The Messy Days of Photography

Robert looks at an image in the Oklahoma University Copeland Hall journalism darkroom in 1984. The enlarger in the corner behind him was the "good" enlarger because it had a color head you could use to control contrast with multi-grade black-and-white paper. Everyone wanted to use it, so we often waited until the middle of the night to print.
Robert looks at an image in the Oklahoma University Copeland Hall journalism darkroom in 1984. The enlarger in the corner behind him was the “good” enlarger because it had a color head you could use to control contrast with multi-grade black-and-white paper. Everyone wanted to use it, so we often waited until the middle of the night to print.
A young journalism student named Darlene works on an assignment in the darkroom at Copeland Hall. She had penetratingly dark, beautiful eyes, and came to my house to let me photograph her.
A young journalism student named Darlene works on an assignment in the darkroom at Copeland Hall. She had penetratingly dark, beautiful eyes, and came to my house to let me photograph her.

1984. College. I am the Chief Photographer for the Oklahoma Daily newspaper and the Sooner Yearbook. It’s 4 a.m., and Robert and I have been printing since midnight. The Kodak Indicator Stop Bath has turned purple on us twice as we exhausted it. The Dektol print developer is getting brown. Robert lifts a print out of the fixer and holds it up in the amber glow of the safelights. He frowns. “I’m just not pleased,” he says.

It was a messy time in photography. Not only was the chemicalness of photography demanding and volatile, I shared the darkroom in Copeland Hall with other photographers, almost none of whom seemed to understand the difference between fixer and water. As much as I cleaned, I couldn’t keep up with the mess.

My main shooting method was 35mm Kodak Tri-X, possibly the most popular black-and-white film of all time. I usually exposed it at ISO 250 or so, and souped (processed) it in a developer called Microdol-X at 1:3 dilution. You can poke around on the net and read all sorts of opinions about this combination, but it worked very well for me. Good sharpness, good tone, fine grain.

In the summer of 1984, I worked briefly at Color Chrome, a photo lab in Norman, Oklahoma, making custom color prints. It was a different kind of messy than the black-and-white darkroom, but it was still pretty messy. The funniest thing about working there was that the setup, with each person in a separate room, connected by a shared dark hallway, required us to carry our exposed paper to the processor at the end of the hall. To keep from bumping into each other in the total darkness, we simply said, “Hello… hello… hello… hello…” until we got to the processor.

For most of my film career, I used this device, a bulk film loader, to load 100-foot rolls of black-and-white film into 36-exposure cassettes. The process worked pretty well, and was decidedly cheaper than buying individual boxes of film.
For most of my film career, I used this device, a bulk film loader, to load 100-foot rolls of black-and-white film into 36-exposure cassettes. The process worked pretty well, and was decidedly cheaper than buying individual boxes of film.

Toward the end of my college days, I hooked up with the Associated Press office in Oklahoma City, where I was sometimes able to scrounge work as a stringer. It was during this time that I first started using a product called Crone-C, which was an additive for Kodak’s D-76 developer. Supposedly it helped increase ISO sensitivity and improved shadow detail. I was not amazed by it. We used it to try to boost our Tri-X to ISO 3200 and beyond, with iffy results at best. It smelled suspiciously like isopropyl alcohol.

In late 1985, I was hired by the Shawnee News-Star in Shawnee, Oklahoma. I was partnered with Ed Blochowiak, a seasoned and talented photographer. We shared a tiny darkroom with a light-trap rotating door, allowing people to come and go without exposing film or paper. Ed had a number of different chemicals in that darkroom, most of which I’d never used.

Kodak Recording Film 2475, possibly the worst photographic film I ever used.
Kodak Recording Film 2475, possibly the worst photographic film I ever used.

Diafine was interesting in that you could process your film at any temperature from 65˚ to 75˚ with no adjustment in developing time. It was a two-part developer, three minutes in the “A” solution, then three minutes in the “B” solution. I used Acufine during that same period, which was a short-time developer for push processing film to high ISOs. Ed also had some DK-50, which I tried repeatedly and hated. Finally, there was HC-110, which remained one of my favorite developers until the demise of black-and-white. There was also some oddball trick to push process Tri-X to ISO 6400 that involved HC-110 and allowing the film to bask in the vapors from hydrogen peroxide. It didn’t work.

There was a handsome handmade cabinet under the enlarger. I think Ed may have made it himself. In it were wood slats perfectly sized to hold row after row of Kodak film boxes. The cabinet held old, expired, and experimental film because in those days, we didn’t use boxed film; we hand loaded Tri-X using the infamous Watson bulk loaders.

One of the oddest and least successful of the boxed films was Kodak Recording Film 2475, which Kodak marketed to police surveillance teams. It was a holdover from the 1960s, and gave much poorer results that push-processed Tri-X. Still, I pulled out a box or two once in a while to play with it. The real comedy of the film was that it was Estar-based plastic, and was insanely curly. It was like trying to uncoil a Slinky.

This is a corner of the small darkroom Ed Blochowiak and I shared in the 1980s. Note the chemistry: in pouches on the pegboard are developers DK-50, D-76, Microdol-X, and Dektol. On the shelf to the right are developers Diafine and Acufine. The sink holds tanks for fixer and rinsing.
This is a corner of the small darkroom Ed Blochowiak and I shared in the 1980s. Note the chemistry: in pouches on the pegboard are developers DK-50, D-76, Microdol-X, and Dektol. On the shelf to the right are developers Diafine and Acufine. The sink holds tanks for fixer and rinsing.

When I started working in Shawnee, I had a Nikon FM, a Nikon FM2, and a Nikon FE2, with Nikkor lenses: a 28mm f/2.8, a 50mm f/1.2, a 105mm f/2.5, and a 200mm f/4. It was a pretty decent setup in those days for someone right out of college. Despite their capability, I yearned for better lenses, particularly with larger maximum apertures, and within a year I also owned a 24mm f/2.0, a 105mm f/1.8, a 180mm f/2.8, and a 300mm f/4.5.

My obsessive penchant for carrying backups for everything was adjudicated on my first day in Shawnee, when the shutter blades literally fell out of my FM when I opened it to load it.

In 1988, I came to The Ada News, which at the time still had the word “evening” in the title. My first day here I was evaluated by a college student who ran the darkroom prior to me. After she pronounced, “Yes, he knows what he’s doing,” and left, I spent four hours cleaning up her awful mess. But since I wasn’t partnered with anyone else and I could keep my darkroom how I wanted it, my messy days of photography were over.

Scott, Robert and I gathered at Oklahoma State's Lewis Field one very cold night in December 1991 to cover the Ada Cougar's in a state championship game.
Scott, Robert and I gathered at Oklahoma State’s Lewis Field one very cold night in December 1991 to cover the Ada Cougar’s in a state championship game.
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2 Comments

  1. I often reflect on the feeling of timelesness I felt working in that darkroom. Nothing else exsited while printing. It is as if that pure and (seemingly) selfless capture of reality gave the neutral frame to ground and veiw the world.

    We strove then to light to the unseen.
    We still do.

    It is glorious to get it and tragic to not.

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  2. At The Seminole Producer, the former darkroom was behind what eventually became my sports desk. By the time I sat there, the dark room hadn’t been entered in two or three years. One weekend, I worked with Stu (owner) and someone else (maybe his son?) to clean it out.

    At first it was a weird feeling having this opening behind my desk, but eventually it was kind of cool to be one of the few people still on staff who’d ever been in there.

    From most angles in the newsroom, the opening wasn’t visible; it appeared to be a niche in the wall. You had to know there was a whole room hidden back there.

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