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THE RAMBLINGS of a Darkroom Dinosaur

Have you ever wondered if you are a dinosaur, metaphorically speaking that is. Sometimes I do… steadfastly continuing a tradition that the digital revolution almost succeeded to push to the confines of history: photographic darkroom printing.


For me, what has been lost with the digital age is the ‘magic’; the sense of wonder associated with the early history of photography, the physicality of the process and the relationship of maker to that which is made. I do not reject digital practices, on the contrary they are very much part of how I work, but I have chosen a dual path where analogue and digital work to each other’s strengths to achieve outstanding results.


Photogram by Katayoun Dowlatshahi 2024


Apart from those who choose to study photography, the current generation of young people have little or no concept of how images were formed with chemical reactions prior to the digital age, nor do they understand the fundamental nature and essence of light. So, it is always a delight to see the reaction of children working in a darkroom for the first time, exploring and experimenting with Photograms and Chemigrams. Their excitement at being enveloped in a dark space, so reminiscent of being in a lightless cave, and working under red or amber safe lights. The tactile nature of analogue photography is a novel experience for them.

 

What inspired me to write this article from a more personal perspective as an artist was reading the current edition of the PhotoResearcher Journal[i], which has dedicated its entire content to a series of research articles on the history and societal impact of darkrooms. A fascinating read!


Silverwood Studio and Darkroom 2024


To gain some context, lets travel back to 1988 – 1991 during my undergraduate days in Printmaking and Photography at Edinburgh College of Art. These three formative years were set against the back drop of Poll Tax protests imposed by the ‘Iron Lady’ of politics, Margaret Thatcher, which was particularly contentious in Scotland; student sit-ins demonstrating against the Tory policy to end all student grants; apartheid boycotts and the subsequent release of Nelson Mandela from prison in South Africa; the peaceful revolution that led to the dismantling of the ‘Iron Curtain’ between East and West Berlin, and the Tiananmen Square revolt in China. Those were indeed heady days!


Poll Tax Demonstrations in Scotland © Daily Record


Politics aside, darkrooms were a firm fixture in all walks of life, and at Art College I was fortunate to have access to the main darkroom in the Photography Department and a smaller darkroom in printmaking, which was also furnished with a Cibachrome[ii] colour printer, next to a room for exposing photo-etching plates and a room with traditional papermaking facilities. Etching, photography and paper making became my chosen disciplines.


Computers however, were still in their infancy. The first  Apple MacIntosh  SE/30[iii] desktop computers had not long made an appearance in the graphic design and typesetting labs giving us access to cutting edge technology.


A very young Steve Jobs on the front cover of the premier issue of Macworld.

 

In 1989, alongside my peers, I was introduced to a new computer capable of astounding digital graphics and manipulation that was on national tour.[iv] Only a handful had been built at an exorbitant cost with new software capability that provided the means for photographic manipulation, far exceeding other desktop computers. The software capability of the computer was demonstrated to us; a photograph of the US President Ronald Reagan shaking hands with the Palestinian PLO leader Yasser Arafat, a convincing artifice. This was five years before the unprecedented and very much real image of Arafat shaking hands with the Israeli Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in the presence of the US President Bill Clinton in 1993. I don’t think any of us fully comprehended the consequence this new technology would have on analogue photographic practices and society as a whole.


In the 1980s a program called 'Display' was written by software engineer Thomas Knoll and his brother John Knoll, subsequently renamed ‘ImagePro’, before being purchased by the company Adobe and rebranded and marketed as ‘Photoshop' from 1990. So, it wouldn’t take a stretch of the imagination to see that at Edinburgh College of Art we had undoubtedly been introduced to the first beta version of Photoshop.

Within the timeframe of those momentous years the first marketable digital camera was launched in 1991, called the Logitech Fotoman’, made by Logitech in Switzerland; in 1989 the World Wide Web (AKA the internet) was invented by Tim Berners-Lee, at Lucerne in Switzerland. This was quickly followed in 1992 by the launch of the JPEG file format[v], by the computer industry. In combination, these innovations paved the way for the digital revolution that changed the course of human history and brought about the demise of an analogue system in our society, heavily reliant on the use of photographic darkrooms.


