Inside the Darkroom with John Blakemore

I had the opportunity to join famous UK photographer John Blakemore for a black and white printing workshop in the darkroom at a studio called the Photo Parlour outside Nottingham this past weekend. It was my first real adventure in darkroom work and I wanted to share some of the process for anyone who is curious what working in a darkroom is like. I should warn you - it's addicting!

The workshop was held at the Derby Photo Parlour, which is a community darkroom and developing studio run by Dan Wheeler. Through his relationship with local famous UK photographer John Blakemore, Dan is able to offer some workshops to a small group of students who want to learn from one of the masters of the darkroom. The workshop ran over two full days and although I was tired at the end, I was still eager to keep printing!

Day 1 of the workshop began with John running through some of his work to describe tonality, visualization, the zone system, and his general philosophy towards many things! After a lunch break we headed into the darkroom to watch John as he made about six prints from one of his negatives. The powerful thing was to watch him explore a negative-  taking it from a dark and gloomy image to a bright and uplifting image....... all from a single negative. My brain was going a million miles an hour trying to keep up, and I couldn't wait to get my hands wet in some chemicals the following day. 

 John laid out many of his prints for us to inspect and discuss - having a photographer deconstruct their work is one of the best ways to learn a new technique.

John laid out many of his prints for us to inspect and discuss - having a photographer deconstruct their work is one of the best ways to learn a new technique.

Looking at some of the prints John made under our watch. Although it's a basic iPhone photo, you can still tell the difference in tonality between the two prints, which are made from the same negative.

The second day was where we got our own turn at printing on the series of enlargers available in the darkroom. Under the guidance of Dan and John, we selected a negative to print and began setting up home in the darkroom. 

 The row of enlargers on the dry side of the darkroom.

The row of enlargers on the dry side of the darkroom.

If you've never been in a darkroom, I'll give you a general layout. It's broken into two sides: a wet side where the chemicals for developing the paper are kept, along with drums to wash prints, and a dry side which is where the enlargers are located. Wet should never enter dry and vice versa. Despite the name, a darkroom isn't totally dark - special red lights called "safelights" are on to provide some light from which to work, but it's faint and not good lighting for really evaluating your work, so you are regularly exiting the darkroom to view prints in the daylight. Access in and out is via a special rounded door that spins so that light from outside cannot enter the room. It's a cramped little door and looks like it should belong on the side of a space station, but it works!

 The wet side of the darkroom. Each tray holds a different developing chemical. The black and silver thing at the end is the light tight door.

The wet side of the darkroom. Each tray holds a different developing chemical. The black and silver thing at the end is the light tight door.

An enlarger is essentially a projector with a timer on it. You load your negative, set the timer, and the light in the enlarger stays on for until the timer expires. Below the enlarger is where the image is projected onto an easel that holds a piece of special paper coated in an emulsion. As the enlarger projects the image onto the paper, the emulsion reacts (just link with normal film). The "disturbing" thing is that you don't get to see the photo appear on the paper immediately. In fact, when you are done on an enlarger it looks like you've just made a white piece of paper!

 The enlarging station I worked from - this is obviously before the lights went out for the day. The timer is the big orange button on the back right corner.

The enlarging station I worked from - this is obviously before the lights went out for the day. The timer is the big orange button on the back right corner.

From there you cross to the wet side and submerge the paper into a developer bath for around a minute (depending on the paper). While the paper soaks, an image begins to appear on the paper, which is extremely gratifying to see! From there the paper moves to a stop bath which (as the name implies) stops the developer from reacting further. Finally it's into the fixer, which (again, clever naming) fixes the image into the paper permanently. Technically there is one more step, which is to wash the paper for hours to remove these strong chemicals as they could degrade the image over time.

 One of my prints (this is "Dali's Tree") in the day and being reviewed in the daylight after developing.

One of my prints (this is "Dali's Tree") in the day and being reviewed in the daylight after developing.

This is all overly simplified of course...... how long to you set the enlarger's timer to project the image onto the paper if you can't see the image appearing on the paper in real time? How do you get it dark enough / light enough? This is where the real magic of the darkroom comes in..... before making an actual print you first make a series of test strips at different intervals to help you select the proper exposure time. You then make a straight print before starting to play with dodging and burning (selective darkening or lightening of particular areas). Because so much of this process is human driven, no two prints will ever come out exactly the same, which is the fun of it! I can press "print" on my inkjet machine and get the same photograph repeatedly, but I didn't work for it, my sweat isn't in it, and it's lacking personality. Each of the prints I made that day have their own personality and feeling. When I hang them on the wall, the extra effort will mean a lot more than so many of my other prints.

 Test strips! It took many of these to really dial in the proper exposure times for the print. In the case of this test strip, each "step" is an extra three seconds exposed to the light.

Test strips! It took many of these to really dial in the proper exposure times for the print. In the case of this test strip, each "step" is an extra three seconds exposed to the light.

 More test strips! The bottom one helped me determine that between 13-15 seconds was the proper exposure. The one in the white tray is a side by side of 13 and 15 seconds to compare those exposures more closely.

More test strips! The bottom one helped me determine that between 13-15 seconds was the proper exposure. The one in the white tray is a side by side of 13 and 15 seconds to compare those exposures more closely.

John was a fantastic instructor - he offered many tips and tricks for improving each print and wasn't afraid to challenging you outside your comfort zone. I particularly appreciated the challenge he offered and have already started shooting some new work with his advice in the back of my mind. 

 John reviewing some of the work we did- in this case, one of my prints.

John reviewing some of the work we did- in this case, one of my prints.

 John offering a quick primer in touching up a few spots on a finished print.

John offering a quick primer in touching up a few spots on a finished print.

While I'm here in the UK I will continue to visit the Photo Parlour to refine my work. When I move back stateside I'll probably build my own darkroom, but for now, there is much to learn! I cannot wait to get back into the darkroom and would strongly recommend this class to anyone interested in improving or learning to print in the darkroom.

 I came away with six prints which were then left hanging to dry in my bathroom at home. Unlike film, which dries in roughly an hour, the prints take over eight hours to fully dry.

I came away with six prints which were then left hanging to dry in my bathroom at home. Unlike film, which dries in roughly an hour, the prints take over eight hours to fully dry.