What’s That Smell?

I received a tour of the Seattle Times photography department recently. I’ve always enjoyed seeing the insides of a newspaper office ever since I first walked into the small cramped offices of The Village Times (the local hometown weekly newspaper in Setauket, New York) in 1983 as a high schooler.

Rod Mar, my tour guide through the Seattle Times, showed us the various areas of the operation, and as we were walking past one room, I picked up a familiar scent, and it stopped me dead in my tracks.

“What’s in here?” I asked as I walked into a small, dark and damp room.

“It’s a darkroom, dude,” Rod said. “Remember those?”

“Yeah, I know that, but does it still work? I mean, is this FOR REAL?!” I asked.

“Yes. One of the photographers still uses it,” he said. “He’s hardcore.”

I couldn’t help it. I took pictures. It was like walking back in time, through places in my brain that I forgot were still there. The surroundings were comfortable, and familiar. The processing trays were tilted up in drying position. The timer, with its glowing green dial, was waiting patiently next to the enlarger.

I still remember how to use everything too. I can still process a roll of film and make a print by hand.

I felt like I was on an archeological dig, as I was taking pictures of the ancient relics that have become nearly extinct thanks to today’s computers and digital cameras.

Then I realized that all of this information is still taking up space in my brain. (Something about the smell of fixer will do this to you. If you ever want to travel back in time, and take a little mental journey through your past, I suggest you smell some fixer. It’s a trip!)

Unlike PhotoShelter, my brain has a limited amount of storage. Most of the things that are stored there are there for good, and cannot be deleted — permanently burned into my memory. And many of these things are no longer needed.

The ability to “double-roll” film
Putting 2 rolls of film on the same stainless steel reel in order to develop twice the amount of film at the same time is still taking up space in my brain. (Not to mention the ability to put the film on the stainless steel reel, something that took me a few years to do with confidence.)

Human Thermometer
Remember how 68 degrees was the default optimal temperature for processing black and white film? I sure do. And I am still able to stick my hand in water and tell you at exactly what point it hits 68 degrees. I taught myself how to do this ages ago, in case I ever found myself in a situation where there was no thermometer, and I needed to get film processed. Well, that info is still there.

Human Stopwatch
Another trick I taught myself in the darkroom is the ability to count off minutes and seconds exactly &mash; without having to look at a timer or a clock. This still comes in handy today from time to time (no pun intended), but not that often.

Hand Contortionist
Making prints often required you to twist your hands into odd shapes, useful for “dodging and burning.” My hands are still capable of this, yet there is no practical use for it.

What would I do with this space in my brain if I could erase the things I no longer need? I’m not quite sure. But I have become totally addicted to my car’s satellite navigation system because I can barely drive around the corner without it. I can’t remember phone numbers, and without the phone book in my BlackBerry, I would be unable to contact a single person, and I can’t remember birthdays without the calendar software I use on my PowerBook.

Perhaps I might stop relying on all my techno gadgets to keep me organized, connected, and on time?

Call me a romantic, or an old-timer unwilling to let go of the past, but the nasty smell of fixer, and all the things that go with it, is something I don’t think I ever want to forget.

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There is 1 comment for this article
  1. James W at 6:07 am

    Oh how I can so relate. It sometimes seems crazy to think that some photographers have never had the pleasure of shooting with film, smelling the fixer and holding little wires with paper cutouts to dodge and burn, thanks for the memory!

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