July 11, 2012 Author: Adam Bartos
Darkroom is the latest book from photographer Adam Bartos, a sort of anthropological study of the darkroom as it becomes an obsolete space in the world of photograph creation. Showing a series of still-life scenes from various darkrooms, predominately in New York, the world of darkroom development is observed. By recording these scenes absent of those who use it (and, therefore, also of how it’s used), the spaces occasionally resemble unquantifiable laboratories of unidentifiable contraptions. Simple one line descriptions offer the only context, for example, “Manhattan, NY, 14 years, May 2008”. By making this choice, this survey of darkrooms becomes a game of affection and nostalgia for those who worked or still work in darkrooms, and a game of exclusion and mystery for those who have no experience. During this current period of time when darkrooms are still present, albeit arcane, the mystery does not overwhelm the accessibility – yet perhaps in terms of a historical document, this book may find itself inexplicable as more years pass, providing only pictorial evidence of relics reduced to thingamajigs and quaint whatsits.
No review of this book could be accurate without mentioning the book released in 2007 by Nazraeli Press of the same name, Darkroom, by Michel Campeau, edited by Martin Parr. With arguably the same intentions of documenting a withering practice, using similar choices of style in terms of still life photography of the space without its inhabitants, and even choosing to use the same somewhat awkwardly large book format (30.5cm x 30.5cm for Campeau’s book versus 29cm x 37cm for Bartos’ book), it’s a question worth asking if this book needed to be made.
Where Bartos succeeds is in capturing the secret of a darkroom which is known by any person who has built one: a darkroom is not built in one day, but evolves over time. The longer you’re in the space, the more you shape it for efficiency or simply based on preferences: Some types of clips are chosen over others, duct tape becomes a legitimate way of pushing light the way you want it to go, hanging a bottle of wetting agent on a string dangling from the ceiling may be the perfect way to get to it, and the constant battle between the precise control of light and dust with the inevitable clutter of equipment.
In this regard, Bartos’ book is not a guide to aid future generations in understanding darkrooms, nor an emotionally distant cabinet of curiosities. It’s a love song to the darkroom, a swan song for a dying art, and a celebration of what it is not just to work in a darkroom, but really live with one.
Darkroom is available for sale from publisher Steidl.
Reviewed by Katherine Oktober Matthews.