You walk in, fumble for the safelight switch…it’s somewhere to the left. You Look for your negatives hanging in the drying rack. A contact sheet will help you make some decisions. You only have time to make one print today. Which one will it be? A decision that could take minutes or several hours! A quick sip of coffee and back in through the revolving door. Hmmm...perhaps I should print that other one instead? No, stick to your decision! You put on some music, John Prine seems like a good choice. Several test strips later, you make your first print. You wait in anticipation for the image to slowly appear, it’s both thrilling and magical – the interaction of paper, light, and chemistry. Into the fix. Hours go by, but it feels like time has just stood still. The outside world has no relevance in the darkroom. What time is it? You’re a bit light-headed. Time for one final print, you know this one will be perfect. By now your coffee is cold, but you enjoy it anyway while you wait for your prints to finish rinsing. Back through the revolving door. You sit in the dark, contemplating life for a while – it’s a good time to do this. You lay your final print on the drying rack…the perfect one. Time to head home. It’s almost as dark outside now as it was in there. Did that last print need a bit more contrast? You’ll sleep on it…
If you have ever had the opportunity to work in a darkroom, you likely know how simultaneously exciting and laborious it can be – laborious in a good way though, right? These days, darkrooms are few and far between. Most photo labs have shut down their film processing, though there are still a few survivors, catering to what has now become a niche market of film photography enthusiasts. Film photography has made a bit of a comeback, with a new generation of emerging photographers buying film cameras at thrift shops or dusting off mom and dad's old Canon AE1. But are people making prints from all this film they’re shooting? The trend seems to be: shoot, process, scan, Instagram, and repeat! The digital darkroom has replaced the chemical one, but there are still some special places around where you can actually chemically print your photographs. Why would anyone still want to do this you ask? Because there is nothing quite like the experience of printing a photograph in a darkroom, especially if it’s your first time.
The Halifax Darkroom is one of these special places. Located in Nova Scotia, on Canada’s East Coast, the darkroom has become a hub for film photographers and enthusiasts alike. What began as a desire to print more, turned into a passion project for Allen Crooks when he decided to start a fully loaded darkroom that can now accommodate a growing film community. The darkroom officially opened its doors in September of 2016 and currently has around thirty members.
I had the opportunity to visit the Halifax Darkroom and meet with Allen Crooks to chat about how things got started and his future plans for the space.
Ingrid: How did you get into the process of printing your work in a darkroom?
Allen: Well, for the first couple of years of shooting I wasn’t even developing my own stuff. I would go to Atlantic Photo and Carsand-Mosher and get my film developed there and just repeat that process of shooting, looking, shooting, and improving my work based on the results. Then a couple of years later I realized, wait, I can learn to do this myself at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD). They have what you would call an extended studies program there and you can take a part-time evening course for a ten-week block of time. That’s how things began. I then found myself signing up for the course three-times a year, literally just to have access to the facilities and darkroom. I enjoyed interacting with the other students and instructors too, it was a great networking opportunity. So, I had access to a darkroom about thirty weeks a year, but, I thought to myself, what do I do for the other twenty-two weeks? So that was the impetus for this project, that, and the fact that I knew NSCAD would be scaling back on the analog stuff. They had two darkrooms, but decommissioned one of those in 2016, so as they were decommissioning that darkroom, I was starting this up. If one day NSCAD does pull the plug completely on analog, these people will have a place to go and I am happy to be able to provide that.
Ingrid: How did you get the space up and running?
Allen: Initially, I used crowdfunding to get the darkroom started. I used Indiegogo and managed to raise $7000 from that. I was also using Instagram and Facebook to promote it. I was able to source a lot of used equipment and kind of piece things together. I also had some help from people like Andrew Murphy, he was really instrumental in helping me set things up.
Ingrid: What do you think it is that is attracting people to either shoot film again or try it for the first time, as opposed to just sticking with digital?
Allen: That’s interesting, I don’t think that one is better than the other, talking about analog vs digital, it’s just that it is a completely different experience. Analog is more tactile, maybe even thought-provoking, a more mindful process in a way. I am always very careful not to say that digital is terrible, it is just a different experience. With film, you can slow yourself down and think. You might have shot twelve rolls over a period of time and actually can’t entirely remember what’s on them, but that’s OK. You don’t need to see it right away. Then you go and process them, and you relive that experience in a really interesting way by maybe making a contact sheet and spending some time looking at your images. I believe working with film is really an experience you can learn a lot from – it’s just a different way to experience photography in a digital age.
Ingrid: Do you think that there is something really meaningful or valuable about working in the darkroom, because it's so different from our current culture of instant gratification with digital media?
