Saturday, January 8, 2011

setting up a darkroom on a dime

I've been developing my own 35mm and 120 film (both color and b/w) for a little over two years now. About a year and a half ago, I began thinking seriously (however briefly) about setting up a darkroom. Problem was, I could always come up with plenty of good reasons why I couldn't (or shouldn't) continue thinking seriously about setting up a darkroom: I didn't have the space; start up costs were extremely daunting (especially so with no COLA in sight and all these furloughs!); the learning curve would be way too steep; I wouldn't have the time or patience to learn something new and do well at it; I should really be working on my book and worrying about getting tenure, and so on and so on.

And I have to say, of all the reasons I came up with, the lack of space and lack of start-up funds were the most compelling. Before I moved into this apartment, I was living in the attic of this house and that apartment was so small, even tank development could be tough. Never mind that it was hard to find (or create) a truly light-tight space up there. The first time I attempted to reel film in the closet, I locked myself in. [Lesson learned: test doors with really old locks and knobs before closing yourself inside a closet.]

With the book done and tenure materials submitted, and having moved into a much larger place, I began to reconsider setting up a darkroom. Really, all that stood in my way were the start-up costs (did I mention the lack of COLA and furloughs? arghh!) and my fear of looking stupid, not knowing what I'm doing and/or being incredibly overwhelmed with new information.

About three months ago, I began researching and reading about enlargers. I learned pretty quickly that there was no way I would be able to purchase a new one. Ebay seemed the logical choice for used enlargers but the shipping for something that heavy often times was (and understandably so) outrageous. I figured that short of someone peddling enlargers door-to-door, the darkroom dream would have to wait.

In the meantime, in the hopes of making myself feel better, I tried to come up with reasons why setting up a darkroom would be a waste of time, money, brain-power and space. The best reason I could come up with was this: Photoshop. Certainly, I could continue to scan in, print, and/or upload my developed negatives as I'd been doing since August 2008. Plus, working with layers, filters and textures would allow me to more or less approximate the kind of stuff I was interested in doing in the darkroom. Then again, I'd be missing out on having the darkroom experience. Unlike those I've met who have recently turned away from digital and returned to film and to the darkroom, I'd never taken a photography class, never had access to a darkroom. Even if it proved to be a tremendous hassle, I wanted to be able to say that I too had had some darkroom experience.

And perhaps the most compelling reason to continue the darkroom dream was this: Christina Z. Anderson's most excellent Experimental Photography Workbook. There were (and I guess at this point, I should say "there are") so many techniques I read about here that I wanted to try. While the text includes some experiments and techniques that don't require an enlarger, the majority of those I really wanted to try did require access to an enlarger--chromoskedasic sabattier, liquid emulsions, lith printing, toning, selective development, bleaching, bleach-etch/mordan├žage, and so on.

Flash forward to fall of 2010. The book had been completed and all my tenure materials had been submitted and Chris and I took a weekend trip to Pennsylvania. We were in the most flea-bitten of shops when we came across a student starter enlarger kit that appeared to be 50 bucks. Not wanting to pay full price for the kit, we asked that the seller be contacted for his/her best price. Before leaving PA, we stopped back in the store (seems their phone had been disconnected) and learned that the "1" had fallen off the price tag and that the actual price for the kit was 150 bucks. The seller said we could have it for 85 bucks but this was 50 bucks more than I was hoping to spend. As luck would have it, we found in another corner of the shop an old Omega B22. Save for its plastic cover, the piece was in very good condition. Better yet, it was something the seller was willing to let us have for 30 bucks.

The next step involved converting the study to a darkroom. It was important to me that the room continue to serve a dual-function (i.e., as a study and a sometimes darkroom), so Chris hung curtains on two of the three doors of the study. With the curtains drawn, the space was light tight. When I'm not needing the light-tightness, I can pull the curtains to the side, open the doors and the study pretty much looks as it always had. Total cost for making the room light-tight was about 30 bucks. 20 bucks for the curtain and about 10 bucks for the tension rods and extra hardware needed to hang the curtains. Not bad. 60 bucks and I was more or less ready to go.

Well, almost. I still needed a safety light, trays and tongs. Technically speaking, I also needed photo paper and paper developer, but I happened to have some of that on hand from the brief time during which I thought seriously about doing pinhole paper negatives.

I purchased a safelight, a three-pack of 8x10" trays and tongs from B&H, bringing my total cost for the darkroom set up to 104 bucks. [Note: My goal was to have a darkroom up and running for 100 bucks and I might have managed this had I opted to forgo the tongs. . .as it is, I tend to use my fingers more often than the tongs.]

Since setting up and testing out the darkroom, I've decided to invest in the materials that I'll need in order to work with 6x6 negatives. To this end, I've needed to purchase a 75mm lens, a 6x6 holder, a 39mm lensboard and retaining ring. Compared to the cost of the enlarger (the enlarger only came with all the materials needed to work with 35mm negatives), these items seem costly. To get everything I needed (on ebay, as usual) it cost me another 70 dollars.

All in all though, not bad. We got the darkroom up and running for 174 dollars. Where the real expense will begin kicking in, I'm afraid, is with the different papers and chemicals I'm eager to try.

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