Film Photography & Darkroom Printing in the Digital Age

Does film photography and darkroom printing still have relevance in the digital age?

I’m approaching this topic as cautiously as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. It’s no coincidence that when trawling through photography forums on this topic, friendly advice and information sharing turns into an all-out assault on personal opinions and practice.

My recent undertaking of The Fox Darkroom has pushed and pulled me (bad pun intended) so far back into the world of film photography and darkroom printing that I have had the question thrust at me countless times in the past few months: Why film?

For me it has always been a simple answer: film and digital are inherently different mediums and should be used for different purposes. Both have pros and cons, and both should continue to be used in this day and age. That said, it’s my opinion that with the digital age, something has been lost.  In a world where everything is mass produced and instantaneous, we have become careless about producing imagery. The biggest advantage of the traditional process is that you have to be deliberate about communicating an idea through photography.

When exploring this topic, I encourage you to not think of photography as the moment when you take a photo. The debate of film versus digital doesn’t begin or end with releasing the shutter and capturing your image. Anybody who has invested significant time and effort into communicating an idea through photography (professional and amateur alike) will appreciate how much time can be spent building concepts, selecting equipment and the hours put in during post-production. Because the traditional process won’t allow for shortcuts such as batch actions or Instagram filters, you make decisions about how your image will look and ‘feel’ from the moment you select film and pick chemicals, right through to developing and paper selection.  All these factors impact how and what your image communicates to the viewer. Because of these necessary steps, traditional photography will always have merit.

Don’t get me wrong – I fully embrace the digital age and all that comes with it.  As a working photographer, you would simply be out of work if you tried to deny it. I am also guilty of being generation Y – rolling through my Facebook feed when I should be taking in what’s in front of me. That said, I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way; lately I have been feeling somewhat disconnected from being always connected.

During my quest to build the darkroom, I found myself picking up some old literature. I was blown away by how insightful some of the predictions about the future were. Take this little gem from The New Darkroom Handbook 1998 – in this chapter, the author puts forward some of their thoughts on the digital age.

“In the final chapter on digital darkrooms, we will see how you may create a ‘darkroom’ that is nothing more than a table top with a few pieces of electronic equipment on it. Under this system, there is no need to isolate yourself in a dark space, surrounded by large and sometimes noisy pieces of equipment that are based on concepts more than 100 years old. Here there are no chemicals, no orders, no skin irritations. And yet, perhaps the feeling of actually making something by a hand is lost. Is the manipulation of a mouse and the insertion of piece of paper in a machine as satisfying as working on an image under the light and time constraints of a traditional exposure? Is there more satisfaction in sloshing a piece of paper around in a series of trays? Each photography must decide for him or herself, but there seems to be nothing quite so satisfying to human beings as actually touching things with their hands.”