Holding Imagination In Your Hand

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I was young, maybe six. I stood beside my dad in the darkened room. I was just a little boy, too short to reach the countertop so I used a stool. I loved the odd smells, strange yet pleasant, of Dektol and hypo and acetic acid. I loved the dim amber illumination. And I loved my Dad.

There were giant boxes of paper that couldn’t be opened to the light and a monstrous scythe we used to cut the paper to size. We had a funny looking Weston thermometer with the big round dial and a boxy GraLab timer that counted backwards for hours on end. There were a stainless steel squirrel cage for washing our prints, homemade racks for drying them and a press for mounting our finished work. Everything we could need.

This was Dad’s darkroom. In this place he performed magic for me, making pictures appear out of nothing. He was my teacher, I his pupil, and in this classroom I fell in love with photography.

For Dad and me it was never just about the final print; it was about the process, about the making of something. Many photographers used dodging and burning tools made of wire and cardboard. None of that in Dad’s darkroom! We mastered the light with nothing but our bare hands, shaping and feathering and diffusing it until our vision came to life on the paper.

We spent hours on end in that darkroom getting our hands wet, agitating and swirling our prints until the images appeared like specters. We’d rub stubborn spots with our palms to speed up development and work short stop into others with our fingertips to slow things down.

In our minds we believed in what our prints could become and in dad’s darkroom we transformed our imagination into reality. When I was six, I believed there was magic in that developer, but when I grew up I came to understand that the real magic was in our hands.

Photography, like other art, has always been a visceral experience. But our digital age has undeniably and fundamentally changed the process. No longer is it a physical one, but a virtual one. And who can say that isn’t better? It is certainly more practical. I embrace digital photography and appreciate its many conveniences. But for me, the pleasure of the creative experience has diminished and I miss the tangible connection to the art that I once enjoyed.

I miss holding imagination in my hands.

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