Above: A photographer at work in a darkroom. Credit: UAL/CSM.
The first darkroom I ever printed in was UCA Farnham, in 1984. A large room on the ground-floor with at least thirty enlarger-stations and a central island, with the chemical trays set into an industrial sink made of stone. I was a Foundation diploma candidate sneaking in, printing alongside undergraduates--some of whom were working on impossibly impressive 16x20 prints for their final show. The Degree students had a cassette-player set up on which they were playing Coltrane and the Taxi Driver soundtrack ...
The craft of darkroom work tends to draw the user into a deeply reflective relationship with the images being produced. These old-school black-and-white darkrooms are an endangered species and are getting harder to find. In London many of the old community darkrooms have closed down, and most of the ones in University arts faculties are being torn out to be replaced by the ubiquitous suite of closed-loop wysiwyg PCs and Macs.
The essential quality of working-with-film in a darkroom is not necessarily technical, but rather psychological: the analog darkroom has an inherent serenity as a space. A dimmed-down room usually lit only with red safe-lamps which create a wondrous ethereal (i.e., heavenly) pinkish glow. The wet darkroom is a space that is often cut-off from, and remote to, the dash-and-scramble of everyday life. Spending a day printing one's own photos (using an enlarger that projects the image down onto the photo-paper held tight in an easel) and developing them in rectangular dishes of clear chemicals can be a therapeutic experience--particularly when stressed or anxious. The pace-of-life in a darkroom tends to be unhurried and more sedate than life on the outside. A wet-darkroom space is often calming and reassuring. Printing in a wet darkroom can be rejuvenating and relaxing. In the red-light of the darkroom many of life's worries can be placed into perspective: it's a thinking-space, maybe even a safe-space.
For this reason, a photo-darkroom is always worth saving. For me the photo-darkroom should have the protected status of a church--the darkroom is the church, of photography. For this reason any argument progressed in favour of the destruction-of-a-darkroom via evidence of under-used, is irrelevant. If you are passing a church and you wander in, you will often find that there is hardly anyone in there. So, the priest is going to downsize it or close it? No they are not. They are never go to advocate downsizing or closing. The physical building of the church is there for all time, the numbers of users each day is not a consideration--it is a house for facilitating a relationship to the Divine. For me the photo-studio, and the photo-darkroom, are the twin spaces that are unique-to-photography and should always be protected (a suite of Macs is not unique to anything).
(17 October 2018)