November 20, 2020

5 Things I’ve Learned about Life from Developing Photographs in the Darkroom.

The darkroom from my childhood home was where all the magic happened.

Even though it was absent of light, save for a faint purple tint, the darkroom was the spot that brought us all together.

Inside the tiny room, that had once been a closet, I’d curl myself up close between my sister and my brother. We made a cozy nook for ourselves underneath the steel industrial table, where the enlarger rested. Staring upward, we’d settle in to watch our mother swirl the light and blend the shadows onto photographic paper. With our bell bottoms dangling, we’d crawl through the shaggy red rug to watch our dad concoct a foul-smelling developer solution. And the main attraction was watching him hang the wet prints with clothespins along a vertical wire that ran up and down the wall. We’d turn our heads sideways to glimpse at all of the photos we had taken.

In my eyes, my parents were alchemists with their cameras and particularly in the darkroom.

Their love for photography wasn’t enough, though, to keep them together. And when my parents’ marriage crumbled, the passion they shared for taking and developing photographs did too. My brother, sister, and I watched as our funky darkroom became just another dark closet. My mother gifted her 35mm Cannon-D camera to me, along with her groovy, flower power camera strap. I held her camera close to my heart, nostalgic for those long days spent together. And, when I left for college some years later, my mom’s camera came with me.

I spent my first semesters at school studying photography, holing myself up for long hours in the university’s darkroom. It was in a meeting with the head of the photography department that my attention began to wander, and my interest waned. This may have been why he encouraged me to reconsider photography as a career. Or maybe he and I both knew that photography was more of a social outlet for me than it was anything else.

I switched over to study psychology, and I carved out a niche for myself there. But, my love for photography and the life lessons I learned inside the darkroom have stayed with me.

Here is what I learned.

1. Add natural light. No matter how hard the day has been or the situation may seem, opening the shades and bringing in natural light always helps. Everything (including us) looks and feels better with the sun shining on it.

2. Be real. When processing photos in the darkroom, everything is exposed; wrinkles, rust, cracks, dents, scars. When shown in the light and expressed with context, every blemish radiates with honesty and depth. I try to remember this in the midst of self-criticism and self-doubt. We aren’t supposed to be flawless or timeless—we only need to embrace the beauty of our humanness.

3. Be gritty. Under the enlarger, it is the grainiest image that is desired—breaking down the image into tiny morsels (down to the nitty-gritty). I am reminded by this, that it is a gift to be alive—to have the opportunity to experience every failure, every obstacle, and every triumph. We are the sum of all our parts. There is no shame in being human (and no need to throw a fancy filter on top of us).

4. Feel into it. When first developing my photos, I would run out of the darkroom every time a photo was developed in order to see the image in full light. Then, I’d run back and to accommodate for whatever I missed. I finally learned to feel into the image. And, I stopped running back and forth. Whenever I enter a new situation, or when decorating a space, I try to bring a feeling or quality to the room. Either to enhance it or diffuse it—just feeling what is needed.

5. Take a mental image. When documenting an experience that I don’t want to forget, I try to remember to take a mental snap (with or without taking a photo) of the occurrence. I (mentally) click on a specific object or detail. Superimposing the situation into my brain allows me to recall the experience accurately, and the sentiment attached to it.

Reflecting upon a mental image I have of my deceased grandfather, I can see his hands—every line on them—and I can remember what it felt like to hold his hand. This brings comfort and endless blessings.


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