Allen: Yes definitely. The amount of expressive capability you have when printing from a negative, using the enlarger, dodging, burning, managing light, right through to managing the chemistry and toning your prints, that is all part of the process. The positive is that there are a lot of variables, so if you have a good negative, you can really control what the final print looks like. It is more time consuming with film, but the nice thing is that it is a slower and more mindful process. What it comes down to, ultimately, is how do you want your image to look and how do you want people to feel when they look at your image? The opportunity to lose yourself in something and how time just sort of stands still in the darkroom, that’s really when you know you are doing something that has some sort of meaning for you. Slowing down and thinking is what it’s really about.
Ingrid: I think what we are seeing now, as fewer people are printing their photographs, and images are primarily displayed and consumed digitally, is a general decline in appreciation for the printed image. How important is the print for you?
Allen: How I feel about printing is really that it is almost like a parental relationship, a process of giving your images a home, showing them love and giving them the attention they deserve. And realizing their existence beyond their form in the negative. For me it is really two skill sets and mind sets as well. What you have on the negative is obviously important, but it is just a part of the process of making an image. The potential the image has also depends on how it is printed.
Ingrid: In contrast to today’s connected, digital world, the darkroom provides a space to be more in the moment with your work and maybe yourself?
Allen: Yes, a space physically and emotionally – exactly. I will never forget this. At one point I was working on a job in Montreal. I was away for four days a week at that time and a little concerned about how things were going over at the darkroom. So one day, I called Andrew Murphy to see how things were and he was in here on a rainy Sunday, listening to Stan Rogers on the Bluetooth speaker system we have, and just printing. At that moment I thought…you know, this is what it’s all about. For me, that kind of encapsulates what you just talked about. Maybe one day you're here all alone printing and enjoying yourself and another day, you might be here printing with some friends, listening to some crazy loud music and having an equally amazing time. It is an experience that people can make their own. It's really about giving yourself some time and space to just be creative.
Ingrid: So now that you have created this space, do you see yourself as a bit of a mentor?
Allen: I do, and it is interesting, because a lot of what I do in my day job as a software consultant: training, mentoring, and coaching people, is sort of a skill set that is transferable. Being a coach and mentor is something I really enjoy. My work is translating and sharing knowledge with people, so that’s what I’m also doing here in the darkroom. I can take someone who has never worked with film before and get them up to speed. One of the things I love most, is observing the almost child-like excitement of someone who is printing in the darkroom for the first time. Sure, it’s great watching someone who is an experienced printer, but I really enjoy watching beginners. I love to see them get really into the process, because it is kind of contagious. I actually get just as excited for them as I do for myself.
Ingrid: Do you think it is important to have a mentor in photography, someone who is experienced and can offer constructive feedback or advice?
Allen: At some point showing your work to friends and family isn’t enough, because they will always tell you how great it is, but then when you get an opportunity to get honest critique from someone who is a master photographer or printer, that’s valuable. Sometimes you just need someone to question what the hell you are trying to do with an image, right? If people just always tell you how great your stuff is then that’s nice, but you are never going to get better. Having said that, feedback needs to be given in a thoughtful, constructive manner that is balanced.
Ingrid: In the photography industry right now, it can sometimes feel like you are really just a small fish in a huge pond. Do you think that’s different in the film community because the pond is now a lot smaller?
Allen: I am not sure if the sense of community, sharing experiences, and excitement over sharing work and trading techniques is translating over into the new era of digital photography as well. Maybe there is a more competitive vibe now, holding stuff close to your chest and not sharing it. The older generation of photographers seem to have a different sense of community and more of a tradition of passing on skills.
Ingrid: Let’s talk a little bit about the space itself. How many people can the darkroom accommodate at one time?
Allen: We can actually handle about six people at a time, but we usually have about three people working in the space at the same time.
Ingrid: What sort of equipment is available here for people to work with?
Allen: Well, we have six enlargers currently set up and working. For film processing, you can do 35mm up to large format and printing up to 20 x 24. We are set up for toning as well, if you want to do archival toning, sienna, sepia, and gold toning. We have drying screens and a drying rack, as well as light tables. I was also able to get a great dry-mounting press for fiber prints from a guy in Dartmouth. I like to encourage people to use fiber paper, over RC whenever possible. We are currently really only set up for black and white printing, but I am considering making a space for alternative processes. We could maybe hold some workshops and teach historical processes.
Ingrid: How important is paper choice when it comes to printing?