The reality, though, is that a world with less chemical waste is a positive consequence of the digital age. So much change has taken place in commercial settings, in hospitals, laboratories and the creative industries. The digital age also paved the way for further innovation.

But let’s not underestimate an analogue tradition that has endured for almost two hundred years. What the digital revolution did for analogue photography was to make it a specialism, which in the hands of passionate artists, photographers and filmmakers has given the medium exposure and made analogue processes more desirable to collectors.


A true advocate for 16mm analogue film is artist Tacita Dean, she “both celebrates the beauty of analogue filmmaking and mourns its demise”[vi]. She believes digital technologies cannot replace the unique qualities of analogue films. “She especially values the surprises the material brings. Digital technology, Dean says, ‘neither breathes nor wobbles, but tidies up our society.’”[vii] Her extraordinary installation called ‘Film’ at Tate Modern in 2011 was a visual ode to analogue film. It was a demonstration of the beauty of film and Tacita’s mastery and invention, particularly her use of masks. Her concerted efforts lead to the reversal of Kodak’s decision to cease the production of 16mm analogue film. In fact in just the last few years, demand for analogue film has risen so dramatically that Kodak have returned to a  24/7 operation manufacturing film.


Photographers have been blurring the boundaries between photography and art for many years, experimenting with ‘photoshop’ techniques, as early as the 19th century. Photography, emulating the conventions of fine art painting, was taken to new heights with the introduction of Combination Printing, first described in its most basic form, by Hippolyte Bayard (1801-1887) as a method for adding clouds to landscape scenes in the issue of La Lumiere in 1851, and excelled by Gustave Le Gray (1820–1884) in his landscape work. He used two glass plate negatives, one exposed for the sky and another for the scene below.


This approach was then developed into a more complex technique by Oscar G. Rejlander (1813-1875) in his controversial work ‘The Two Ways of Life’, exhibited in 1857, and by Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901). Robinson laid the foundations of Pictorialism in his publication on photography[viii]; also originating the term “combination printing”. To make up a fictional narrative, he exposed onto glass plates isolated elements of a composition, the glass was masked and sometimes cut, rather like a jigsaw puzzle, these were pieced together and blended with extraordinary precision in the darkroom. [ix]



Henry Peach Robinson ‘When the Days Work is Done’ 1877

Wet Collodion glass plates

Photographs by Katayoun Dowlatshahi, taken during my doctorate research work at the National Media Museum in Bradford

Now part of the Royal Photographic Society Collection, housed at the V&A in London - 2012FR7692

 

 This approach was not favoured by all photographers, in particular Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1936), an English photographer, who advocated for photography to be an independent art form through his publication ‘Naturalistic Photography’, promoting truth over artifice.


Innovative camera-less techniques, direct onto silver papers, by the leading lights of the Bauhaus, such as the Hungarian artist Laszlo Moholy Nagy (1895-1946), and solarisation techniques that ManRay (1890-1976) and Lee Miller (1907-1977) stumbled upon whilst working in the darkroom, are part of what make analogue film so special to work with. The new discovery inspired their contemporaries to experiment, including many fascinated with Surrealism, such as Yevonde (1893-1975).


Tessa Worsdell (née Joby) by Yevonde

Solarised bromide print on grey card mount, 23 September 1960

Photographs Collection - NPG x29835 - © Mary Evans Picture Library - Reproduced with kind permission


The unpredictable nature of light and chemistry has been exploited in surprising ways by many contemporary artists and photographers such as Garry Fabian Miller. “Miller speaks of photographic materials and the way they should be used with reverence. His own work would be impossible without Cibachrome. He speaks of the particular tactile qualities of this paper, which he has become used to manipulating, in large sheets, in darkness: he thinks of Cibachrome paper as being as natural and beautiful as a leaf. He regards the early days of photography, when it was shaped by chemicals and paper, as a time of great excitement – which lost its potential when the camera arrived.”[x] 

