The phone rang. It was the director of St. Mary’s Art Center in Virginia City, NV informing me that demolition of the darkroom was about to begin. She asked if I wanted to photograph it before it was gone. As a member of the board, I knew this was going to happen, but so soon? The window frames in that room were dry rotting and we had received a grant to replace them. Oliver Gagliani, a close associate of Ansel Adams, had built the darkroom against the windows so demolition was the only way to get them out.
I grabbed my large format and digital cameras and headed out the door. It was a 25 mile drive from Reno and I hoped I wasn’t too late. Emotion seized me as I drove remembering all the workshops I had taught there. They were summer workshops because there wasn’t heat in the building, and Erik and I were on break from our usual teaching load at the local community college. Erik Lauritzen and I taught The Nevada Landscape Photography Workshop focused on the surrounding countryside. The darkroom was on the first floor so it was cool, no air conditioning needed. Those were the good old days.
When I arrived, the crew had removed all the equipment and were waiting patiently for me to quickly get things photographed so that they could start. They didn’t realize I needed to set up all the equipment and pay careful attention to detail in order to show it just the way it was historically. I photographed the room from several angles thinking all the while that it was sad to be tearing out what could have been considered a historic site.
It was February 2009 and the darkroom hadn’t been used for a year. Replacing it was not an option as space was at a premium. As I wrapped up shooting I could tell the crew was a bit cranky that I had taken so long. I left in a hurry not wanting to see the destruction.
That was the day something dawned on me. Something that became larger than myself. Darkrooms were disappearing. Could I do something about it? I talked with my friend Al Weber and he suggested that I come over to the Monterey Peninsula and document the very impressive labs that were still in operation. He said he knew of about 30 of them. Thus my trips to Monterey to photograph darkrooms began. Al knew every photographer and darkroom for miles around. He introduced me to many of the locals who had known or worked with Ansel Adams. This was West Coast photography country and I had landed right in the middle of it. I felt very privileged.
The objective of this project was to document remaining darkrooms and to capture the unique essence of individual’s private labs. It was not the objective to show perfection in these labs but rather to show work-places that are photographically functional. Each photographer was asked for permission to photograph his or her darkroom. They were also asked to provide a biographic narrative of their involvement in photography. It was interesting to find that photographers rarely photograph their own darkrooms.
With the coming of the digital age, many darkrooms have disappeared. Darkroom equipment can be found for pennies on the dollar at the auction block or in the classified ads. It also is being hauled to the dump. Spaces once reserved for darkrooms are being converted to alternative uses and their value as places for creativity is being lost.
A book of this project was always in the back of my mind. When I had 20 darkrooms shot, I began pulling together the book, titled In From the Light. I had used blurb.com to make books before. The software is free to download, it is user friendly, and I’ve found the color to be pretty good. Blurb is a books-on-demand company, meaning you can buy one at a time or order many. I can always add more photographers or information if I desire. It is handy to make prototypes to take to a publisher for consideration.
The only drawbacks are that it is a little expensive, plus you have to do your own promotion and advertising. You also do your own proofing by going over the content many times and letting others go over it until you think it is polished. You then order one book and usually find more errors. After about the third proof you are finished.
While documenting darkrooms for future generations to see, ironically, the best tool to do the work was a digital camera. Digital was more versatile than film because it could handle the extreme exposure ranges required. It could also be easily uploaded to a digital book format. A constant reminder during shooting was that memory cards and computers have replaced film and the darkroom with an enormous paradigm shift. Photographing analog darkrooms with a digital camera seemed to be a contradiction.
As the project developed, it became clear that there were similarities between each photographer’s workspace and their artistic philosophy. For example, if a photographer worked more abstractly, paying less attention to detail, their darkroom reflected that through organization and layout.
And finally, these darkroom images are a series of photographs about photography. In essence, it is art about art making. The photographs illustrate such concepts as tools and tool making for the darkroom or the metaphor of how light reflects and interacts in a darkroom.
An exhibition is currently being planned to show individually framed photographs of darkrooms singularly or in grids, alongside extremely large images of darkrooms. Three-dimensional objects that are found in the darkroom also will be displayed to give the exhibition depth. At this time in photographic history it is important to focus attention on darkroom spaces to capture what they look like, why they are still being used, and how they have brought photographers in from the light.
On a final note−after the construction and as of this writing, St. Mary’s once again has a darkroom!
Editor’s Note: To see more of Nolan’s darkroom photographs visit blurb. com and search his name.