No Undoing

It may be time for me to sell my camera.

It really sucks to write that.

My camera (well, a camera) has always been with me since I was about 14 and my dad gave me an old one to work with.

Color was beyond my budget so I worked in black and white. I still prefer black and white. But what I really loved more than anything was the time in the darkroom or photo lab.

Black and white, isn’t a true depiction of the world. No photo is, but black and white barely even pretends. It’s an interpretation of the world into shades of gray. To light and shadows. What makes a piece of paper covered with spaces of light and shadow into an exemplary work of art is the uniqueness and the craft that goes into the interpretation. That interpretation used to be done painstakingly in chemistry, and today is done in bits and bytes on a Photoshop screen.

The joy of photography for me was never in the finished product, and certainly not the moment of capturing the image on film. The joy was in that painstaking work that it took to bring my vision of what the negative could be, into being on paper. Many of the photos I considered my best, didn’t ever make it out of a storage box. I didn’t and still don’t care. What mattered to me was the precious time I spent designing, planning and crafting them. That experience is now lost.

I’m not one of those people who will deny the skill and craft of those who labor in Photoshop. The masters of it are as technically fluent as the greatest of the old darkroom masters. I will simply assert that it is not fun for me.

I do this, or did it, as a hobby. I am not paid and there is no reason for me to spend a lot of time on something that I don’t enjoy. The darkroom, to me, was fun. Some of my best hours were spent in the darkroom and it is one of the few places where I have experienced what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “Flow” — the suspension of time, the freedom of complete absorption in an activity to the exclusion of all else. It was the perfect antidote to the worst tendencies of my non-linear thought process.

The darkroom is where I could find myself wondering how it was 6am, after I went in for a “quick” printing session after dinner. It’s where I could detach myself from everything, connected only to the smooth hum of the ventilation fan, the trickle of water slowly rinsing acid from the finished prints, and the sometimes harsh, sometimes sweeter smells emerging from the four trays of liquid that each print had to move through after exposure and manipulation in the enlarger.

The darkroom — or someplace near it — is where I painstakingly examined the test prints and mapped out how to manipulate them: a little dodging (lightening) here; 30% burning (darkening) over there; 3 seconds of pre-exposure for the top half of the sheet; selecting how light or dark the paper needed to be and what the optimal paper contrast should be; it became a long, detailed recipe for each print.

And that recipe was summed up in a “map” and that map might take hours to get right. Some of my favorite prints had as many as a dozen minor adjustments all of which had to be done during the exposure of the paper in the enlarger. For each of these, there might be a specific (sometimes custom made) tool to manipulate the light hitting a certain section of the sheet of paper just so. Then you had to execute it perfectly.

Working on good quality paper meant that every print — even the tests — was expensive. Working on film meant that every time you clicked the shutter some money was spent. This forced rigor about when to press the shutter, which negatives to choose for printing, and how careful the map had to be for it to all come together.

If you got it wrong, the cost was many hours, and many, many dollars of material.

There are many types of creativity. Mine was a creativity driven by limits. You could only afford so much film, so many sheets of paper, and so many hours of experimentation. The limits forced a certain discipline and selectiveness on the process. When I talk to people who are effective in the digital world, the creativity is different. It is one of excess.

There are more controls in Photoshop than any one person will ever remember, and that’s before you add plug-in applications like Silver Efex. You can snap unlimited numbers of photos and quickly scan through them on the computer screen to pick the best 1 of the 100 different versions you just captured. The only cost to trying anything you want is a few seconds of your time.

The undo button is the ultimate expression of this creativity of excess. Get something wrong? Hit undo (Ctrl-Z). Try something else. Start over. Create a new Photoshop layer. If you don’t like it, turn it off. Delete it. It takes seconds to try, and even less to reset and do it again.

The undo button is hit millions of times an hour all over the world. Each time it’s used, a bit of work that was tried is discarded and forgotten as quickly as it came into being.

In chemistry, nothing was discarded. Even a bad experiment cost money and was worth keeping, along with the careful notes about how it was created, in case there was something useful to be learned from it.

There’s an immense power to being able to work in a world of undos, especially if you’re doing commercial work where time is money. I’m not here to knock it, just to say that no matter how much I try, I struggle to find a hobbyist’s appeal to such a disjointed experience, I’ve never found anything to compare to the quiet Flow of the darkroom.

And so, maybe having a couple of thousand dollars of camera equipment doesn’t make sense anymore.

I suppose if I had unlimited time, space and money, I could collect the right old equipment to work in the film-based world again, and could afford to chase down the increasingly rare and hard to find materials needed for it. But that’s not my reality. I’ve tried other things.

I switched from my old bulky Nikons to the small, svelte Fuji mirrorless system. It helped somewhat. At least this setup isn’t too heavy to take anywhere. I’ve done my best to be as good at the new technologies as I was at the old. I’m pretty solid in my digital manipulation skillset, at least as is relevant to the black and white images I still want to make.

I’ve snapped the shutter a lot of times this past year. (What else is there to do during a pandemic?) Few of the images have even made it to the computer screen, let alone to a sheet of paper. Photoshop is not much fun, and that doesn’t make for much of a hobby. I already spend enough of my life in front of a computer screen doing things I don’t want to do.

They say that when one door closes another will open. If I stop trying to re-create an experience that’s long gone, perhaps I’ll find something else. I did that with my travel and vacations a few years ago and it kind of worked. (Resuming this is pending pandemic realities and access to somebody special on the other side of the border.)

If I stop struggling to make photography work for me, could I find something else? Something that gets me into the same state of Flow I used to experience in photography? Maybe.

I don’t know what that thing might be. I can’t know until I look.

But I know one thing.

It doesn’t have an undo button.