Forget the soft illumination of red safelights. THIS is what I used to see.
I used to work in total darkness. Not all of the time, mind you, but I experienced the complete absence of light for an average of an hour every working day for a few years. And no, I wasn’t sleeping. As the manager of a micrographics department within a small records management firm, it was my responsibility to handle raw film stock and process every exposed reel. As a result, I spent a fair amount of time squirreled away inside a darkroom.
Our digital age is rapidly transforming the very notion of a darkroom into an antiquated concept. Forthcoming generations will grasp the idea only through its representation in old movies and television shows, with their romanticized, red-tinted photo labs inhabited by outcasts who discover startling evidence upon retrieving an enlargement from a chemical tray. Such a cliche never once happened in real life, I guarantee you. Dramatic moments of unexpected revelation might occur when a photographer is projecting a negative with an enlarger prior to exposing a sheet of photo paper, but unanticipated compositional elements never emerge from a fixer bath. I guess the truth is too complicated or dull for visual narratives. In any case, that isn’t the kind of darkroom in which I worked.
My darkroom had no red-filtered safety lamps. There was no need for them, as I never worked with photo paper. We bought our unperforated 16mm microfilm on 100′ reels, which had to be wound by hand into the lightproof cartridges that were inserted into our cameras. After a reel was exposed and rewound, the film had to be extracted from the cartridge and placed on a much larger reel for processing. Both of these processes had to occur in total darkness, or else we would compromise the carefully calibrated exposure of up to 3,500 document images on each roll.
When I was first trained to do this, these routine tasks were daunting. To load a roll of film into a cartridge, for example, required performing a sequence of precise movements without looking at what you were doing. First, attach an empty cartridge to the special receptacle on the left rewind of a loading board. Find the trailer and extract it from the cartridge. Then grab a box of film stock, tear off its label, and remove its reel. Peel the safety paper off the film, then attach the reel to the right rewind, making sure that the film spools to the left from underneath the reel. Next, take the leading edge of the film and hold it so that it abuts the end of the trailer. With a free hand, pull off a tab of splice tape and secure the underside of the connection, then pull off another tab and secure the top. Ensure that the film is positioned underneath the guide roller, or else it may get scratched on the lip of the cartridge. Now you’re ready to reel! Turn the crank on the left rewind counterclockwise until all of the film has spooled into the cartridge. Now find the end of the roll and pull it out of the cartridge. Take the end of a black leader and hold it so that it abuts the end of the film. With a free hand, pull off a tab of splice tape and secure the underside of the connection, then pull off another tab and secure the top. Wind the leader into the cartridge, and voila! You’re done. Easy, right?
Actually, it was easy, but only after you established a routine and got used to it. Consistency was the key. Provided that all of the necessary materials were gathered and placed in designated locations prior to turning out the lights, everything went smoothly. I was surprised how quickly I could adapt to the utter lack of visual information, but soon my darkroom tasks became as automatic as tying my shoes. The danger was the tedium. As dull as it could be to sit in darkness doing the same task over and over, I couldn’t afford a lapse in concentration. A bad splice on a cartridge trailer could result in a couple hours of wasted microfilmer labor due to the exposed film remaining stuck in the camera (its retrieval requiring its exposure it to light).
A worse fate was possible if I mishandled preparing exposed film for processing. It was cartridge loading in reverse, with up to 14 rolls of film spliced together onto a single reel that was then concealed within a light-tight magazine. For splicing, the rolls had to be overlapped in a particular manner and secured with five staples. Failure to do this within a certain measure of accuracy would cause a splice to become jammed between the magazine and the processor, a harrowing occurrence of costly potential. Despite my best efforts and those of the employees I trained, a jam would occur now and then, and I became as attuned to the call of my processor alarm as a new mother is alerted by the wailing of her infant. Disaster was avoided many times, but it was far easier on the nerves to take the time to make precise staple splices that were sure to travel smoothly through the mechanism.
Maintaining a diligent focus on quality control was challenging in a silent darkroom, which is why a radio tuned to the local NPR affiliate became as essential as a fresh roll of splice tabs. The thinking part of the brain needed to stay active in order to keep the automaton awake. In this manner I wound and rewound hundreds of thousands of feet of microfilm whilst blind and pondering the state of current affairs. It actually became a rather enjoyable part of the day. Everyone knew that when I was locked behind the double doors of the darkroom, I couldn’t interrupt my work for anything short of an emergency. Alone in the dark, I could toil away to the accompaniment of Morning Edition and the soft gurgling of our deep tank film processor. Sort of a single-sensory deprivation therapy.
Not that I miss it. It was mindless robot work. I’m happy to never again have to sightlessly manipulate microfilm. But I do credit my years in the darkroom with what is perhaps an above average level of comfort in low-to-zero-level lighting environments. It does not bother me to traverse my home in the middle of the night without turning on a light. The mind adapts easily to operating blind within familiar spaces. Descending the steps, maneuvering around the couch, and grabbing a water glass from the kitchen cabinet? It’s as easy as making the next microfilm splice.