It was dark and cozy, and only a faint odor of chemicals could be detected. Outside, the sun barely warmed a cold winter’s day and people went about their business. Inside, in an organized and technical atmosphere, magic was conducted on a daily basis.
The middle-aged woman, a photography student at the junior college, spent fifteen minutes doing test strips under an enlarger before she felt satisfied. She set the timer and put a full sheet of snowy white paper in the easel. The easel had been meticulously placed so that the projected image of the film produced a balanced composition that was pleasing to the eye. She added a filter that would produce crisp whites and deep shiny blacks.
Now the magic could start. Gently, she squeezed the start button on the timer, and the light winked on. Even though the machine glowed for 15 seconds, there was no apparent change in the paper. Suddenly, the light winked out again, leaving her in the dusky amber glow of the darkroom.
She removed the paper from the easel and turned to the chemical trays. Noting the time, she slipped the undistinguished paper into the tray of developer and gently pushed it under the liquid with a pair of tongs. She picked the paper up and flipped it over so she could watch the magic take place. With one finger she lifted a corner of the tray in a slow rhythmic fashion so that the chemicals kept moving across the photographic paper, making little wavelets in the tray. The image began to form, coming up quickly into something recognizable and then slowly building up the detail.
Watching the clock, she removed the print from the tray of developer and slipped it into the stop bath for 30 seconds. Next, it went into the tray of fixer for three minutes. While she waited and played with the wavelets, she gazed on the image, now upside down, and slipped into reverie.
The straight lines blocking out a white rectangle in the print reminded her of something, and as she gazed at them, she decided this print was a metaphor for those seeking and rejecting a stretching of the mind and a broadening of human experience. The rectangle represented that part of society that was straight-laced and guilty of hide-bound thought, the repressed religious folk who accepted ideas without examination and actually discouraged their children from getting anything more than just a basic education. The rectangle was flat and humorless, held down by a metal band. She was reminded of people she had known in Mississippi at the independent Methodist church she had attended, who had taken their kids out of the public school and parked them at one of the many “Christian academies” in the sleepy little town she used to live in there.
One minute down, two to go.
On the surface there were raised letters. She considered how the letters, representing communication, affected the shape they graced. There were four rows of letters. Two were straight, like the straight delivery of information. Two were curved, as might be a mind that had encountered new ideas and gone through reassessment and integration of new facts. The letters informed. They added dimension and texture.
Two minutes down, one to go.
She liked the way the light slid into the print from the side, highlighting the letters by casting a shadow beside each one. It seemed appropriate that the ground the rectangle rested on, religion, was in the shadows, just as the letters seemed to reach up to catch the light. Many of the people she knew who called themselves religious seemed to have their heads in the shadows. If she asked them what they believed and why, they had a hard time explaining, if they even attempted it. Like that boy she knew in high school who had gone to a different church than hers. What was his name? She had asked him the question purely out of curiosity about the beliefs of his church because she was examining her own beliefs and she was putting that question to everyone – What do you believe and why? He not only couldn’t explain, but he seemed threatened by the question.
Isn’t it important to know what you believe and to feel confident that it’s based on fact rather than fiction or wishful thinking?
Uh-oh, three minutes and ten seconds. Time to take the print out of the fixer and put it into the holding tray filled with water. When she had a few more prints, she could stick them in the hurricane washer and let it tumble them clean. Funny how one’s mind wanders when working in the darkroom.