In a back room of the Quay County Sun building, there’s an old darkroom that sheds new light on a lot of memories for an old reporter who used to take pictures that then had to be processed in total darkness.
It seems not that long ago that anyone who used a camera seriously had to learn how open a film cartridge in blackness so complete that you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face if it poked you in the eye.
The trick was then to wind the film onto a metal-wire spool without having winds of the film overlap each other. Once you got the film properly onto the spool, you had to place the spool into a metal container that looked like a cross between a Martini shaker and a DVD holder. In the container, you had already mixed your Dektol, the film-developing chemical, with water.
Then you could turn on the light while the developer coaxed negatives out of the film’s coating. After a few minutes, you had to turn out the light and place your spool in another solution called a “stop bath,” which slammed the brakes on the development process, then into a “fixer” to harden the images. You could then remove the film with the light on, rinse and dry it. That’s why you still see a clothesline and clothespins over the sinks of the old Sun darkroom.
Then came the printing, which converted the negative’s “opposite” shades of gray, or its wrong colors, into the correct shades or colors on the positive print. A good photographer (not me) became quite adept at “reading” the negative to see immediately how good the final picture would be.
You made your print by the eerie red glow of a darkroom lamp whose color did not register on photo print paper. You placed the transparent negative into a tray on an enlarger, which projected the image onto a frame.
Once you got the image to the proper size and focus, you turned off the enlarger, locked print paper onto the frame and turned on the enlarger for a few seconds to beam the image into the paper. You could adjust the amount of light on different parts of the print by “dodging” and “burning.”
Then, you brought the paper to pans of the chemicals that revealed and hardened the image. The image then went face up or down on a slowly rotating drying drum. Face up for a matte print, face down for a glossy.
At a large news operation, this process was repeated sometimes hundreds of times a day.
Digital cameras and programs like Photoshop have replaced this time-consuming process and made photo news reportable in minutes. No need for the news darkroom. Also gone is the darkroom’s vinegar-meets-acetone reek that permeated and in some ways defined the small newspaper offices of yore, but today a whiff of that chemical fragrance instantly catapults me to the 1970s.
There I am, stomping into a newsroom from the scene of breaking news, the story racing around in my head, rushing film to photog, then plopping down at my desk to hammer out the story on an old typewriter amid the clacking, shouting daily crisis of deadline. As fondly as I remember those days, I have to admit, things are much better now.
Steve Hansen is the managing editor at the Quay County Sun. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org