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The home photographic darkroom of a 70’s school boy

My first SLR camera

My first SLR camera

When I was in my early teens my mother was a keen photographer and I wanted to get in on the act too. I was given a second hand Ricoh SLR camera (pictured left) and occasionally some film. My mother had experience in a printery darkroom so I decided to buy some chemicals, photographic paper and a 30m (100 feet) roll of Kodak Plus-X Pan B&W film. I was set, except for one minor detail… I had no darkroom. I could dive under the blankets in bed at night with the lights off to load film into a canister, but printing photos needed a darkroom.

My sister had left home and left us with a small plywood wardrobe. It was quite small, only about 1.7m (5.6 feet) high, 1.1m (3.5 feet) wide and .45m (1.5 feet) deep. I made some measurements and found that the depth of the cupboard was the same as the base of the enlarger and also that of a wooden kitchen chair that I found. I thought converting the wardrobe into a darkroom would be really cool, after all the three investigators had a darkroom in their trailer (or caravan as we call them here), so I should have one too.

I carried the wardrobe out to the shed and started working on it. I pulled out its three drawers and the rest of the internal bits. I added three shelves in one end. The enlarger sat on the top one, developer and stop bath on the next and fixer and rinse water on the bottom one. A bucket of water sat on the floor for final a final wash. My mother had bought a second hand red safe light that I mounted along with a white light and switches overhead. A strip of old felt carpet ran around the edge of the doors to seal out any stray light.

I used a lot of cheap and second hand parts including the developer and fixer dishes which were kitty litter trays. I couldn’t quite stand up straight when I was inside, but I was usually sitting anyway. It lacked any form of ventilation including any vents as I couldn’t work out how to prevent light from getting in. Due to the lack of fresh air and rapidly escalating temperatures that occurred inside I could only work for short stints. Usually after each photograph was developed I had to open the door and gulp in some fresh air. At the time I thought it was pretty neat that I was able to keep it in my bedroom. It was probably a health nightmare and I certainly don’t recommend anyone doing this now. It may sound like a disastrous mix of CO2 and photographic chemicals and could well be, but I don’t think this was all that unusual at the time. Our school had a darkroom which was bigger but had no ventilation that I can recall. With a group of children in it, it too quickly became stuffy.

I took a lot of photographs but I regret never one of the darkroom.

There was something about the confined space that I found comforting. It was like my own little space where I could work without being interrupted or distracted, in fact I feel like converting a cupboard now. I could call it the escape pod.