“The Darkness is actually the human being’s most natural place to feel safe.
But somewhere down the line we seem to have forgotten about that.”
– Bharati Corinna Glaner
Spiritbalance Sadhana Ashram.
In this expressive and casual article, I wish to reflect and mediate a bit upon The Colour Darkroom as a mental, meditative place and as a particular time-zone for contemplativeness and bodily awareness. I will not go into deep details about the technicalities and history of the RA4 printing process, nor will I draw upon theorists and philosophers. It will purely be a personal piece of writing based on own experiences, reflections and knowledge gained by working in this magical space for 12 years alongside colleagues and practitioners that share the same mindset as myself. Also, I think it is extremely important in the time and day that we live in, in 2018, to talk about the slowness that it entails being an analogue printer. Slowness as being a positive and healing thing.
I am an analogue printer and artist. I have often been met with a notion that it is almost a statement to say that. However, to me it not a statement, but simply a preference that has grown stronger as the years has gone by. Without The Colour Darkroom, I would never have chosen photography as my main medium as a visual artist, and it is basically where everything begins and ends for me.
So firstly, to elaborate a bit on my strong relationship with The Colour Darkroom; The main part of my artistic practice is printing my images in that “space” and that part of the process is crucial to me. It is the setting where a big part of the reflective-process about the work happens. In that room, another mental space is created – another time-zone – where one can let the thoughts about the work grow, develop, and expand while printing. It all comes down to working the image in a very physical way, which creates a strong bond and relationship with the work. It is also the place where I re-position myself in terms of looking objectively at the work and de-personalising the subject-matter. That space in the colour-darkroom is essential to my creative process and the way I work, develop, and build on my ideas. To me The Colour Darkroom is not post-production, it is the production and the most exciting part of the process. It is pure passion, blood, sweat and tears, while you are working, fighting, and giving birth to the print together with the RA4 machine. – Sitting on a bucket exposing while talking to the paper being exposed, breaking your back, sore feet from doing the night-shift over 12 hours, dancing when a test-strip comes out right and in the winters getting the warmth while by curling up close to the machine, praying that the fixer won’t go bad before you managed to land a fixation and filtration, otherwise you have to start from scratch again and put the cleaning gloves on. I could go on and on, but basically it is pure devotion regarding the colour-darkroom and everything that surrounds that specific setting.
One of the most important things is also to respect the RA4 machine. And I mean really respect it and care for it! That means not forcing the machine (since it is an old type of equipment we are dealing with here) to print when it really needs a break, maintenance, new chemistry, repairing, cleaning, cooling down or simply just wants to be “stroked” and talked with a little. You go through the process of printing and making the work together with the machine, so you need to acknowledge that like human beings it too has needs and can be a bit inscrutable, “cranky” and upset like yourself. I always develop a personal relationship to the machines I work with, and I can get quite superstitious and protective around them – I also tend to name and gender them.
To me, The Colour Darkroom is more about a certain awareness and bodily manner of engaging than it maybe is about the quality of the print– All that other stuff about being a major geek about paper, fixation a filtration is just a great side benefit that comes with that game. But first it starts with a pure magical feeling that is almost too incredible to describe. I know it all sounds corny, but that is how I experience it. Before an ideal printing-session I prepare myself mentally. It is a bit like before beginning a meditation- or yoga session. You take a certain “hat” on, do a “zen” and try to shake off all the other stress, worries or shit that the day may have contained up to that point. You know that you are about to do something that requires that you cannot be stressed or impatient. Printing in The Colour Darkroom is as much a physical exercise as it is a mental exercise. If you go for a run, ideally you also stretch beforehand. If you do not warm up your muscles, you will most likely get sore the next day, have a bad running-session ore even injure yourself. This reassembles how I mentally stretch before I am about to do a printing session. I know it might sound a bit religious to some people, but it is a sacred moment before, during and after you do a print. It takes time to feel it and process it. If you happen to go in and print without having mentally prepared yourself, and of course that happens a lot when you have a deadline, I find that it takes me much longer to be absorbed with the flow and sync into that certain mode, usually prolonging the time it takes to land a filtration and image. Thus wasting more valuable paper and expensive chemistry. Once you have gone into the dark room it is all about sinking into the feeling and just going with the flow – if you have a great session it can also become somewhat tantric and ecstatic in there. There is no light (unlike to the B&W darkroom) and the darkness surrounds you like water – a protective and soothing blanket – it carries you like a friendly element. Because it is pitch black in there you must use your body and feel yourself around like a blind person – only knowing within your inner mental sight where you are. In the beginning as a rookie printer, you look like a battered person because you take so much bruising from bumping into things. But soon your night vision will be highly developed, and your brain starts to adjust – you actually become able to “see” in there, although in the real meaning of the sense of course you cannot. The Darkness is almost symbiotic, and I experience