The Red Escape

Apr 12th 2010: Thoughts

(continuation from On a Roll)

Going to boarding school has clear advantages and disadvantages. On one side you are surrounded 24/7 by all the people you love, your best friends, you hang out, have fun, and you get to know everything about them. On the other side you are also surrounded 24/7 by all the people you dislike, or even hate, and you get to know everything about them, too. In my case the number of kids I disliked far outweighed the number of my friends. There is obvious value in growing a thick skin and learning to dealing with the unpleasant individuals in your life. I know that now. But as a child you don’t see it that way and so, throughout the years, you come up with creative ways to cope with those constant, forced interactions and the related stress. In 8th and 9th grade the darkroom was my escape. As head of the photo club I had full access to the school’s photo lab and so every Sunday morning I would get up, eat brunch in the cafeteria, and then disappear for several hours. Engulfed in dark red light, focused on the rather mechanical task of making small, 5×7 prints, with the radio playing soothingly in the background, all by myself for once, I was able to catch a break and just let go for a while.

Many things have changed over the years, but the darkroom has continued to be that very private and meditative escape. When you are there, the rest of world seizes to exist. In the red light you can barely see your current surroundings and all you are really left with are your photos, your music, and your thoughts. There is no rushing anything in there. The paper takes 1.5 minutes in the developer, 30 seconds in the stop bath, and 2 minutes in the fixer. And you cannot turn on the white light until it is in the fixer. So if you want to know if the print turned out the way you wanted to, and you do want to know, all you can do is wait in the dark and let your thoughts wander while the silver emulsion gradually changes.

As mentioned last week, I have been feeling a little stuck with the progress of my work. I have come to realize how important it is for my creative process to see the results while I am working on a project. My search for a public darkroom has had little success. The only suggestion given was to talk to a university downtown (1 hour commute each way). Not very ideal, especially with my nocturnal schedule. Since I am only looking to generate low-quality work prints, I concluded that it will likely be easier to build a simple darkroom of my own, with the goal of keeping things as cheap as possible. Turns out if you set yourself some acceptable limitations (35mm film, prints no bigger than 8×10 inch, RC paper only – that one hurts) it is quite inexpensive as you can skip most of the last-forever, professional grade equipment.

The largest obstacle is finding a cheap enlarger, which is that big thing with a lamp that projects image of the negative onto the paper. With a bit of luck I found a wonderful, robust, 30-something year old enlarger from Czechoslovakia (!) for less than $100 on www.mercadolibre.com, the Argentinean equivalent of ebay. You can get them for almost free through craigslist in the U.S., but down here everything, especially machinery in working condition regardless of age, has its price. The rest was straight forward and after picking up the enlarger today, I am proud to say I was able to make my first proof-of-concept print. I’m still having some electrical problems keeping me really diving into it, but a quick trip to the hardware store tomorrow should fix that, too, and I’ll be fully up and running and ready to escape the world once again.

Here’s a quick run-down on what it takes to build a quick-n-dirty darkroom in Buenos Aires:

Onetime Expenses: These are the items necessary to build your own darkroom. As public darkrooms often charge a fee by the hour and since I don’t need to spend anything on commuting, this darkroom should actually pay for itself over the next three months. Especially if I’m able to sell the enlarger again at the end. The total of $143 divides as follows:

  • 4 large tupperware bins for the different chemical baths: 48 pesos ($13)
  • Laundry pins to hang the prints to dry: 25 pesos ($7)
  • Red safety light: 58 pesos ($15)
  • Extension cord with bulb socket for the safety light: 42 pesos ($11)
  • Basic glass picture frame, bought just for the glass to make contact prints: 29 pesos ($8)
  • 35mm enlarger with lens and easel: 350 pesos ($90)
  • Cardboard, black trash bags, and tape to seal the bathroom from light: free (already have all of that)

Ongoing Expenses: Making prints requires chemicals and paper. Unfortunately the paper is twice the price of paper in the U.S., but there is little that can be done about that. It’s the cost of doing business. If this helps me with the progress of my work though, it makes the trip so much more worthwhile and is money well spent.

  • 100 sheets Ilford RC paper: 290 pesos ($75)
  • Dektol paper developer: 47 pesos ($12)
  • Argentinean stop bath chemical: free (plenty left from my film development to last me for the rest of my trip)
  • Ilford fixer: 30 pesos ($8)

There are a few nice-to-haves missing, most notably a timer for the enlarger and filters to control the paper’s contrast. I think I can deal without the first for now which is typically rare and expensive, but might need to buy the latter.

This is the third darkroom I have put together myself and by far the cheapest. I’m intrigued by how easy it was and going forward I think I’ll build more if I decide to stay somewhere for a little longer. It’s nice to have that little get-away of your own.

Update: After my first 7 hour nightly session I can attest the darkroom is fully functional (results below).

Posted in Thoughts by Ernst Bruening on April 12th, 2010 at 5:59 am.

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