is not expensive for me and I am on a pension. I like the depth of my darkroom prints whatever that means. So do those who know my work.

  45. Barry Kidd
    October 11, 2013

    I use to develop my own black and white film as well as prints but I never did learn how to do color.

    Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s I’d even dodge and burn my prints a bit here and there but never anything that was as sophisticated at this.

    With me It was just playing around and thinking I was cool. The shots above? WOW!

    I made the switch to digital in 2005 and shot my last roll of film in 2008.

  46. Dawn Lerman
    November 1, 2013

    I have such fond memories of high school photography . I loved spending time in the dark room developing pictures and playing with different exposures. Thanks for sharing this post

  47. lofieye
    December 29, 2013

    Reblogged this on lofieye.

  48. taylormahoney
    December 29, 2013

    I work in a professional darkroom making prints for fine-artists, hobbyists and the occasional retired magnum photog. I also have a small set up at home, it is only dead/dying because people are letting it. I have offered my facilities to tons of photog friends who claim ‘i miss film, i’m gonna do it again, can I use your darkroom?’ none have ever showed up to use it…

    • sarahjcoleman
      December 29, 2013

      Thanks, Taylor, that’s interesting. I think the nostalgia factor is high, but as you say, there’s a difference between being nostalgic and actually getting back into the darkroom! However, if you look on the comments thread on this post, there are some encouraging stories of community darkrooms being started and enjoyed.

  49. tincancollege
    December 29, 2013

    Today I had a guest in my new darkroom. He wanted to process his 11×14 B&W slides into 11×14 contact positive prints. At first I thought he was goofy, but the double reversal process works and is darn simple. I think I am going to do some in camera paper reverse positives very soon. Learned something new, in my new darkroom!

    • sarahjcoleman
      December 29, 2013

      Yay! Good for you. Hope the experiments go well!

      • tincancollege
        December 29, 2013

        The proof is drying on my screens right now!

  50. chr15cr055
    January 1, 2014

    Reblogged this on Wandering the Hall and commented:
    How I wish that I could talk to the people who thrived during the Magnum heydays…. sooo much knowledge

    • sarahjcoleman
      January 1, 2014

      Thanks for reblogging, chr15cro055! Although we can (sadly) no longer talk to the Magnum founders and early members, at least some of them left memoirs and interviews. I also recommend the Russell Miller book I mentioned in the piece, Magnum: Fifty Years at the Frontline of History. Also possibly of interest is this book of Magnum contact sheets: http://www.amazon.com/Magnum-Contact-Sheets-Kristen-Lubben/dp/0500543992

  51. tincancollege
    January 1, 2014

    So much lost knowledge, a lot of photo processing history is lost, from not sharing, secrets, too busy, we have forgotten much…at least now we are trying to document on the Internet. But I find photo forums are filled with dead links, no longer available images and confusion. Even eBay deletes the history of sales and images, losing much valuable info.

  52. K C Towers
    January 17, 2014

    This is one of the most interesting articles I have read in a long time. It may very well squash the idea that SOOC images are best in today’s digital era when in fact the electronic darkroom is just as important to the quest for a great image and an amazing print as ever they have been. Maybe the skills needed to do this have changed somewhat from the wet darkroom skill, but they are nonetheless required. I shoot only RAW and mainly b/w and try to honour the processing skills of the past as much as is possible. Just looking through a collection of magnum books will inspire (or should) any budding photographer in the digital era to get it as good as they can, and even now I have just passed my 70th birthday, the more I can learn about the digital darkroom the better I like it.

    • Thomas Bertilsson
      January 17, 2014

      I’m very happy that you still look at the final output as a print. My friends and I are a group of about 12 photographers from around the Twin Cities, Minnesota, and while most of us are very passionate darkroom printers, our only qualification for participating in our quarterly (or so) group shows, is to be submitting the very best prints we are able to make, whether made digitally or with darkroom means.
      It is so nice to read a comment from a digital shooter that isn’t afraid of paying respect to the history of photography, and I wish more exchange between photographers could be based on respect, and discussion about the resulting photographs more than the process of how they were made. It is, after all, the pictures that are important.

      • K C Towers
        January 17, 2014

        Thank you for your reply! Firstly, whether a digital or a film shooter (and I was a film shooter long before I converted to digital) we share the same fantastic craft. I am an end product man, so I am not entrenched in any one method or way of getting the image. I just like the image full stop. And I like a well printed image that has taken a lot of patience and care to produce (OK I am partial to a good silver halide print on top quality rag for sure). But to get the vision interpreted in print, or even on a computer screen for that matter, it takes some thought, skill, and a good bit of time in the darkroom whether wet or dry. I have a dozen or so b/w prints around my house that were printed from digital at a pro lab and they look stunning I have to say. I now print in book format my yearly portfolio and work towards the best I can get from that media. Long live photography in its best light!

  53. paullynv
    August 23, 2014

    Reblogged this on PAULLYN GRACE and commented:
    This makes me miss the darkroom times back in high school.

    • sarahjcoleman
      August 23, 2014

      Thanks Paullyn! It’s true, things are not the same any more…

  54. Pat Mullan
    September 24, 2014

    I have never been fortunate enough to shoot with film. I wont live to regret digital but after reading this very interesting article with responses, i think its time i look further into this subject matter. I feel somewhat out of my dept in this tread but i know that i have always found Black and White images much more interesting to look at. Thank you for educating me on another way forward.

    Kind Regards
    Patrick.

    • sarahjcoleman
      September 26, 2014

      You’re welcome, Patrick! Thanks for taking the time to comment, and happy shooting!

  55. Erik Beringen
    September 26, 2014

    Recently I went to a camera store that still sells film and darkroom materials. (I am currently in the process of setting up my own so as to venture back into black and white.) Stocks of chemicals and paper were dishearteningly low but when told that a school had only that morning bought up big on supplies for use in the students’ darkroom I couldn’t help but feel glad that there is a new generation of film shooters coming along. Film has had a rough time, but it certainly isn’t dead yet!

    • sarahjcoleman
      September 26, 2014

      You’re right, Erik. Film will not die; it will simply become another alternative process, along with the likes of collodion and tintype and dye transfer. Good luck setting up your darkroom! I miss mine.

  56. Analoguey
    September 28, 2014

    Reblogged this on Analoguey pictures and commented:
    Some reading on Printing, while I sum up my own thoughts on the darkroom…

    • sarahjcoleman
      September 28, 2014

      Thanks!

      • Analoguey
        October 8, 2014

        Pleasure!
        This will be one of those reads that I will be also consulting as a quickguide in my darkroom!

  57. Manuel Vilar de Macedo
    September 29, 2014

    Reblogged this on Número f/ and commented:
    Não costumo fazer isto, mas este artigo merece ser republicado pelo seu interesse. Leiam com atenção – especialmente a parte em que o autor se interroga se os jovens que calibram as cores do seu monitor pela primeira vez sentem a mesma emoção que um fotógrafo que visita pela primeira vez um laboratório!

    • sarahjcoleman
      September 29, 2014

      Thank you! Someone translated the blog into Spanish soon after I wrote it; I don’t have the link, but if you search online you might be able to find it!

  58. juliette
    October 14, 2014

    I’m so glad to see these posts alive and kicking still. Long live the darkroom!

  59. casadresden
    October 14, 2014

    I love to see these posts alive and kicking. Long live the darkroom!

  60. indiakarl
    October 24, 2014

    analog is dead. we will deal with it.

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This entry was posted on February 17, 2012 by in Books, Interviews, Novels.
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