Year of the Darkroom

Last week, I conducted my first test of a darkroom I built at the Arab American Association of New York. This is the first step towards creating a film photography community in Bay Ridge. The idea originated through a meeting with artist Anna Lise Jensen. With generous equipment donations by Brazilian photographer Ig Mata (thank you, Ig!) and paper donations by Rona Merrill (in association with CatLABS of JP), it's one step closer to fruition.

Ultimately, we're trying to grow this community by running photography classes, printing classes and renting darkroom time. After a few hours of cleaning and preparing, I found a place for three enlargers, a tray system, the enlarging timer, filters and a healthy collection of books. With all that taken care of, it was time to print. I photographed the AAANY's staff in April and decided to print and gift the shot as a thank you for their huge role in this project.

The test was a success, despite multiple annoying moments. Since 2011, I've been in a darkroom once. I forgot how calm one must be when printing. Waiting for the test strips, minutes at a time, in a cramped, dark space, only to find out your exposure is nowhere near close is an exercise in patience. Being years out of practice did not help to curb my frustrations.

This is a drawn-out, sophisticated process that demands your full concentration and an otherworldly attention to detail for a successful session. Yet, holding the final print and closely examining its subtle gradation between white, black and gray is an experience like no other.

If you're interested, please follow me on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter for updates as the darkroom evolves.

Darkroom: Chemicals mixed, room ready

Today's negative: frame 32
Darkroom: Loaded in the negative holder
Darkoom: In the Light
Darkoom: In the Light
Darkroom: Here's the projected photo
Darkroom: Focus checked with the grain enlarger

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The first print! 10s of light at f/8 through the enlarger

Darkroom: 3, 6, 9, and 12 seconds. I am way off
Darkroom: More test prints and strips
Darkroom: Getting closer. The girl on the far left needs to be burned in. Her shirt is pure white, making the photo very unbalanced
Darkroom: Far left girl refuses to blend in. May I present my half-assed solution: A dodge and burn template, cut to size, made out of restaurant menus
Darkroom: DONE. Far left girl needed NINE ADDITIONAL SECONDS of dodging and burning, compared to 11 seconds for the entire photo
Darkroom: Start to finish washing in the sink
Darkroom: Start to finish washing in the sink
Darkroom: The four finished prints drying
Darkroom: This is what happens when you don't use fixer
Darkroom: This is also what happens when you don't use fixer
Darkroom: Seeing double. Panoramic aftermath.

A Continuing Struggle

Every day, I am thrown into a continuing struggle between recognizing what makes a photograph outstanding and inserting that quality into my work. Great work has a quality that can't be defined, yet is universally recognizable. With that being the case, as an artist, reaching this level is infuriating. With each photograph, I hope that the magical combination of timing and placement has benefited me, that the Gods have thrown me a bone. Shooting is exciting, developing rolls is exciting, reviewing the scans is not. Consciously capturing an undefinable quality, I'm realizing, is an exercise in futility.

I can compose a photo. I can pick out what to add or subtract from my frame. Regarding that missing 1%, I am stumped. In my free time, I look through my little collection of photo books and my jaw drops when observing what those before me captured while using the same equipment as myself.

Sometimes, these moments are unplanned: a little girl's smile, a man peeking out from his umbrella for a second, two posh dogs seemingly walking their rich owners. Happy accidents.

In my last batch of scans, one of the best photos was one I took when advancing to the first frame on my M2. I wasn't even looking through the viewfinder! If that can work but my inspired attempts at composition do not, what have I learned? Anything? After five years of shooting, I am marginally closer to understanding what I'm doing and why.

I think about quitting every day. I won't, but it crosses my mind. Photography represents a unique problem: timing. Illustrators can return to their drawing pad, painters, to their easel. With photography, your canvas and subjects are moving. You must recognize the moment and freeze it perfectly while under immense time constraints. Milliseconds matter.

Photography is a mercurial art. I am nowhere near cracking its inner workings. Despite the frustrations and the expense, I am still searching.

André Kertész -  East Walk of Conservatory Pond, Central Park, 1944

André Kertész - East Walk of Conservatory Pond, Central Park, 1944

Ken Schles -  Melanie at Veselka, 1986

Ken Schles - Melanie at Veselka, 1986

David Godlis -  Patti Smith, Bowery, 1976

David Godlis - Patti Smith, Bowery, 1976