Charlie Waite | The Darkroom Diary

"It has been perhaps 20 years or more since I've made silver halide prints in the darkroom with my Omega 5 X 4" enlarger, and cold cathode head. For my Hidden Works exhibition, I had 25 monochrome prints to make in three days. To many who spend much time in their darkrooms, this would represent a morning's work yet to me, it amounted to excited apprehension, mixed with deep nostalgia. 


The apprehension was based around my ability to recall that during the 1980s and 1990s my darkroom technique was second nature. Two things I had no difficulty in remembering. First, the indescribable joy at making a successful monochrome silver halide print and second, the rubbish bin often full of 'nearly but not quite' successes. The bin needed to be full. But could I remember the technique and more importantly, my way of making prints that was special to me and that I had worked on for 20 years or more?


'And so, it was' as they say, that on Friday March 13th 2020, I returned to the darkroom for three consecutive days. I started work at 10.00am and by only 11.30am, 25 years of darkroom memories and technique all came flooding back.


I'm a great supporter of making pigment prints from original, high quality digital files and the immense pleasure that can be found from printing in this style. Comparisons need not be drawn and are almost pointless, but perhaps I could briefly explore what it is about making monochrome silver halide prints in my darkroom that I treasure.


There is much to be said about the chemistry, but it is rather extraordinary to ponder on the fact that the familiar negative is rarely seen by the current generation except perhaps unless a key is incorrectly pressed during a digital post-processing sequence on the computer. There is now little of that wonderful investigation of the negative, to confirm both correct exposure and correct film development time, to adjust high or low contrast. A good 'neg' is the thing.


It occurred to me that in the darkroom it is the tactile nature and creative control of the entire process that is so important to me. It is my hands that sandwich the negative of the photograph into the negative carrier of the enlarger; and place the blank white sheet of fibre-based paper onto the easel; and reach up to the enlarger lens to adjust the aperture and control filtration; then finally before the exposure is made, it is my hand that sets the timer to deliver the correct exposure time.


Then, all by hand, any dodging or burning of specific targeted areas of the image will hopefully be managed successfully. It is critical to me to be able to interpret the negative with my own fingers and hands.


With a small yet precious piece of card with an aperture in its centre, or a narrow gauge stiff wire wand with a card the size of a small coin attached to the end, I would with great care and much counting lighten or darken particular areas of the image.


Finally, the timer turns the enlarger off and I carefully scoop the white sheet of exposed yet still invisible image, and drop it into the developer which has been awaiting its arrival.


Then, after such tender and careful nurturing, the most magical experience, an almost sacred moment arrives; the image, faintly to begin with, silently appears. This moment never fails to hugely move me. Unlike the image now available to be seen within a millisecond of exposure on the back of the digital camera, the last time that I saw mine would have been when the photograph was made perhaps some twenty or so years ago on film, or as a small positive on a contact sheet shortly after film processing.


By hand I grasp a bamboo tong to lift the still slightly dripping print from the developer and drop it into the stop bath, and subsequently the fix and wash, where it will remain for perhaps twenty minutes.


Then finally the careful drying procedure, where all the patient work that went before is finally experienced in the form of the finished silver halide print. Without wishing to be too fanciful, there does seem to be a degree of soul within the print, perhaps because so much nurturing investment went into its birth.


The ultimate reward comes at the end, with the rather beautiful realisation that from the very start of this deeply personal process to the very end, I never lost sight of it, I never lost touch with my photograph."  Charlie Waite, April 2020




April 6, 2020