Notes from the Darkroom: Moonwalk

Paul, my teacher,  is photographing in Ireland and so once again I move into his house to get an extended time in the darkroom.

In the darkness of the night Paul’s presence in the house is palpable. I feel him cringe in the darkroom when I reach for the timer with wet hands. I quickly dry them with a towel, then set the minute in motion to time my print.  I see him at the table while I eat my chicken soup. He signals wordlessly to leave the dirty dishes; “You belong in the darkroom.”  When I dip my brush in ink to retouch a print after dinner, his voice guides;  “Not too wet. And not too dark, barely touch the print with the tip, then pull away.” And so I do; reading glasses on, loop in my left hand, the thinnest brush in my right, I begin to spot the few pieces of lint that got from the negative onto the print. It is the last step before the photograph is ready to be dry-mounted, matted and sent into the world, the last inspection under the discernible eye of the magnifying glass, a slow goodbye. My hands are a bit unsteady at first, my skin so dry at the end of winter I cannot get a good grip of the brush. Soon they steady. I am reminded of my childhood love of coloring books. How I loved to go to the stationary store and for two Czech Crowns, the equivalent of eight cents, buy a new edition to my collection.

Tonight my coloring project is an image from Alaska, a view of the Root glacier taken at the very edge where the land meets the ice. Moraine, a dirt-like mass covered with rocks that protects the layers of ice beneath, sparkles under the half light of late September. Several spots dot the sky, the dreaded circle and a threadlike lint magnified by the enlarger. Retouching is a quiet and ungrateful part of the printing process. I used to put it off, eager to make new prints or to photograph outside, so impatient my images often looked worse after spotting then before, dark circles replacing the light. Now I cherish the quiet time with the print, the focus, the silence. Only the occasional gust of wind and the melodious sound of wind chime break the night. I soon become absorbed. The anxieties and worries of the day disappear and I sink into the image.  I am back in Alaska, walking across the glacier, feeling the chill of the ice on my face.

When I first step on the glacier I remember pictures of Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. A silver field stretches in front of me, layers of ice that fold one behind another like waves.   At the end of the season, hikers and ice climbers are gone and I am alone, swallowed by the grandeur of the surrounding mountains and the sounds of the swishing water underneath the surface. I dig in the ice with my crampons andmake my way ahead. The progress is slow but I have no specific destination, I am here simply for the pleasure of glacier walk. Soon I come across a stream that runs in between the crevices. I stop, have a sip, the climb made me thirsty. Every-now and then an aquamarine surprise breaks the black and white landscape. I am suddenly aware of at once permanence and transience of nature. Tomorrow the bright pool might be gone making room for an ice cave or perhaps disappearing under a solid layer of ice. I think of all my walks on the beach along the Atlantic ocean and feel similar awe that generations have been taking in the same view, the same unending stretch of water that melts when it meets the horizon. And yet, no walk is ever the same. And just as the salt water creates patterns in the sand, long lines that sparkle in the sun, here ice builds shapes, pools and streams, mounds broken by rocks of moraine.  Underneath the water is gurgling, singing as comforting and familiar as ocean waves.

I look behind to check how far I have gone. Dark horizontal lines high above the surface tell me where the glacier once stood, a silent reproach. I take in the view of the surrounding peaks one more time, than start the walk back. Once I reach the edge of glacier where the unmarked trail starts, I take out the camera and focus on the moraine and the mountains beyond.

There, I pull the tip of the brush from the last mark, than glance the image over. All the spots have dried down to the exact shade of the print. The surface is smooth and shiny, the print is finished.

Root Glacier, Alaska 2016, Gelatin Silver Print

Root Glacier, Alaska 2016, Gelatin Silver Print