I’ve never been one for math, and yet my head swims with numbers as I walk across the landscape with a camera in my hands.

Set aperture to f18. The light meter is recommending a shutter speed of 1/500, but there’s mostly snow around here, so that means I should let more light into the lens if I want white to be white instead of white to be gray. Should I change my shutter speed to 1/250? 1/125? Try both and hope for the best?

While my own eyes clearly see the contrasting gray of this maple to the white of the snow, the eyes of my X-370 Minolta camera are not as trained as my own. I must dilate its pupil and tell my camera how slowly to blink so the memory of this naked, snowcovered tree here on the Common is as clear in the camera’s eye as it is in mine.

When it’s time to print my developed film onto the light-sensitive paper, I hang the curtain and turn off the lights. It takes a minute for my eyes to adjust to the near-perfect black of this darkroom, but soon I can see the soft glow of the timers and the orange safe light. Even this amount of light is unacceptable in film development, but since I’m printing, I can afford to let it slide.

I remove a strip of film from my archival sleeve and select the photo I want to enlarge: it’s that maple again. I load it into the enlarger and project the image onto a piece of cardboard. I don’t spend as much time straightening the image and manipulating the focus as I would if this was the final print. But it isn’t. I need to do a test strip first to ensure the best printing exposure I can.

The timer is set to 25 seconds. I turn off the image and take a quarter sheet of printing paper from its light-tight box. This quarter sheet replaces the cardboard. It’s time to make another exposure. The cardboard becomes a whole new tool. While the enlarger spotlights my film and floods the paper with light, I hold that cardboard over my 4/5’s of my image and count five seconds before moving it to reveal another fifth. By doing so, I’m exposing this print to five different exposures.

Lights off, and into the developer tray it goes. I agitate the tray gently and keep an eye on the timer for exactly one minute. There are four chemical baths in all: the developer, the stop bath, fixer, and fixer remover. These chemicals make the image appear on the paper and also prevent light from further affecting the print.

As my test strip sits in the fixer remover, I turn the lights on and pick an exposure I like. While lining up my final print and setting the timer, I take a minute to compare this process to digital photography. My digital camera and computer do this entire process for me. The camera detects the light and sets the aperture and shutter speed for itself so my picture comes out every time. If I want to make a print, all I need to do is run a cable from my camera to the computer and it takes about two minutes to download however many hundreds of photos stored in its memory. From there, it’s as easy as hitting “print.”

Easier? Absolutely. Faster? Of course. Anyone can see why digital has become the standard, so what is it about darkrooms and film that interests people so much?

As I squeegee and slide my print of the maple tree into the drying racks, I look around the darkroom, which might as well be in a museum for how quickly they’re disappearing, and realize how happy I’ve been to learn this art form while it’s still accessible. •

McKenzie McCann is a freshman at Sterling College.

Filed Under: Environmental Humanities

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