‘Toward a Solar Eclipse’ April 4th, 1998

Light, oil, dye destruction print (Cibachrome)


 Inspired by a long lineage of artists working with direct light onto light sensitive materials, I also took this path to draw with light during my doctorate. I turned my research studio into a giant camera by controlling the sunlight streaming through the window as if it were an aperture. I draped hand made pigment Carbon tissues, sensitive to ultra violet light, through a glass installation I had cut and positioned against the wall and exposed them for 15 minutes. My “giant camera” was subsequently converted into a functioning, though temporary, darkroom. I transferred my pigment tissues to glass and papers in cold water, followed by hot water development to reveal fragments of beautiful light.


‘Drawing Fragments of Light 1’ 2004

Carbon Transfer - pigment print on glass

© Katayoun Dowlatshahi

 

In the early history of photography, during the heyday of wet collodion on glass plates, photographers had no choice but to create mobile darkrooms when working in the field. The light sensitivity of the silver on the plates diminished in minutes as the collodion dried so speed was of the essence. Ingenuity was one of many skills needed to be a photographer. Darkrooms were therefore both transient and fixed, evolving with every new photographic invention.


A 'remarkable' Victorian travelling photographer's studio that once catered to 19th-century seaside holidaymakers in Dorset.

It was owned and operated by pioneering photographer John Pouncy and his son Walter. A small darkroom was accommodated in

one section of the horse drawn carriage.


Illustration of a wet plate mobile darkroom in a 19th century publication.

 

Darkroom techniques have also evolved since photography’s inception in the 1820’s with Joseph Nicéphore Niépce famous rooftop image captured for posterity. Terms such a ‘masking’, ‘dodging’, ‘burning’, bleaching’, ‘flashing’, ‘split toning’ and ‘intensification’ are rooted in the language of traditional darkroom photography. Only the first three terms have been adopted by programs such as Adobe Photoshop to describe the same actions; the others are intrinsic to the chemical foundation of analogue photography. An unmanipulated image can be transformed into a dynamic work of art in the hands of highly skilful and experienced technicians and photographers, as base metal is transmuted into gold by alchemists.


A clear example of a before and after shot of an image manipulated in the darkroom with a complex array of exposures. Magnum image of James Dean in Times Square by Dennis Stock[xi]

Going back even further, there were predecessors in the field as early as the 18th century such as the notable but not well-known Elizabeth Fulhame, a late eighteenth-century chemist and her contemporary Thomas Wedgwood (1771–1805), the son of the famous Josiah Wedgwood[xii]. They sought to apply the light sensitive and reductive properties of metals to the creative industries[xiii].  What they were not able to establish was a means to permanently fix their experiments.


I applaud any educational institution that has not dismantled their darkrooms. Yes, there was a decline in their use whilst all the world revelled in the art of digital photography and film and paper manufacturers were badly hit by this decline, but time has demonstrated a strengthening in the sector and a demand has risen once again for analogue techniques. How can a university photography department teach the subject without having the resources to demonstrate the fundamental techniques of wet based processes alongside digital ones. Surely the opportunity to study photography is also an opportunity to think in lateral ways and experiment with and without cameras in unpredictable ways.  Even though I was going against the flow, I kept my darkroom practice going.


My studios were all adapted into flexible working spaces, doubling up as darkrooms. Early in my career and undaunted by scale, I even resorted to using an old stone shed with leaky holes in the roof and doors as a temporary darkroom to expose and develop a print that was 120cm wide x 300cm high with the help of two willing photographers. Those were fun days for me of experimenting and pushing the boundaries of scale in my work. I devised a rainwater guttering system as developing trays to cater for the scale of the prints I was working on, after my first attempt proved very challenging and took up the full length of my studio floor; a health and safety nightmare. A wheelie bin was a useful print washer. More recently, I set up a temporary dark space in a woodland setting to directly prepare a large table for a giant botanical cyanotype print.



 Photographs by Katayoun Dowlatshahi of a temporary darkroom set up to coat the table with cyanotype chemistry.


