December of 2018
I know developing photographs in a darkroom involves chemistry and physics, but as I watch my uncle at work it feels less like science and more like sorcery. There is a reverence and respect not only for the doing but also for the waiting.
Though film photography is enjoying a revival of sorts, few photographers still actually have darkrooms of their own or know how to develop their own analog film. My uncle is one of those few; he built up his laboratory over several decades, customized every surface, sourced chemicals from other countries, and meticulously organized hundreds of negatives and prints. The room smells like contemplation, and he moves through it with the kind of ease that only comes with time; I would almost say the room actually smells like time.
There is no doubt that the advent of digital photography has made it easier for more people to create images, much as digital technology in general would appear to make much of our lives easier. Digital cameras and software do, at the very least, save a lot of time that would otherwise have to be spent waiting.
But I suspect my uncle would argue that the hours he has lived in the darkroom have not been time wasted but rather time invested, perhaps even time gained. The meticulous processes of the darkroom created the space and the time in an otherwise busy life to sit, to think, to wait. After spending some time with him, I have come to believe that this is the deeper art – the deeper magic – that lives in the darkroom and many other spaces of the pre-digital world that we have lost: the art of waiting.
Much of modern technology eliminates the need for waiting, or at least the need to be good at waiting. We all carry in our pockets hunks of glass, metal, and plastic that have the power to instantly distract us from the initial unpleasantness of waiting, that pang of impatience that strikes us in the solar plexus the instant we are stuck in a line, in traffic, or on hold. But, at least for me, it is often only when I push through the initial discomfort and let my mind simmer in the waiting that I begin to notice the things that matter most be they beautiful or disturbing or true or mysterious. Waiting may be the toll that must be paid in order to gain access to these other things.
But the value of waiting goes further. Learning to wait allows us to gain access to much of our lives that we might otherwise miss (or at least dismiss). Even before the advent of curated streams of social media, it was tempting to imagine our lives were made up exclusively of the highlights, the moments when we arrive at our destination, complete a task, or achieve victory. And yet so much of life – arguably the bulk of it – happens in the moments in between, the moments on the way, the moments of waiting. And we so often miss this deeper, more extensive part of our lives because we cannot bear to sit still for more than a few seconds before we must distract ourselves. In the process of constant distraction we sacrifice actually noticing much of our lives simply in order to spare ourselves that initial unpleasantness of impatience. It is a strange bargain.
While standing in that darkroom with my uncle, waiting for the chemicals to react, for the containers to rinse, for the prints to dry, I realized that there is magic in the waiting, and I am trying to learn how to get better at finding it.
I you care to see some of my uncle’s work, I highly recommend his photo book, "Other Horses.”