Russel and Wendy Kwan: Darkroom Arts
As dedicated black and white darkroom-based artists since the 1970s, we’ve witnessed the zenith, subsequent near-digital death, and unbelievable renaissance of our medium. Back in 2004, as Ilford Photo sank into receivership, we panicked, emptied out our local photo stores, and hoarded supplies in our giant freezer. Today, Ilford is thriving and introducing new products. Offbeat materials manufactured in Eastern Europe and Asia help us live without faded giants Agfa, Kodak, and Fujifilm. Boutique shops provide raw ingredients for inventive homebrew chemistries. The film/darkroom department at our favourite store in Vancouver (Beau Photo) is growing. Gently used equipment is cheap and plentiful. Incredibly, we have never seen a better range of available cameras, films, papers, and chemistry.
In 2013, almost by chance, Langara College recruited us to reboot their languishing black and white darkroom program. We were surprised to learn that most institutions in Vancouver were tearing out their darkrooms. Langara was threatening to follow suit if their darkrooms couldn’t be better utilized. Thankfully, we were given that chance. Our vision is to take the darkroom arts to places far beyond traditional imaging, to find the nooks and crannies where digital can’t go. Today, our black and white program is expanding: our entry-level course was waitlisted this past spring for the first time in over a decade, and our students are continuing on to advanced courses for the first time in years.
Most of our students are young people, rebelling against the perceived automated, touchless, bland flavour of digital photography. We have found them to be highly creative, experienced digital photographers turning to the darkroom because they want to be more directly involved in the process of image-making. Our mature students include art teachers upgrading their skills in response to demands at work, art school grads seeking more proficiency in this medium, professionals from outside photography desiring a hands-on creative outlet, and even self-taught darkroom workers wanting to up their game.
The steampunk nature of film and the darkroom is fun and tactile, but extremely demanding. Mistakes have real consequences. There is no “undo,” no “chimping,” and every exposure costs money. We emphasize the need to create taut, repeatable, personal processes within a huge scope of possible chemistries and materials. The prize is worth it: prints with a unique and hard to copy identity.
Of course, getting to unique takes time, energy, and the expenditure of much film and paper. It is no surprise the best results come from students who spend the most time shooting and working in the darkroom. Fortunately, Langara is generous with darkroom access, and our best students use the darkrooms every chance they get. We tell all of them, “1000 prints is what it takes to get really good at this.”
The subtle characteristics of films and silver-gelatin prints remain impossible to digitally imitate, in part because no digital printer can reproduce the tiny features of film grain. Film grain can be hard-edged or fuzzy, oblong or round, big or small, regular or irregular, and no two film and developer combinations exhibit the same pattern. Film also has an extraordinary dynamic range: 14 or 15 stops is easily attainable. Further techniques enhance edges, exaggerate contrast, and make grain even more grainy. Our students celebrate these features and incorporate the unmistakable look of film into their personal visual languages.
Silver-gelatin printing is ancient and beautiful, and remains the dominant darkroom-based black and white medium. Silver gelatin prints need not be black and white; in fact, it takes careful processing to get a truly neutral-tone print. Our students explore many different chemical toners to produce a huge range of colours from sepia to purple to red to blue … even shiny metallic silver. Toners can be applied serially or selectively to create multiple colours in a single print. The variations are endless. This is unexplored country, so diligent workers have a fighting chance at inventing something completely new.
Out of the gate, we stress the importance of community, cleanliness, and precision in the darkroom. The Langara darkroom experience involves communal chemistry in communal trays. The fastest way to failure is sloppiness. So, we base 50 percent of final grades on work habits. We like to joke that it is possible to pass our class without shooting a single frame or making a single print — just so long as students are tidy.
We pair students and assign each pair a chemical to prepare for the entire class. We’re always there to catch errors, but it’s amazing how precise and careful everyone is, knowing that a mistake will be a disaster for the whole class. We’ve experienced zero actual disasters and just about every student develops printable negatives on their first try. Of course, their steampunk equipment might misbehave, and we’ve seen quite a few problems with old cameras: chiefly, light leaks, inaccurate light meters, slow shutters, and non-functional aperture blades. We’ve had to advise a few students that their cameras will cost more to repair than they are worth. But, even as replacement is often inexpensive, valuable cameras can still be repaired in Canada by one of the world’s top mechanical camera techs, a Vancouver resident.
Our students frequently remark how much their darkroom experience has helped their digital photography, as they learn to trust themselves and their decisions. They see firsthand how many of the tools in Photoshop come straight out of the darkroom and how the darkroom procedure is often faster and more forgiving than Photoshop’s equivalent; our classic example is dodging and burning. We show simple ways to do most dodges and burns with just a few basic tools and bare hands. With practice, the whole operation is accomplished in seconds.
The last stage of our darkroom journey goes into the wideopen, unexplored spaces of experimental photography and homebrews. Our students examine offbeat ideas and chemistries, and some come up with entirely new imaging techniques. Russ is no stranger to homebrew, having invented a process that records a 25+ stop dynamic range on film for a project capturing the sun crossing the sky. Of course, we emphasize chemical safety above all else. It is amazing what homebrews can be made with supplies acquired from our local grocery and drug stores. Last semester, students made film and paper developers out of vitamin C and coffee, created a reversal-print process with limes and hair bleach, and amplified film grain with hot washing soda. Next year, we’ll explore a developer made with Tylenol; we like every class to be different.
After completing our courses, a significant percentage of our students install personal darkrooms or join community darkrooms. We’ve helped them with darkroom designs and often place free equipment needing a good home. We see our community growing stronger every day. Digital photography has freed film photography from the chains of commercial production. The darkroom arts have finally taken flight as a pure art medium, with still-unimagined new horizons. The sky’s the limit.
See more work by Rusell and Wendy Kwan at: www.NewMythographs.com
Russel and Wendy are internationally awarded and published photographers and educators. Their prints have been exhibited in commercial, museum, and academic venues in Canada and the United States. They lead the black and white darkroom program at Langara College in Vancouver.