The Role of the Digital Darkroom in Alternative Photography

Is there a role for digital methods in alternative photography?  I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately.  I’ve been making lots of lumen prints from botanical material- my first deep journey into lumen printing.  Some prints come directly from the printing frame in fine form.   My role in their creation has been simple - I chose the paper, the exposure conditions, the specimen, and the composition.  The rest was chemistry and magic.  In those cases, I feel more like the midwife than the maker.  In these initial forays into lumen printing, I have worked hard to keep my role simple and to honor the alchemical result of paper, plant, and sun.  I’ve done that because I was learning the lumen printing process and the dozens of factors that influence its outcome, and I didn't want to resort to any shortcuts along the way.  I wanted to force myself to stay within the bounds of analog approaches using traditional darkroom chemistry.  But as I gain confidence in my ability to make informed choices, in my ability to discern the difference between an inherent characteristic of the process and a skill I need to sharpen, I’m feeling artificially constrained in an uncomfortable way.  I’d like to make something of the images that have merit and yet fall short.  I know that I can create lovely digital images from them, but I have limited myself to a discipline that avoids digital efforts.   I don’t regret that discipline - it’s forced me to explore and learn - but it has started to feel extremely restrictive.

As someone who started as a digital photographer, I’ve never been a purist, I’ve never felt that the software and engineers of Nikon or Fuji (the makers of my digital cameras) should have precedence over my own voice and vision in developing, processing, retouching, or manipulating my images.  I’ve used all sorts of digital editing products without hesitation and I never felt that to be weak or underhanded.  I felt free and empowered to create the image I wanted from the raw material (raw digital file) that I had captured in camera.  My Photoshop skills might have held me back at times, but my conscience never did.  So it has come as a bit of shock to find myself feeling that any alteration of my lumen prints is cheating - is falling short of the alternative photography ideal in some way.

Clearly, the scan that I take of an original print is not the same thing as the print itself and cannot duplicate it exactly.  The image I’ve shared on the internet is not the same thing as the original artifact that I took out of the printing frame, or even a precise duplicate of the scanned image.  The print that I make on art paper for my daughter’s wall is yet another thing in and of itself.  Actually, in a lot of cases, the original artifact no longer exists - it’s been chemically toned and fixed and irrevocably altered in the process, sometimes to its betterment, sometimes to its destruction.  Or, it has not been fixed and has continued to subtly change with each exposure to light.  So why hesitate to put the original print in the same category as a digital raw file and tune away?  Why is a chemical alteration - toning for example - more acceptable than a digital alteration?  I can even make the argument that digital alterations could be a superior choice for optimizing my images.

Using digital methods, I can capture the original artifact as a scanned file, preserving it so that it can be used as a starting point any number of times.  It becomes my ‘negative’, and I can return to it, in pristine form, as my vision evolves and my skills improve whether that is next week or years down the road.  No harmful chemicals are needed to achieve my vision.  For someone working in her kitchen and bathroom, and who cares about environmental impact, that’s a very real consideration.  Digital methods allow me very fine control.  Chemical methods, though sometimes helpful, are often very destructive of the finer points of my images; details are lost, colors are bleached, images become an archival shadow of themselves.  My digital editing is never destructive.

So, again, why hesitate? I have come to this conclusion. When the capture does not result in an artifact that can be directly "consumed" - as in film or raw digital files - we seem to collectively expect additional actions to be taken to arrive at a final result. We admire and applaud those with masterful darkroom skills, whether they are traditional darkroom skills or digital skills. When the capture does create a directly consumable artifact, as in the case of the lumen print, it seems to open the door to this notion of digital alterations as "cheating".  Perhaps the fact that the artifact is directly consumable leads one to immediately put it into the category of ‘art’ rather than ‘raw material’, but I think there is also a matter of nomenclature.  I feel hesitant to name my digitally enhanced image a lumen print - that name seems to me to rightly belong to the original item.  I strongly claim my right to use my lumen print as raw material if I choose, but what shall I call the resulting art work?  Lumen-digital hybrid sounds way too long-winded and dull. What is this thing that’s been created?  

I don't think I actually have any hesitation to using digital methods, it’s this lack of a ready name for my work that holds me back.  I want my work to honestly stand on its own feet, proudly being what it is, nothing more, nothing less.  And, I want it to fully express my eye, even it that means pushing the process.

While pondering this question, I read the article found at http://www.michaelap.com/no-photoshop-for-my-scans/.  The focus of the article is the scanning of film negatives but the point of view is relevant.  In fact, it is spot on.  As Michael says, I am condemned to be free and decide what my output is going to be.  Some of my pristine lumen prints stand on their own as proud examples of my artwork.  Some will never be anything more than a piece of raw material, a step in the process for a digital work of art.  I can live with that, though I still want to find a good name for that second artifact.

The Testing Game

I have a concept for a project, a continuing exploration of my sense of place and belonging after returning to my hometown 35 years after my departure as a teenager.  As the concept has gestated, I've realized that a series of related images requires thoughtful consideration of decisions that might otherwise be made on the fly.  I decided early on that I wanted to use lumen prints, the process in harmony with my deep connection to the natural landscape of my little corner of the earth and my vision for the project.   That narrowed the field in some areas and threw the door open in others.  At first glance, the lumen print process is very simple - lay something on top of a piece of darkroom paper, take it into the sun, and allow an image to develop.  It's deceptively simple, and maddeningly unpredictable and complex.  Get lovely color one time, nothing you'd want to keep the next, the influencing factors difficult to isolate and pin down.

There are bigger picture questions also.  What size will these images be?  Do I want to settle on a single paper or use a variety of papers?  Is there a natural affinity between some subject matter and a paper choice?  Is the original captured image the final product or simply a step in the process?  Will I allow myself any digital manipulation of the images, and if so, where will I draw the line?  Will there be accompanying text or will the images stand alone in telling the story?  What am I trying to ultimately build?  A box of plates to be tucked into a drawer?  A virtual experience on a series of web pages? Images to be framed and exhibited? A book?  

I will allow serendipity to guide me down this road as much as possible, trying to keep the channels open and unfolding, but some choices have to be made in order to get started, and that leads me to this little piece.  That leads me to the testing game.

I may be a bit of a mad scientist - I love to test.  I love the 'what if'.  I love challenging what I've been told, sometimes learning the 'why' of it for myself.  Sometimes realizing that conventional wisdom is unnecessarily confining.  I love learning something new.  I've now made at least 70 test images - my record keeping at the beginning being a bit sloppy, I can't say exactly how many test images I've made.   I've tested at least 8 papers.  I've tested exposure times that range from 3 minutes in full sun to hours in the shade.  I've tested adding moisture by spritzing the paper before exposure.  I've tested exposures at different times of day.  I've compared glossy paper surfaces to satin and semi-matt ones.  I've learned an exhilarating amount.  I still feel like a rank amatuer.  

I'm narrowing in on some decisions for my project, though I know that tomorrow or the next day, eBay will alert me to the availability of some old paper that I haven't tried, and the testing game will be on anew.  On, in full force, despite the conclusion I've already come to that there is no absolute right or absolute wrong in the world of lumen printing.  It all works in one way or another, at least some of the time.

In the end it's simple - take out a sheet of darkroom paper, place something on it, carry it into the sun, and leave it there awhile.  Bring it in with eager delight and see what you got.

Today is the day.

Today is the day to get serious about sharing my work.  Wish me luck.