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The Darkroom

When I was in the seventh grade, I signed up for photography class as one of my electives. One of the main reasons why was because it was a prerequisite for joining the Yearbook team in the eighth grade. What I had not given much thought to when signing up was the darkroom. Looking back now, I remember how much I dreaded that dark room. Now I realize, though, that it was a very different kind of dread.

At the time, I had been living in the haunted house for about a year and had a terrible fear of the “darkness” that lurked at the bottom of the stairs. And yet, there I was signing up for a class that spent a significant amount of time in a room that was required to be pitch black.

In hindsight, I probably already knew that darkness, in itself, is nothing to fear. When I was in elementary school, I recall getting pulled into a dark restroom by some of the fifth-grade girls who were already much bigger than the boys. They thought I would be afraid of the darkness, but I was more familiar with the building than they were, and I was able to use it to my advantage and slip away. I have no recollection of fear from that encounter. I realize now it may have helped me to come to the realization, subconsciously, that the darkness of that haunted house was only a distraction from what was really the matter.

When I signed up for photography, I was not afraid of the larger girls bullying me in that darkroom, nor was I afraid that my imagination would get the better of me like it always seemed to do when I was at home. No, my biggest fear was of overexposing my film.

Okay, I just realized that a lot of people reading this might not even know what a darkroom is. Allow me to explain.

Back in those days, we did not have digital cameras. Photographers had to use these big, bulky cameras that used long, thin ribbons of “film” that were rolled up into a small, cylindrical case about the size of a C battery. Photographs were actually a chemical reaction from light being exposed to the film, but in order to finish developing the picture, we had to “neutralize” the film so it didn’t react to any more light. In order to do this, we had to move it into a larger, round canister (about the size of a cat food can, but twice as tall) that we would use to rinse the film with the chemicals that would complete the reaction.

We had to be very careful not to get any extra light onto the film or it would cause an “overexposure” and ruin the photo. So, when it came time to take that film out of the protective case and put it into that canister, we had to use special rooms where there would not be any chance of light damaging our pictures.

My middle school had created its darkroom off to one side of the “science room”. (This was a room where kids could take classes in basic chemistry, biology, and geology, so photography fit right in.) We’d go into that darkroom as groups, find a place on the counter where we had room to work, and then turn out the lights.

It was pitch black. It had to be. Probably the closest you could get to that kind of darkness would be to go deep into a cave. You’d think turning out the lights in your closet or even going way out into the country on a moonless night would do it, but there is still enough residual light in both those scenarios that it just doesn’t meet the requirement for darkness that a darkroom needs.

I have one negative memory from my time working in the darkroom, and that was the recurring fear that I would drop my film roll on the ground and not be able to find it in that darkness. Or maybe I was afraid of not getting the lid onto the canister tightly enough to protect my film.

In hindsight, I realize now that the reason I was afraid was not that I would have to deal with the darkness. It was because, if I ruined my roll of film, I would have to buy another one.

And back in those days, film was a very expensive thing for a twelve-year old boy to have to buy out of his allowance.

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