Brilliant Mistakes, Part 1
Black and white processing and printing is often a personal matter. I took a two-year hiatus from photography after getting burned out on photojournalism. Dragging 20 pounds of 35mm equipment around Central Texas, shooting high school sports in sleet, wind, dust, rain and summer heat got old after 10 years. When Apple Computer offered to move my family and me to California, it seemed a good time to dump my gear and rethink my priorities.
Well, less than two years later I was ready to start shooting again. After using a 35mm SLR and color film for a few months without the satisfaction, decided to get serious. I bought a Yashica Mat 124G after reading glowing owner reports on the Medium Format Digest. But I still didn't have a darkroom, so I remained a color shooter.
I had a darkroom in Texas. When my wife was in college, I worked for my home town newspapers and had free reign in their darkrooms--although I wasn't happy with the cost compromises the newspapers had made. I converted our third bedroom into a darkroom. It wasn't the best in the world, but it served my needs and I turned out enough good work to make a decent part-time income. I sold some of my own work, both sports and other locations shots, and made money processing and printing other photographers' black-and-white work. But as Jerry Jeff Walker once sang, "a drifting man has trouble hanging on to everything he owns," and I sold the darkroom equipment when my wife graduated and we moved from Kerrville, TX to Austin.
Now I was ready to get back into black-and-white. The problem was I couldn't find anyone who would process and print my film to my standards. When the owner of the lab where I had been taking my color film asked if I wanted to build a black-and-white darkroom, I jumped at the opportunity. I had done this professionally before, knew how much I could make at it and what it would take to get started.
Or so I thought.
First off, the space available was much smaller than my spare bedroom in Texas. Instead of 12x14 feet, I had 8x12 feet available, plus a little space in the adjacent bathroom. Well, you work with what you have. Compounding my logistical difficulties, the west wall is one big window running from the ceiling to two feet above the floor. Parts of the acoustic tile ceiling had broken, and dust covered everything. This was a storage area and had not seen a cleaning rag in five years, or more. Dust control and light leaks loomed as major problems.
Controlling the dust started with cleaning those blinds. No choice here. Five years of accumulated dust wouldn't sit well, so I got a ladder, a spray bottle of cleaner and a bunch of old hand towels. After closing the store one Friday night, I dove in. Three hours and a dozen towels later I had clean blinds. Step one finished.
The next morning. I taped newspapers on the floor and side walls so I could start painting the windows. But first, a trip to the hardware store for paint. Luckily, I found a clerk who knew what I needed, because I had no clue how to paint windows. You can't just slap on any old paint. Nope. I had to start with white primer, which was OK, because I didn't want the afternoon sun hitting black windows.
I would have walked out with any old paint, but this clerk patiently explained why I needed to start with a primer for the windows, then use a high quality latex paint on top of that. He was right. I bought one-half gallon of primer and one gallon of latex for the windows, and two gallons of flat white water-base paint for the three walls, and headed back to the lab.
The primer dried while I was painting the walls, so I mixed the latex paint and attacked the windows. Well, that gallon of gloss black primer was about two-thirds of the paint I needed. I jumped in the truck, headed back to the hardware store and couldn't find the black latex paint. The clerk at the counter told me any old black paint would work because I had used a primer, and in my naiveté I believed him. Back in the lab, I happily painted the last window while the local jazz station kept me entertained.
Watch Your Step
The next morning after breakfast I walked over to inspect my work. Mason doesn't allow expletives on this site, so you'll have to imagine my reaction when I saw white footprints leading through the portrait studio and thousands of pinholes of light leaking through the third window. After turning out the lights the night before I apparently stepped in some of the white paint and tracked it on the carpet as I left the store. Well, at least it was water-based paint. A couple of hours later the studio carpet looked better than it had two days before, but my knees and back didn't appreciate the scrubbing. Then back to the hardware for more black latex. One hour later I had light-tight windows. I hoped.
I went home for lunch, took a nap, watched part of a football game on television and went back to check my work. Lights out, stand around a few minutes to let my eyes adjust. So far so good. Wait. What's that? A little pinprick of light. There's another one. Well, I have a roll of electrical tape, so I might as well get it out. Lights back on, I grab the ladder, scissors and tape, then turn out the lights again and wait for my eyes. There's a pinprick.
Night vision is a funny thing. The light leaks were so faint they disappeared when I looked straight at them. So I used a trick I learned many years ago in college astronomy (it's amazing how a class I took for grins comes in handy so often) and used averted vision. The only problem with that is I needed to place electrical tape over the light leaks, and using averted vision got me a few inches away from the little holes. It took several minutes to readjust my hand/eye coordination so I could place the tape over the light.
This part was actually relaxing after climbing up and down a ladder taping the walls for painting, and was much easier on my lungs and head than breathing paint fumes. A couple of hours and a half roll of electrical tape later I had plugged all the little pinpricks, and my windows no longer let light in the darkroom.
Now if only the ceiling didn't resemble a colander. Back to the hardware store again, this time for weather stripping. I diligently cut and taped weather stripping on the window frames, and on the wall/ceiling joints, and also put some weather stripping along the acoustic tile where it meets the wall. Lights off. Eureka! Darkness. I went home and dreamt of dark places and developing images. I should have dreamt of moss hanging from trees and cobwebs blocking doors, for when I returned to the lab after work the next day I saw a good portion of my weather stripping laying on the floor or hanging precariously from the ceiling.
Another lesson: weather stripping works better on wood and metal than on sheetrock and acoustic tile.
Fortunately, this was easy to fix. I cut the weather stripping off where it was falling, and bought some plastic sheeting to cover the light leaks. Now I was ready to install the toys.
Darron Spohn can be reached at email@example.com.