The Dark Arts...


Just finished a darkroom session printing up just three images from one roll of film (36 exposures) from my last trip to Paris. You might think that three is not very many from 36, but ask the digital photographers out there and... that's not a bad hit-rate!

One of the images, a long shot down Passage du Grand-Cerf with a girl, sitting and having a cigarette outside her place of work, posed a familiar problem I've had during this project. Namely, balancing skin tones with the bright, sunlit, tiled floor of the Passage, and the glass ceiling.

In the darkroom I might make 9 or 10 test strips until I achieve the right balance – not just the length of the exposure, but also the grading (the contrast levels of the photographic print). The test strips were on different areas of this image. On the girl’s skin tones, the tiled floor in the foreground, and lastly on the glass ceiling in the upper background. As I have three different exposure times for this one print, I use the “Dark Arts” of Dodging (lightening areas) and Burning (darkening areas) under the enlarger light to produce the desired photograph.

And then there is the “Dry down” factor. Dry down is the phenomenon responsible for many fibre prints being sent to the waste-bin. The wet print looks bright and glows, but the following morning the highlights in the dried print are dull and the print lacks the contrast and punch from the previous evening. My experience in using Ilford Multigrade IV Fiber Glossy Paper tells me to subtract about 8% of the enlarger exposure time – once I think that I've achieved the right result on the wet print.

I make notes, both on the back of the final print and in a notebook, of the exposure time, the enlarger aperture number, the contrast grade, the developing times (developer and fix), and the date. Also, in the notebook, I record the enlarger height and the temperature of the developer.

Fibre Paper will buckle unless dried correctly. After washing for 45 minutes, the wet print is dried in the darkroom, pegged from a Sheila Maid clothes airer until 95% dry – this takes about 90 minutes. Then it is flattened overnight between sheets of rigid blotting paper in my 20 x 16 inch Ademco dry-mounting press (switched off).

The next morning I open the press to examine my work. Will it be back to the darkroom?