Allen: I really feel that it is my responsibility to educate people about paper choice. I often get asked, you know, I want my image to look a certain way how do I achieve that? I show them the differences in how it is toned, or how the paper can really influence what the end result looks like. I have shown people the same image but printed on different paper. I have also shown people the same image on the same paper but toned differently. Paper choice is obviously important and thankfully there are a lot of great papers still on the market, but the chemistry makes a huge difference in terms of how the print turns out as well.
Ingrid: What backgrounds are people coming from?
Allen: Really varied. You have people who are doing it as a hobby and then you have freelancers who are working professionally, and then everything in between. You have people printing here as part of their professional practice and then you have people here who are really just starting out working in a darkroom. It's a nice mix.
Ingrid: You talked about maybe creating a space for historical processes, but what other plans do you have for the darkroom?
Allen: I would like to grow the membership – we can handle it. I am also considering expanding to include a studio and maybe a classroom. One thing I would like to do more of is workshops. Not just with me, but with other people leading interesting workshops. Bring some great photographers in and do some cool stuff. I have started exploring that and have already started talking to some people. But this Spring we are going to try and do some interesting stuff here to reach the broader photography audience. But we are doing some fun things right now and invite other people from the community to join us, we will have a movie night here, for example, and find other good reasons to get people together. I have organized a meet up where everyone comes to my house and we talk about the family photo archive and everybody brings some of their old albums, or shoe boxes with old photographs. We share stories and look at old photographs. It helps to create a sense of community.
Ingrid: So final question, because I have to ask…favourite camera and favourite film?
Allen: I would have to say my Konica Hexar and favourite film…if I had to pick a favourite film, it would probably be the Polaroid Chocolate film, which they obviously don’t make anymore, but yes. I love the warmth and sentimentality it brings. It's my luxury choice. My everyday choice would be Fuji Acros 100. I really like the 400 Acros, which they don’t make anymore. I recently had a taste of it using a few expired roles I got my hands on– it’s pretty amazing.
Ingrid: Fuji Acros 100 is also one of my favourites!
Some members also weighed in and shared some of their thoughts with me...
Ingrid: How important is the Halifax Darkroom for the Photo Community in Halifax?
Nick Ross: Extremely. We are very lucky to have Allen Crooks take this on and keep Halifax connected to its own tradition of brilliant photographers and to help maintain our connections to the world in this regard. Annie Leibovitz should be made aware of Halifax Darkroom and of Allen. We are a heritage city and we are a heritage region. Photography and heritage practices of photography must endure here so residence and anyone interested can discover the joy of analog photography and participate in the city's artistic history.
Ingrid: What do you like most about working in the darkroom?
Andrew Murphy: The feeling of having a finished print is pretty great. It is still magic watching the image appear on the paper, but when I really nail the contrast and exposure, that is a really good feeling.
Ingrid: What, for you, is different about film vs the digital process?
Fargo Wei: After shooting film, I started to learn more. When I look back, I realized for the past seven years, I just shot more with my digital camera, and would choose what I wanted, never thinking about how to take the photo. Film has taught me to think more and pushed me to learn more and to get better shots. Even though digital is quick and easy, it never helped me to improve my skills. I am still using my phone camera and I can still get some great shots, because now I have started to take photographs with ideas, with different angels. Now I prefer shooting film over digital, even though sometimes there is no guarantee with film until it is printed out. My friends and I barely look at our digital photos saved on a drive, but I always look at the photos I have printed in the darkroom, with no electronic or extra devices required.
Ingrid: How do you feel about the passing of time while working in the darkroom?
Corinne Gilroy: Time? What time? You mean that whole day that just passed without a single drink of water? I'm sure everyone's answers will describe how time just evaporates, Narnia-like. So I'll add something else: I find it really tricky and trippy to bounce back and forth between looking at a counter-clockwise timer and a proper clock. So I often don't know what time it is even if I *am* keeping an eye on the clock.
Ingrid: Can you describe your process? What materials do you work with?
Jesse Thomas Webber: I roll my film with a bulk loader, develop with either Kodak D-76 or Rodinal, and print on Illford photo paper, usually 11x14 resin coated pearl, sometimes 8x10 fiber based glossy. I record most of my enlargement times in a small notebook, and often use a grade 3 filter to increase the contrast for dramatic effect. I try to dodge and burn whenever I can since I enjoy waving my hands through the light of the enlarger. I also developed a technique that involves bugging Allen for his opinion whenever he’s around. I usually consume an enormous amount of caffeine, listen to music, and perform what could be loosely described as dancing while fixing my prints, while working alone.
Check out some of the inspiring work made by members of the Halifax Darkroom
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