I thought I would describe a typical darkroom printing session. When I go into the darkroom to make a silver gelatin print I usually like to start pretty much first thing in the morning, so I can take my time. I don’t like to be in a rush when I’m printing, it’s a mental state that is counterproductive in my experience to being creative and receptive to the materials you work with. In my case I print exclusively on baryta base (otherwise known as fibre based) papers. When I step into the darkroom I will have one, or at most, two negatives I wish to make exhibition prints from. I am usually armed with a contact print of the negatives in question, or an earlier print that I have tried to make but has failed to meet my expectations. These proofs or ‘failures’I use as departure points or guides as to where I might like to take the image and materials. When I am assessing a photograph or negative before creating an exhibition print I look for what I find visually exciting about the image and see how I can improve on it. By going to the area that most interests me I can quickly determine through test strips how far I can take the image before I destroy the very qualities or nuances in the print I am seeking. This process gives me a foundation on which to assess the remaining areas of the image in relation to the first. Printing in black and white is especially about how tones within the finished image relate to one another. This process of assessment may not suite everyone, others may prefer to look at highlights and low values of a print overall to begin their process, but apart from gross overexposure or underexposure I find this process difficult for me. I like to go straight to the feeling of the image.
Typically on a 16×20 inch print like the Lefroy Brook one above, I will spend several hours making test strips. I will be searching for the highlights that make the print sing and the low values that anchor the tones to a deep baritone base, revealing the beauty and tonal depth of a silver gelatin print. In the process I will often find a few printing problems that will call on my darkroom craftsmanship to solve. Sometimes they remain unsolvable but instead present an opportunity to learn about fine tuning your craft and technique.
By midday I will start making the first full size images based upon a proper exposure to the highlights. Then I will begin the first series of refinements using various test strip information. This may include some addition exposure (burning in) of print areas or shielding of areas (dodging) from the base exposure. This is an important stage because up to now only test strips have been made and this is the first opportunity to see the print in its entirety and observe the overall relationship of tones. Further refinements of dodging and burning may be required to balance the print tones and maximise details in the soft creamy whites of the prints.
To keep track of these adjustments I write them down on the reverse side of the print with a black china marker. Once all the adjustments have been completed to my satisfaction, I then set about making 4 or 5 finished prints based upon the printing recipe I have constructed. Notes on how I made the print are kept for future reference in a notebook, illustrated above.
It is now about mid afternoon and I have made 4 or 5 prints from the one negative. All test strips and work prints are discarded, only the remaining 4 or 5 are washed, treated in hypo clearing agent to clear any residual fixer, then washed for several more hours. The wet print are then dried face down on plastic screen mesh where they air dry for at least 24 hours at room temp. At a later stage I will selenium tone the prints and rewash and dry.
By the time the print is toned, trimmed and dry mounted onto 100% cotton rag museum board, then window mounted and framed you are looking at several days work, but I get a deep satisfaction when I view the finished images knowing that I have been responsible for every stage in bringing a print from just an idea into existence.