There is nothing more poetic to me than watching an image slowly emerge from a spotless white sheet of paper, floating in a shallow tray in the cast of a red light in a darkroom. The image is fuzzy at first, a blur of grey slowly appearing on the solid white background. The shadows come first. The dark before the light. The shadows fill in, illuminating the image in a contrast of black and white; illuminating a world of grey. The vivid spectrum of the greyscale is never more visible than on a floating piece of photography paper, developing before your eyes.
Photographs taken with an actual camera and film, especially black and white film, have an element of truth and virtuosity technology simply can’t recreate. Truth, beauty, and talent must stand on their own. With film maybe you get it, maybe you don’t—it might be blurry, or your finger covered the lens, or you captured a stranger’s crotch or ass when they walked in front of you—but you take one or two and move on, content with the memory it makes, whether it’s perfect or not. And they all went in the photo album, at least my Mom’s photo albums.
But sometimes the shutter closed at the exact right moment, and the lighting was perfect, and everyone wore the perfect expression. A moment otherwise forgotten but forever encapsulated in this photograph. A black and white, 8×10 print I found stuck in an old faded brown album. An injustice to its beauty; it belongs in a frame, mounted on the wall next to reprints of Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Adams’ Rose and Driftwood. Six people sitting around a table at a long-closed German tavern; six pints raised, not in posture, posing for a photo, but captured, frozen in a hearty Prost! The joy that emanates in their faces—the smiles, the twinkling eyes—you can almost hear the laughter.
My Grandmother and great-aunt sit across from each other at the far end of a rectangular table pushed up against a door marked, “EXIT.” So young, vibrant, full of life, happiness, love and friendship. A bit tipsy from the lager. The best of friends, always sitting across the table from each other, talking, laughing, drinking, playing cards or dominoes. On the left side of the table, sitting next to my Grandmother, is my mother, wearing the most fabulous glasses. The lenses have to be about 3” wide and 2” tall; they look thick, but they don’t distort her eyes at all. I’m sure she hated them at the time—I hate my glasses when I have to wear them—but she had no idea just how fabulous they looked framed by her shoulder length brown hair. She looks beautiful, and so chic for 1976, and even chicer for 2016. Next to her, my father; he’s slim. I don’t remember him ever being slim. He’s always had a ‘Santa’ belly; he’s not fat overall, but he has a jolly ole belly full o’ oh so much jelly. In the picture he has a mustache but no beard and, I can hardly type the words: mutton chops. On the opposite side of the table, next to my great-aunt, sit the minister, pleasant company in his casual clothes without the collar, and his wife, the only person not wearing glasses that reflect the flare of the flash.
Photos remind us of moments we may have forgotten, relationships, emotions and memories we question, heightened or hardened by time, the good times, and the bad, because even in the happiest picture, we can see the future that awaits the ignorant bliss of the subjects. Pictures can be deceiving. My parents, separated. My aunt has passed on. The minister abandoned his flock in search of selfish gains. But this is the picture before the storm. No foreshadowing to be seen of the pain or deception to come. The joy was there; it isn’t fake or omniscient. It knows not what the future has in store for these 6 people. And it is captured, there for all to see, how much can change in so short a time.
But, can pictures lie? Do they mock the present? We can see the smiles but we can’t know what anyone was thinking. What’s that look on my Mom’s face? She’s smiling, but there’s something missing. The corners of her eyes aren’t turned up and though she’s smiling wide, the corners of her lips go straight, they don’t turn up into the full smile I know. Is it simply time? Age? Or was something already missing? Is this photo actually revealing something, a truth long withheld? I could ask my mom; but I don’t think it’s really necessary, we know how it ended: 2 kids and a divorce.
The bottom left corner is washed out. The edge of another table set with ivory tablecloths and gleaming wine glasses disappears in a burst of highlights. The flare of a flash on porcelain and glass. The light was too hot. I can see the photographer in the darkroom—manipulating the negative, aperture, exposure times, contrast filters, processing times—to balance this hotspot and get the full range of the greyscale to recreate the scene he saw through the lens. Filters used to make the picture look real; not perfect—no Photoshop or Instagram-filtered pretenses here. To crop out or diminish this flare would have diminished the highlights, the life of the subjects. And so it was left, an imperfection in honor of truth. This white-fog is the evidence of an artist who knows that life is art and respects the subject and what was really there at that moment, when the shutter clicked.
There is one place where I don’t need light. I don’t need sight. My hands know what to do. My body turns instinctively, reaching through the dark void. This is the real darkroom. No red bulbs in here. Completely sealed from any light. Blacker than you can imagine a black hole to be. I feed the film onto the reel carefully threading it in a 3-inch spiral round and round 24, 36 frames. Thread another. Placing one atop the other in their cylindrical metal house tightly sealing the lid. Chemicals, time, and some gentle sloshing will turn this film into negatives: the truth that was inscribed when the shutter clicked. The work is done but the creation has yet to begin.
The darkroom is the one place where I do not fear what is unknown. Not knowing what will emerge on the paper is part of the magic and beauty of developing film and processing prints. The walk from the projector to the developing trays is filled with anticipation—and not just for the fumes that waft off the trays. Did I do it? Did I get it? Is it going to be what I saw in my head? If you do all the math right, you might get it on the first try. But the art isn’t in the math, it’s in the journey and the discovery. Working with the negative until the image finds you is the art of photography. Creating a final image is a process, a slow rediscovery of the moment. This first trip to the trays is the first of many to come to find the perfect balance of negative and positive, dark and light. To create the perfect memory. Because in the end, all we are left with are pictures and memories.