it as a very safe and tranquil condition. Essentially the most natural place for almost every living creature to feel safe is the darkness. When we lie in our mother’s wombs as foetuses we are surrounded by nothing but liquid and darkness – being held, nurtured, and cared for, while we grow. Hence the opening quote of this piece of writing. In more “fancy” labs, such as the one available for instance at The Valand Academy there is a certain light available in each enlarger cubicle and above the paper cutter. A very dimmed special type of light which does not harm the photo-paper. With this light on, you are able to see a tiny bit more. However, I never turn it on if I work alone and it is just for me to decide, since I love when it is pitch black. The darker the better – the safer and calmer it feels. With the darkness also comes a certain silence and contemplativeness. A somewhat rural intimacy and vulnerability. Within the circle of these sensitive parameters magic happens and the birth of the print takes place. For me it can take 1-2 days to make a final print, and there is a lot of waiting time while the test-strips are being processed through the machine. In that time a lot of reflection naturally occurs. When you work the print in such a physical way and bodily manner as with analogue printing process, it opens your perception – the bodily lived experience so to say. These years there are a lot of focus on mindfulness and getting “in touch” with yourself. Since many of us human beings live our stressed lives against nature instead of with it, we seek yoga, meditation etc. to tune in, recharge our energies and relax. Mindfulness has almost become a hip word thrown around in all sorts of contexts. This mental state, that is mindfulness, is essentially attained when one channels all one’s awareness onto the current moment, and tries to acknowledge and accept one’s immediate feelings, thoughts, reflections, and bodily sensations – and it is popularly used as a therapeutic technique. I think it is a bit pretentious to call it mindfulness and I am quite annoyed that the term is being thrown around like it is. I mean, it is not rocket-science – we need to fucking slow down and tune in. Instead of taking a weekend of spa and yoga-mindfulness courses, I often tend to joke that people should just go and join the darkroom instead.
The Slowness that is such an integral part of the process of printing in The Colour Darkroom is a very important aspect to consider. Slowness is for me a very beautiful thing – It is in many ways a healing state of mind to allow yourself to be slow. In this time and day that we live in, at least in many places in the western world, it is almost a shamed thing to be slow. However, we need it more now than ever. When you slow down you also allow yourself to tune in and be perceptive. I am not saying that everyone that works in The Colour Darkroom works slowly, but whether you are a race-horse or a snail it does requires a lot of slowness and patience to print in the darkroom. Every print is different and requires a different energy to be born. You cannot adopt the same pace to every image, as it is also about having a dialogue with the prints and accepting and surrendering to the fact that you need to do what the image wants. But slowness is healing – it makes you aware.
My relationship with the work changes once it is out of The Colour-Darkroom and mounted, ready to be installed. That is where the synergy breaks. The symbiose in the darkroom is, I must say, mostly connected to the actual print and giving birth to that. It is not so much a symbiose with the subject matter as it is, as I say, also the place where I often de-personalise the subject-matter. So, when the work is exhibited, and out of “the dark” it becomes something else. It becomes independent. And it is super-exiting that once it is on the wall anything can happen. You cannot expect people to feel and think certain things – I do not have the right to do that. I just always hope they feel at least something. What is important to me is each individual viewer’s personal embodiment and feeling of the works (if any). And you can never predict that. And that is what is the most exciting and often rewarding part of exhibiting. But whatever happens after the print has been born in The Colour Darkroom no-one can take away the magical time you spend alone with the print – working it over and over and over and over again – till it tells you that it is “ready”. You had that time with it – you built a relationship with it. You know your images/prints deeply for the sole reason that you choose to give birth to it in the darkroom. And that is in my opinion invaluable.
A very good example of a visual artist and photographer who prints exclusively in the darkroom, mainly The Colour Darkroom, is Danish-born Fie Tanderup1. She is the only visual artist I know that incorporates The Colour Darkroom and the mindset that it entails, expressed in this article, onto her way of existing in the world and as a general way of manoeuvring and operating. The mindset of the Colour Darkroom becomes a way to negotiate and adapt her behaviour, so life again has meaning and becomes bearable. She uses it quite often as therapeutic thing, sometimes she just comes to sit in the dark to chill out. The Colour Darkroom can hold and contain every emotion; anger, pain, depression, sorrow, joy, confusion etc. And the best thing is, that this space never judges you! On the contrary – it meets you where you are at and gently holds you with a hole lot of love and empathy.
This piece of writing was an attempt to put some of my personal thoughts and reflections of The Colour Darkroom down on paper. I am not in any way saying, that my experience of operating in The Colour Darkroom reassembles “everyones” sensation of it. This was just my humble viewpoint. It was also a tiny way for me to pay my deep respect and gratitude to the RA4 printing process and every Colenta and RA4 machines out there still being operated, maintained, and going strong. And to the people still keeping at it – because who knows for how long we will be able to have this?
So, if I have intrigued those of you, who have never worked in The Colour Darkroom before, just get in touch and we can go in there together. Come as you are – we really need more people!