It takes a few seconds to adjust in the darkroom.
As the door shuts, cell phones and other screens are tucked away. The light flickers off; an orange-red glow bathes the room. Now, the magic can happen.
The Sawtooth School for Visual Art in Winston-Salem is hosting an open house of its darkroom on this rainy Saturday morning. Some visitors come to learn and chat, others carry in old negatives of family photos yet to be developed.
“You don’t learn to print film watching a YouTube video,” Dulaney says. “You have to get your hands in some developer and mess up some paper.”
Dulaney, an instructor at Sawtooth for the past five years, has been involved in the practice since adolescence. Step-by-step, he shows a small tour group how to turn a negative on a roll of film into a printed photograph, worthy of framing and hanging on a wall.
He takes only four or so guests into a round chamber, and grabs a bar on the wall. He pulls the bar, rotating the walls around them. The circular wall closes off one room and reveals a cozy film room.
“I call it the ‘“Star Trek” door,’” he jokes.
Here, guests can lay out negatives onto a lightbox to see more clearly the pictures they have taken. Once the negative is selected, they go back into the larger room, to a type of projector called an enlarger.
Instructor Bill Dent gathers a few guests around him. One attendee, Chip Bast, hands Dent a negative, which Dent then slides into part of the enlarger. The machine projects the image in light onto the photo paper. As the seconds, measured meticulously, go on, the image of a bull rearing up above a bullfighter forms, and then the lights shut off again.
The shadows of the projection form an image so precise that the eyelashes of the bull become visible. Bast takes the photo and places it gently into the first of three liquids: the developer.
The multi-chemical mixture uses a bit of silver in the paper to takes the tones from the image and puts them in reverse: where the light carved out bright white spaces turns a deep black. The moment the image hits the perfect point, Bast then moves it to an acidic liquid, made to stop the picture from over-developing. The vinegar-like scent wafts up, and the image gets put into a final bath — called a fixer. The fixer washes off any remaining silver particles to keep the image from fading.
“This photo is from 1983,” Bast recalls, “in Del Rio, Texas.”
Bast explains how that the unlucky fighter underneath the jumping bull is actually Lane Frost, subject of the film 8 Seconds. He looks to the print, remembering the story of taking this photo and many others decades ago. Bast himself dabbles in both film and digital photography, but enjoys the difficulty of getting the perfect negative, and the deliberate and meticulous process of the darkroom.
“It slowed me down,” Bast says. “You can’t hurry.”
Athena Kroustalis, another guest of the darkroom, agrees that the darkroom carries a certain meditative quality.
“It is just really zen and relaxing to be in the darkroom,” she says.
Kroustalis places a test print down in the third bath, beside which floats another picture with the image almost whited-out. She explains that the darkroom keeps even experienced film photographers on their toes, trying out new strategies.
“There’s so many variables and techniques,” she says, “so, it’s never boring.”
Dent stands outside the darkroom, where twine and clothespins hold up finished and drying prints from the instructors. Dent points to a figure in the center of a vintage photograph with an old car and young men posed in front.
“My father, which is this guy right here,” Dent says, “was a photographer.”
Like with Dent, Dulaney’s practice feels like a tradition. Dulaney began learning film photography at 16. Though he teaches both digital and film photography, Dulaney thinks that creating in the darkroom adds a certain element of the unknown.
Beside the prints of new and vintage negatives, he hangs some test strips of different pictures. The strips show how the photo develops when exposed to light for varying amounts of time, becoming darker from left to right as the light was exposed longer.
“It all comes down to an educated guess,” Dulaney says. “I’ve got 48 years of educated guesses.”