It's quiet; it's private; it's warm in winter and cool in summer (if you get it right); you generally know where things are; and people leave you alone, because they know that if they burst in unexpectedly they can completely ruin what you are doing. It's a sanctuary; it's a lair; it's a darkroom. And there's far more to it than just making pictures.

Top tip: On wide web pages, columns will show as side by side. On narrow pages, they will be stacked vertically. x

How many columns?


My current darkroom. When we bought our present house in 2002, this was an earth-floored wine cellar, built into the side of a hill. We had it floored, tiled, plumbed, wired and lined with plastic tongue and groove. It cost a small fortune, and I still have to run a dehumidifier constantly. But it was worth it.

It doesn't have to be full-time like ours, but it must be available when you really need it. If it's in the bathroom and you don't live on your own, you'd better have a separate (or second) WC. If it's not full-time, it needs to be quick and easy to set up and tear down.

The only things you really need to worry about are absolute darkness (when you need it), and fresh air. An extractor fan will take care of the latter: air can find its way in almost anywhere. Or if you can run the fan in the other direction, from a space where it doesn't suck in dust, the positive pressure will keep the dust down elsewhere. The quiet roar of the fan, the white noise, is a part of the isolation, the peace. So is the subdued light, or the absolute blackness, and the gurgle of the print washer. The smell of the chemicals is something special, too: a secular incense.

Here, though, I'm not really concerned with the technology, design or even practicality of darkrooms. There's a piece on our site about the darkrooms we've had over the last 30 and more years, and sooner or later there will be a column on darkroom design in the regular twice-monthly articles. What I'm talking about here is the Zen of the darkroom. The Zen archer of fable is famously also the bow; the arrow; the air through which it flies; and the target. In the darkroom, the Zen photographer is the subject, the light, the exposure, the film, the camera, the camera lens, the enlarger, the enlarging lens, the paper, the developer. And, like the arrow in the gold, the centre of the target: the ultimate, the print.

Tibetan monk, Bir, Himalayas. I couldn't resist using this for an illustration. He's looking at a Polaroid of himself that Roger had taken with a Linhof Technika 70, but he is automatically continuing to whirl his sridpa khorlo (prayer wheel). The blur of the weighted chain that enables him to spin the wheel is visible across his chest.

This was shot with a Contax (RX, I think, though it might have been an Aria) and 100/2 Makro Planar: I had a Contax outfit on loan. Film was Ilford XP2, commercially processed; the print was made seventeen years later on the then-new Ilford Multigrade Art 300; and I hand coloured it with Marshall's Photo Oils and Marshall's coloured pencils from Omegabrandess.

Buddhists talk of "no mind". That's when everything comes together. Sometimes it's like that when you make a print. You don't need to think: it just happens. But in the darkroom the Clear White Light of Reality ranges from yellow (the colour of renunciation, low contrast) to magenta (high contrast). No wonder monks' robes are yellow and maroon.

"No mind" is easier to achieve, though, if you have need the right surroundings: the hermit on the mountain top is a cliché. But the light on the top of the mountain is too bright, too clear. A photographer needs safe light: a cave, maybe. The sort that hermits can live in while they seek to understand more than is revealed to the naked eye. The darkroom is my hermit's cave.

Visualization is a central practice in Buddhism. The practitioner imagines herself (or himself) as one of the tutelary deities. I set my sights both lower and higher. All I try to visualize is the print. I know what I want: that's what I try to work towards. Many years ago, I heard of someone who said that she couldn't reconcile two ideas. One was that we are already enlightened, and do not know it. The other is that we have to work towards enlightenment. She didn't understand that they are two different ways of looking at the same thing.

I approach printing the same way(s). It's like the old story of the sculptor carving an elephant. He said that he started with a block of marble, and then just cut away everything that wasn't elephant. I know that the picture is already in the paper. I just have to bring it out.

Another way of looking at it is it is that printing is like acting. Konstantin Stanislavsky invented "method" acting, in which the actor draws on his or her own visual, physical and and emotional memory. He gives the example of a young man in love, bounding up the stairs to his girlfriend's apartment, two steps at a time. This is how to print, too. Remember the light, the air, the scent of the scene, the sound of the stairs. But...

Remember too that the person who looks at the picture (or who sees the actor perform) wasn't there. Not exactly there. Not the same place. You have to tell your audience, to show them, to remind them. They have been there too, or somewhere very similar: they have merely forgotten how it felt. You are taking them there again: you are reintroducing them to their own lives. This is what art is about. Maybe, it's even what art is for.

Stairs, house, Citadel, Gozo. Some places are so strange, so alien, that all we can do is impose our own interpretations on them. These cramped stairs are probably 15th or 16th century. Imagine Romeo running up them, two stairs at a time. Or imagine Barnardo Milites walking down them for the last time. He had just killed his wife and three daughters to save them from falling into the hands of the Turkish slave traders who periodically raided the island. He then left his house to kill as many Turks as he could before he was himself cut down.

You would make the prints different ways: light and airy for Romeo, gloomy and harsh for Barnardo. Barnardo lived in this street...

Tripod-mounted Contax RX, 35/2.8 shift lens, Ilford XP2, print on Ilford Multigrade IV

The printer has an easier job than the actor. Or the sculptor. You (we, I) can remake the print until we are happy. Or at least, until we cannot make it better. The late Bob Carlos Clarke once told me that the only way to make the best possible print is to keep on re-making it until the last one isn't as good as the one before (and then throw away all the ones that aren't the best).

When I started to write this, it was going to be a light-hearted piece about the pleasures of lurking in the darkroom. Somehow, though, it transmogrified itself into reflections on Life, the Universe and Everything. Maybe that's what the darkroom is for, too.