Having taught myself Carbon printing as part of my doctorate research between 2000-2005, I fully integrated this historic process into my studio practice in 2019[xiv], and now I teach it to others. I practice a safer method, using Diazo, instead of Potassium Dichromate, as a more stable sensitising salt and use hot water to develop images, minimising any environmental impact, especially when working with non-toxic pigments. I enjoy the workflow between my darkroom and studio, which has also been adapted to work under ultra violet safe light conditions. I continue to process black and white films that require total darkness. My workflow consists of digitising my black and white films. I work with Adobe software to adjust my images, and as I do with my digital colour images, split the channels and apply an adjustment curve to each file before sending them to be printed as enlarged silver halide Imagesetter film for contact printing with my chosen historic process.


 Photograph by Katayoun Dowlatshahi - A Carbon print with yellow and magenta, awaiting the next layer.

© Katayoun Dowlatshahi

 

Though it is a challenging technique, Carbon Printing is rising in popularity for the discerning photographer wanting to re-engage with the making process to produce exceptional quality, archivally stable, colour and black & white images onto a wide range of substrates. Looking to the future, Carbon printing has so much potential to an artist wishing to push the boundaries of the technique. Other historic processes still have mass appeal such as Cyanotypes, Ambrotypes, Silver Gelatine and Platinum printing.


A new generation of innovative darkroom practitioners are exploring plant based chemistry, called Anthotypes, to enable them to work in sustainable ways.[xv]  I love the fact that vitamin C together with rosemary, seaweed or coffee are active compounds in film and paper developers. These are early days but promising none-the-less. [xvi]


The analogue sector will never be as large as it was before the shift to digital, but in the hands of creative specialists, the field of analogue and historic darkroom photography is flourishing once more.



[i] PhotoResearcher The Darkroom, Chemical, Cultural, Industrial, published by European Society for the History of Photography, No. 41, 2024

[ii] A Cibachrome print is also known as a Dye Destruction print and Ilfochrome print. is a print made using a photographic printing process in which colour dyes embedded in the silver gelatine paper are selectively bleached away (destroyed) to form a full-colour image.

[iii] The Macintosh SE/30 is a personal computer designed, manufactured and sold by Apple Computer from January 1989 to October 1991. It is the fastest of the original black-and-white compact Macintosh series.

[iv] I am hazy about the name of that computer so have omitted it here.

[v] JPEG stands for the Joint Photographic Experts Group

[vi] Quote from the description of Tacita Dean’s work on Tate Modern‘s website ‘Kodak‘, Tacita Dean CBE, 2006 | Tate

[vii] Quote from the description of Tacita Dean’s work on Tate Modern‘s website ‘Kodak‘, Tacita Dean CBE, 2006 | Tate

[viii] Robinson, Henry Peach, Pictorial Effect in Photography: Being Hints on Composition and Chiaroscuro for Photographers, to Which is Added a Chapter on Combination Printing (London: Piper & Carter; Marion & Co., 1869).

[ix] Henry Peach Robinson’s collection of glass plate negatives are in the RPS collection at the V&A.

[x] From introduction by Mark Haworth-Booth in Elective Affinities by Susan Derges and Garry Fabian Miller, catalogue accompanying exhibition 12 April – 17 May 1996, Michael Hue-Williams Fine Art, 1996.

[xi] Photograph of James Dean by Dennis Stock is a Magnum Print, printed by Master Printmaker Pablo Inirio. Article appears on PetaPixel, Marked Up Photographs Show How Iconic Prints Were Edited in the Darkroom | PetaPixel

[xii] Josiah Wedgwood FRS (1730 – 1795) was an English potter, entrepreneur and abolitionist. He established a very successful pottery industry in Stoke on Trent.

[xiii] Schaaf, Larry J, Out of the Shadows : Herschel, Talbot, and the Invention of Photography (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992), pp 23-25.

[xiv] In 2019 I attended a masterclass in full colour carbon printing with The Wet Print in Valencia, in Spain.

[xvi] re.source, A publication conceived and published by The Sustainable Darkroom, 2022.

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Excellent blog! Thank you.

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