Darkroom & Digital

I’m not sure how much the elaborate mark-ups by darkroom printer Pablo Inirio shown in Magnum and the Dying Art of Darkroom Printing on The Literate Lens blog will mean to even most photographers, and I think every darkroom printer evolved his or her own shorthand to remind them of the dances they performed when making a particular print from a particular negative. But they at least give some indication of the complexity of darkroom work to get the most from a negative, and why we sometimes got through many sheets of paper to achieve just the result we wanted.

But in a sense I don’t think these skills are dying, but have just been transferred to a new environment, because what lies behind them is still the ability to visualise what a print should look like. If anything this is even more important in front of the monitor than it is in the darkroom, and software has enhanced the possibilities there are for working with an image and given it more precision, allowing us greater control. Of course we can abuse this – and plenty do, as I think some of the images mentioned in my recent post Raw and Cooked do, but the same is true in the darkroom, and I can think of at least one photographer whose work for me is almost completely ruined by his insistence on heavy-handed lith printing of all of his work (its a technique that certainly suits a few images, but not one for general use.) And back when I started in photography, almost everyone printed their pictures very contrasty, with blocked shadows and empty whites. It sometimes worked, but most of the time it was just the fashion.

Making good digital prints, particularly in black and white isn’t easy, although the materials available to do so are now readily available. In the darkroom the choices are diminishing – Inirio mentions that he had to change to Ilford paper when Agfa closed, though at least I can reassure him that if Kodak stops making its stopbath – apparently one of his worries – it is pretty simple to produce your own to the same formula – and those from other manufacturers are in any case just as good. But for inkjet both materials and equipment are still being developed.

Usually now whenever I show black and white work I expect at least one photographer to come up to me and say how good it is to see there are still some people printing in the darkroom. I don’t always enlighten them, but normally they are very surprised when I tell them that they are looking at inkjet prints.  When I make a set of prints, I’ve often got prints I made years ago on Agfa or Ilford papers to compare them with; it’s rare indeed for me to prefer the darkroom print.

Back when I started seriously printing black and white on inkjet I had to import Jone Cone’s Piezography inks from the USA and dedicate a printer to them, and I could only make prints on matt papers – and had to frame them behind glass (or high grade perspex) to get the depth I wanted, although as matt prints they could be stunning – far better than I ever managed on matt silver papers, and really as good as the best platinum or platinum/palladium prints I made. Cone’s inksets have improved over the years (and for a while I moved up with them) and can now use the better glossy papers that have become available, and if I still made and sold many prints I’d still be using a dedicated black and white printer with one of his inksets. But the output using Epson’s ABW (Advanced Black and White) with  Ultrachrome K3 inks (or other similar systems) can be nearly as good – and good enough to rival the darkroom.

And of course the prints I’m making are still prints on fiber (or in the UK fibre) paper, just like those old darkroom prints. Like the silver-based papers they are baryta papers too, with the same “richness and depth” of good silver prints on modern papers. Even though the ABW prints contain some colour pigment they are likely to last as long or longer than the silver prints (and with the same printer, inks and paper I also make colour prints that will outlast any C-type.)

Of course many old processes still have their value and perhaps use.  The most beautiful black and white prints as objects that I’ve seen are carbon prints (and one or two I made weren’t bad.) Wet plate printed on albumen produced some exquisite work that has never been surpassed.  I don’t think there is quite any match either for the prints I made in the late 1970s on Record Rapid, before the toxic cadmium was removed from it. But I don’t retain any great nostalgia for the darkroom now I can do better outside.


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