After reading yet another article about scanning software, I realized that scanning and I have a marriage of convenience. I will never figure out how to use SilverFast; it’s the most unintuitive software I have ever encountered—and that includes learning Unix commands. Epson provides a free copy of its software with each scanner, and though it lacks a lot of bells and whistles, it does a pretty good job, so I’ll stick with it. It’s possible to adjust all key parameters such as contrast, exposure, and brightness, but I find myself resenting the time spent twiddling sliders. Even after setting adjustments, there are always negatives that scan poorly without additional work in iPhoto.
I never felt this way about making contact sheets. That process I liked. And for sufficiently dense negatives, the time from contact sheet to print was fairly quick. Of course, “quick” is relative. It usually took an hour to get that final print. But chatting or music made the process seem fast. Leaving the darkroom with a few prints after a few hours, I always felt satisfied and content—much more so than after tweaking sliders.
By the time the pandemic began, my darkroom skills had not progressed far enough to do dodging or burning. I’m not sure I ever want to. My interest is in capturing what I see, nothing more or less. The only adjustment I was comfortable with was exposure time. But with well-exposed negatives, getting the print exposure time right was straightforward enough to make a print that pleased me. And I very much like the idea that all I did was shine enough light through the negative to transfer the image from it to paper. I like the minimalism of that transition. Nothing is involved except photons and the chemicals that reveal their fingerprints.
Back in November 2019, I went through my negatives and selected those I wanted to print. Since then, I have added to that number. Looking at my studio walls, I frequently imagine those empty spaces covered in B&W prints matted within expresso-colored frames. It would be my personal gallery of moments, and for visitors, I would share the backstory of how each came to rest there. To say that I tweaked the image using scanner software then sent it to the Canon printer makes for a less compelling story. Why? Because the scanner did something, then the software did something, then the printer did something, and the photons are mostly left out of the story. Photography is about photons, or at least it’s supposed to be, and I prefer telling stories about directing photons to those about commanding electrons.
My new Canon printer does black and white prints far better than my old one. And I’m happy with the purchase. The images it makes are excellent. But looking at the prints, I don’t get anywhere near the same sense of satisfaction as from a darkroom print. I can’t help but wonder if the scanner read the negative correctly and what the JPEG file may have lost going to the printer. When I shine an enlarger light onto photographic paper, I don’t have these translation doubts.
Of my original group of darkroom prints from 2019, I have access to only one, which sits on my wife’s desk. The others (there were only a few) were given away when I thought I could readily make more.
I’ve shot about 35 rolls of film in the last 16 months. Having the scanner and doing home development have allowed me to continue doing photography during the pandemic, and for both, I am grateful. But, when I look at my walls, I yearn for darkroom prints–and the experiences by which they come to exist.