I remember a time when creating black-and-white images required a whole lot more than just a click a of the mouse. When hours spent processing negatives through a series of chemical-filled trays would give me a headache, a high or probably a bit of both afterward, and I waited for what felt like forever while my photographs dried.
It was tedious and glorious, helping an image emerge from the void.
Don’t get me wrong, I am a digital convert today. Although it took me a very long time to come over to the dark side. I appreciate the things I can do with both my color and black and white images now, the ways I can stretch and mold them, make them speak more to my experience than I could in the old days.
But those were also the days when I fell truly in love with photography.
I adored black-and-white film processing. Heading down to the lab after shooting a few rolls of film, eager to see what I’d captured. Turning on the darkroom lights, working in the quiet, shutting out the world, focusing only on the creation at hand. It was my own private Eden.
I didn’t mind the smells, the time it all took, the hours of occasionally wasted effort. It was all part of the fun. And I didn’t have another alternative, digital was still far-off dream. So there was nothing, really, to miss.
Creating images seemed a more fragile thing then, delicate, an art in and of itself. It required not only a good eye for taking pictures initially, but tactile skill and tangible effort in their development. Not that I was an expert at it. I could easily ruin negatives with incorrect processing, or waste sheets of pricey Kodachrome paper with too much or to little dodging and burning.
If I was lucky, after hours of working, waiting and watching, I would come away with one or two great photographs. But I could never know it until after they were developed, had come swimming to life in a tray of fixer or emerged fully formed from the enlarger.
Whatever the results were, I loved taking the chance, succeeding and failing, getting my hands dirty.
But nowadays I use my computer, like most people. And even though I do appreciate the ease and flexibility digital gives me, I think the fact that creating meaningful images used to be real work is something I often miss. It was a hands-on process that appealed as much to the artist in me as to the artisan, the craftsperson.
When I see or create a black-and-white image I love now, it reminds of those heady, long-gone days, and all the feelings that went with them. It’s a high I’m pretty sure that I’m still chasing today.