Monday, December 12, 2011

Joys of the darkroom: Martha Casanave

(We asked the California photographer and consummate artist Martha Casanave for a few words on her practice.  Here is what she sent us. - DC)

Casanave, silver photogram, 2007
I'll never forget that magic moment the first time I visited a darkroom - I must have been 14 or 15 - and I saw an image appear on a blank piece of paper in the developer tray.  From that moment on I was hooked.  I had to have a darkroom wherever I was living - first in the family bathroom, later in the bedrooms of a succession of rental apartments.  For the rest of my life, I've had recurrent dreams about frustrated efforts to lightproof a room, or moving to a new home and wondering where the darkroom would be.

For me, working in the darkroom makes photographic activity whole, it rounds out the experience.  The camera work is like the shining part of the moon; developing and printing is the dark side.  There you have it - the whole moon. 

One pleasure of the darkroom is that I can shut out the world, and enter another one.  I can slam that door, check it with my hip, and be entirely alone.  No telephone allowed!  I develop roll film in plexiglass tanks, and sheet film in trays, in total darkness.  All I can see are the glowing hands of the timer and a few glow-in-the-dark stars placed here and there on countertops and walls.

When printing, I enjoy the glow of the yellow safelights, the sound of running water, the music.  The magic of an image appearing on paper has never gone away.  I enjoy the moving around, from paper box to enlarger, enlarger to trays, down the tray line.  Depending on my musical choices, I might even dance (James Brown's "Payback") or sing along at the top of my voice (Otis Redding's "I Been Lovin' You Too Long").  I even enjoy the physical tiredness after a day's work, when the damp prints are finally laid out on the screens.

Casanave, self portrait with Ansel Adams,1981

The pleasure of the darkroom has been such an important part of my process that it makes me wonder about the alacrity with which my colleagues have sold off their darkrooms on eBay and switched to the more cerebral and sedentary digital imaging medium.  Did they never enjoy the darkroom activity in the first place?  Did the magic fade for them?  When I remember what Diane Arbus said, in an interview with Studs Terkel - "Art seems to me something you do because it makes you feel good to do it" - it's as if she were standing with me at my trays, feeding off the same thrill. 

Casanave, Balkan breakfast from Kitchen Kama Sutra,1998

Martha's site is

1 comment:

  1. Martha,
    I enjoyed reading your account of working in the darkroom. It brings back fond memories of my earlier days. Music is always so important to me while I am in the darkroom and when I am working in that dark space it is like working physically inside my mind. Good read!
    Nolan Preece