In December 2015 Shane Arsenault and I had started talking about our first joint photography project with the purpose of using his 16”x20” Bellows Camera on a larger scale that would give us the freedom to work outside a conventional studio space with a joint darkroom. The main restriction when using this ultra large format camera, is that you have to be right near a darkroom at all time to change out the old film for new film, and to develop the images right away to make sure the process is working correctly.
In order for this to work we agreed on a goal: a fully functioning, easily transportable darkroom to develop the images shot with the 16”x20” camera. For this we had to make a list of things that the darkroom would store while keeping in mind the weight limit on the axel. This would include but not be limited to the camera, the photo paper, chemistry, 4 chemistry trays, and water. We also had to consider ourselves when calculating the weight limit, since we would be inside the darkroom while developing.
After much consideration and thoughtful planning, we bought our trailer in February of 2016. It was in bad shape but good enough condition to build on.
Its axel was badly dented and had been clearly neglected for many years.
We stripped the trailer of any unnecessary material, and set up the foundation: a new axel and the flooring.
We proceeded to build the frame for the walls and roofing.
Once the framing was secure to the base of the trailer, the walls would go up and bolted to the frame. We were concerned that with us taking it on the road in all types of weather and road conditions, we had to make sure the structure was light in weight and strong; while also remaining light tight.
By mid-March the roof was set in the same way as the walls, lots of glue and bolts to ensure there would be no issues in the future and no cracks for light to leak into our darkroom.
To seal the wood and protect it from rain and snowfall, we used a water resistant paint sealant.
Once we were what seemed to be close to the end of the building process, we realized we needed to make space for the camera inside the darkroom. We wanted something that would help with transportation, and protection for the camera, as well as possibly functioning as a tripod. We used the same concept as our darkroom and bought a small wagon to carry the camera.
We built a removal box to reveal the ultra large format camera. Instead of gluing padding to the top of the box to avoid scratching the camera, we used a black cloth (used to block the sun while focusing the image) we cut and sewed ourselves to cushion the camera.
We measured the shelves based on the width of the camera wagon to fit snug to the sides of the shelves. The shelves not only would serve as storage area, but would also stop the camera from rolling around whilst in movement.
Needless to say, things don’t always go as planned. We brainstormed ways to use our space efficiently inside the darkroom while developing. Essentially, the chemistry trays would take too much space if laid down horizontally. We planned for something no one had done before and got really excited about it. We bought 4 16”x20” chemistry trays and cut them in half, glued plexi-glass on top, with the idea that we could dip our film into the chemistry, rather than lay it flat inside a tray like traditional methods. Unfortunately, these failed due to the large volume of liquid.
We persevered with this concept of vertical chemistry tanks and custom ordered steel tanks. They cracked too. But we weren’t going to be defeated so easily. We sealed all the cracks with a spray-on sealant, wrapped the tanks in duct tape and then built braces to stop the steel from bending under the weight of the water. This worked… for a little while.
All the while, our good friend and fellow artist Rhys Farrell was kind enough to agree to paint the exterior of our darkroom in his signature flashy and colorful style. This would help highlight our darkroom from the busy landscape and invite people to approach us about our project. We wanted people to reach out to us to find out about our project and start a discussion about photography today.
The next worry was what to do with the prints once washed. Conventionally, photographers have either a drawer-like cabinet that’s screen lined for aeration, or, clotheslines for hanging their prints. Neither one of these would work for the sake of space and functionality. Just like everything in our darkroom, we knew we would have to develop a simple and efficient way to dry our prints.
The drying racks shown above would allow us to transport our prints without compromising the image. All that was needed was some window lining screens, particleboards, and duct tape.
Next, the ramp to push the camera wagon into the trailer would be the easiest, but most essential part to the trailer.
We were ready to take our darkroom on a trial run on the 1st of May of 2016. We were so excited to put our darkroom to use that we neglected to check the camera for any light leaks, since the last time the camera had been used was well over a year before. After 6 hours of trail and error during the shoot, we finally managed to cover all the light leaks, and achieved a beautiful shot of the coolies in Drumheller.
After that day, we realized what was and wasn’t working for us. For starters our steel developing tanks were scratching our prints, the camera needed repair, we didn’t want to tape the light sensitive paper to the back of the camera any longer, and we needed proper red light in the darkroom. Those vertical steel-developing tanks would have to go, because we didn’t want to compromise the quality of our images, so we built new shelves in the darkroom. Shane repaired his camera and added metal slips on the camera back so we could easily slide the images in and out without having to use tape. And as for the light, we use a rechargeable battery to power our red safelight inside the darkroom. After a lot of problem solving and hard work, we managed to turn what took 6 hours to shoot one worthy image, down to 2 hours per image. All of these shots have allowed us to grow as a team as well as understand what techniques to use to maximize productivity.
This blog is about the darkroom that Shane and Natalia built and have been using for the past year in Calgary. The intention of this was to shoot with the camera Shane built in 2014 anywhere without worrying about darkroom access. To read more about how he built his camera read his blog.
We started building our darkroom in March of 2016, in September of the same year we had been travelling and shooting with the camera within Alberta. We applied for funding from the Alberta Foundation of the Arts in order to set in motion a project we had in mind.
We were granted the funding in December 2016 and here were are!