It took a Dark Room to Get Me Here
So, this blog in its rambling disjointed fashion is a way for me to share my thoughts and images.
Here’s a kind of potted history of how I came to be shooting Fuji cameras and rummaging about in darkrooms.
Between 2010 and 2012 I was lucky enough to spend a day week at a quirky adult education establishment down in Somerset. I was doing a DCPA (Distinctions Course in Professional and Applied Photography). Essentially a degree course in photography. The thing I really loved about this course, is that we were doing primarily traditional analog photography and spending a lot of time in the darkroom learning and honing the art of printing archival quality prints on fibre based paper. My Mondays for those 2 years were spent in the darkroom with my peers. At 45 years old I one of the youngest in the class. Of the 10 -15 students, most of them were in their 50’s or 60’s and even though several of them had finished their degrees and had either Licentiateships or Associateships from the Royal Photographic Society, would still turn up to print and be tutored. Our tutor was Ron Frampton a charismatic 70 something year old with a total passion and dedication for the art of photography. I’m not sure he’d even used a digital camera, for him it was all about film and the process of producing a quality black and white print that would stand the test of time.
I learnt more about photography in those days in the darkroom than I’d learnt before or since. During our lunch-break we’d each take a turn in laying out the images that would be used for our portfolio exam pieces. The critique was, frankly, brutal. Constructive and well made, but never-the-less brutal. I’d layout a dozen images at the start of a term for my panel and they’d be given the thumbs up or thumbs down by my peers. In turn I’d get to critique their work. As an image was removed from my panel, I’d learn a little more and then spend the next week shooting several rolls of film to replace it. Inevitably over the course of the term, my entire panel would be replaced. The theme would be the same as I’d started the term with, but the images would be replaced. Then near the end of term, even my newer images would be removed as the quality of the entire panel had been lifted, anda once loved shot would be relegated.
My photography, the way I saw and read other peoples images and my darkroom skills were all being improved, it was a great way to learn and I got to see prints from others that would literally make me weep they were so good.
The darkroom was basically a long thin room, with workbenches down each side. On the benches were 10 enlargers 1 for each of the students printing that day. At the end of the room was a set of printing trays and a sink, We’d all select the negative we’d be printing from that day and once the lights went out we’d do our first test print. This would usually just be a section of the entire print on a small strip of fibre paper. Once we’d exposed the paper we’d drop the print into a developing tray and start the timer. once it’d had it’s 2 minutes or whatever we’d shout out and whomever was on the developing tray would drop the print into the stop bath. A minute later we’d shout out and whoever was on the stop tray would move it to the fixing tray. eventually the prints from each of the students would be in a tray in the sink with a flow of water.
At this point, our tutor Ron, would take a print out of the water, place it on smooth vertical white board, where the action of the water would allow it to stick. He’d muse over it and ask the students what they thought then come up with timings for the next iteration of the print. We’d then turn out the lights set our timers and print on a full sheet of 19’ x 12’ Ilford warm tone fibre paper. At the time I was in college it was £50.00 for 25 sheets, This was not a cheap day out. We’d all expose our paper, develop, stop, fix. Then one by the prints would go up on the wall. Someone would say “yes I like that but the tree on the left hand side is a little bright” so then you’d make a note and for the next iteration you’d dodge that area out. On a good day in that darkroom you’d print your image maybe 7 times. Each iteration of the print taking you that little bit closer to a “finished” print. Usually the last two prints of the day would be considered as “finished” prints. It’s interesting to look back on those first five or six “working prints” to see what it took to to get to the final version. Some of the alterations would be subtle but the affect of those on the final image really did make a big difference.
One of my darkroom buddies, a guy I’ll call Hendon, had completed his Licentiateship the year before I had started and was working on his Associateship. He was shooting almost exclusively on film and introduced me to the Acros film stock. Although he would occasionally borrow my Canon 7d but always preferred to shoot on film and always reallyrocked it in the darkroom. His images were always a little moody and tended to be dark and edgy.
We chatted a lot about cameras and how the functionality of most cameras got in the way of actually shooting. Although I loved my Canon EOS 7D, there was something about the analogue cameras I shot that always seemed to make using them more pleasurable. Then in February of 2011 as we entered what would be our penultimate term, Fujifilm announced the Fuji X100. Hendon read the reviews of the X100 and then went to test-drive one. He immediately fell in love with that camera and pretty much spent his last penny to buy it. Most of his fellow students on the course thought he was crazy. Here they were, mainly shooting Mamiya 645’s or Roleliflex TLR’s serious, medium format cameras. The only person in the class who was really shooting digital regularly was me, when Hendon walked in carrying this little Fuji X100 and people realised you could not load a roll of film into it there were some raised eyebrows and sharp intakes of breath. Hendon was not to be daunted. That camera never left his side. He was already a passionate photographer, but having that camera seemed to change him. Although he loved the darkroom, and the process of creating a print, the Fuji freed him in more ways than one. Having the Fuji X100 changed Hendon’s life. He had a camera that looked and felt like a good rangefinder film camera. It was small, easy to use, and despite some of the issues of the early firmware it produced great results. Over the last five years, Hendon, has put everything he has into his photography, the one thing that has always been there are his Fuji cameras. He still has that X100, even though he now owns a couple of XT-1’s and a few lenses. He now gets regular work as a photographer and it keeps a roof over his head. He’s always been a photographer and he’d be able to work with any camera. Those Fuji’s have empowered him to move forward without getting in the way of his vision.
Seeing the output of Hendon’s work from the Fuji system was one of the main reasons that in 2013 I put down my Canon cameras and bought a Fuji X-Pro1. Having it, and now the X-Pro2 has not made me a better photographer but it has made me shoot more. The images I produce with the Fuji seem to have a little more soul and produce prints reminiscent of my time in the darkroom . I find the Fuji cameras easier to use, innovative, smaller and lighter, therefore find myself carrying it all the time. Meaning I never miss an opportunity to shoot. There is no perfect camera but the guys at Fuji do at least seem to listen to us photographers and have given us amazing tools to work with.