The Last Darkroom Technician
by Daniel A. Sheridan
March 1, 2017
Taking a photograph of The Darkroom storefront at Disney World, I thought about that day at The Needham Times in 1994...
On April 6, 1993, I started work as a darkroom technician for Suburban World Newspapers which published seven weekly newspapers. I developed the film and prints for all the reporters and the staff photographer, Dave Rains. It was an honor to be trusted with Dave's work - he was an extremely talented news photographer, sports photographer, and feature photographer.
I was also in charge of making half-tones with the Agfa Stat Camera, a huge contraption the size of a washer-dryer. I re-sized ads and photographs punching in numbers from the proportional scale, then the big motorized bellows, expanded and contracted, to reduce and enlarge photographs to be converted into half-tones.
One day, at lunch time, Dave Rains sat at his office desk – just outside the darkroom – reading a newspaper of some sort. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw none other than David Handschuh from the NY Daily News on the cover.
I know that guy, Dave!! That’s David Handschuh from the New York Daily News. I wrote an article about him in college.
No, kidding, Dan. Bring it in, I’d love to read it.
The next day I brought the article for him to read. I asked Dave if I could have the newspaper article he was reading.
Sure thing, Dan. You can keep it.
The End of the Darkroom
I dug it out yesterday and scanned it. I did a very poor job of scanning it - a complete hack-job. But this article was about the end of the darkroom – the entire newspaper was about the end of silver halide photography. Tech Times – Sept. 12 -18, 1992. New Technology Leaves No Place To Hide - published by the National Press Photographers Association.
Modest Mouse is playing – Early in the morning – everything will fall into place. I dig out the Tech Times to re-read some of the articles with ominous titles – New Technology Leaves No Place to Hide – Get out of the Darkroom and into the newsroom. “Lots of places don’t have darkrooms anymore. There is no place to hide.” The other headline – No Reassuring Smells, but the Mission Remains the Same.”
The entire publication was done with electronic imaging, Dave Rains explained to me. He pointed to the photo of David Handschuh.
See Dan, his camera is connected by a wire to a digital device. There is no film involved – no developing or printing. He transmits his photos over phone lines using a modem back to the newspaper.
I was incredulous. You mean, he sends his photographs over telephone lines. This was 1993 – before the days of the Internet and e-mail.
Dave turned the page and pointed out a program called Adobe Photoshop.
What is that? What does it do?
It’s a program for photographs – an electronic darkroom. You can crop and adjust photographs.
He flipped the page to the Electronic Newsroom graphic – an illustration of: Computers, Scanners, Digital Cameras, Page Layout software – Quark Xpress. But no more Darkroom – no more Stat camera. I look at the big Agfa Stat Camera. I used to make half-tones of the all the photographs and ads for seven weekly newspapers. There will be no more need for the Stat Camera – no more darkroom – no more need for me – the darkroom technician.
Dave, are you sure can I have this newspaper to keep?
Sure thing, Dan.
The next day, after Dave finished reading my article about David Handschuh, he asked me a question out of the blue.
Dan, who is your photographer hero?
You probably never heard of him, I said.
Go ahead, said Dave, try me.
Timothy O’Sullivan, I said. Everybody knows about Mathew Brady, but not many know about O’Sullivan. He actually took many of Brady’s photographs. I plan to write a book about him.
We often talked about the Ken Burn's documentary The Civil War which was on each night at that time on WGBH. Then the epic movie, Gettysburgh, filmed in panoramic 70mm came out.
Sure, I know all about Timothy O'Sullivan. In fact, I have a book about him at home. I’ll bring it in for you.
The next day Dave brought in the book by James David Horan, Timothy O'Sullivan - America's Forgotten Photographer. He let me keep it for a couple of weeks to read.
Dave encouraged me to get out of the darkroom and sold me his car for only $250 so I could take photographs for the paper. But I could read the writing on the wall...
Work in the darkroom trickled down and down. Apple computers with black and white screens appeared in the production room. The big layout tables were removed to make room for more Macs. The waxer — the heart and soul of the production room, was shut off. No more hot wax was needed to paste ads to the layout. Then one day the scanner appeared. Photographs and ads could be scanned into the computer for layout with Quark Xpress. The old Agfa Stat camera became obsolete.
Terri, my future wife, came into the darkroom one day. Dan, you need to find something. There's talk of laying you off...
So I got out of the darkroom and into the daylight working for a time as a carpenter - hauling lumber, building houses, and having nail-gun fights with my co-workers while playing drums in The Immigrants.