David's a popular writer on The Online Darkroom with his contributions on the essentials of photography and large format amongst the most visited posts on the site. I've never met him but I feel I've come to know him a little through something he manages to achieve in his writing - his own voice.
That's a hard thing to pull off but he seems to be able to do it with some ease. You could, for instance, sprinkle excerpts of his posts in amongst those from dozens of other posts and I'd be able to pick them out at once because of his inimitable style.
When we exchanged emails a few months ago, I quickly formed the opinion that he was an advertising copywriter. That was a compliment as they're amongst the sharpest and wittiest writers out there. I got the industry right but it turns out he performed a somewhat different role within it. He did say that he had once been asked if he fancied switching to copywriting, though, so I wasn't far off.
David has now turned his attention to enlargers and the darkroom and sent me some "fillers", as he put it, about his experiences in choosing an enlarger - or several. I thought it would be fun to post one every working day this week. Through them you'll get to learn a little more about him although, in line with his wishes, he'll remain the mysterious David M.
A Bit Too Big For The Mantelpiece
By David M.
Since the eighteen-eighties, sound – voices, music, birdsong and steam engines – has been recorded on machines. The sound wasn’t actually “there”, but was hidden in wiggly scratches that meant nothing without an expensive and complicated machine. Naturally, human ingenuity wouldn’t rest and nowadays we can carry weeks of music in our pockets, in another expensive and complex machine.
Pictures have travelled the same route and people can now carry their family’s life history in their pockets. An image may go from one smooth bright screen to other smooth bright screens and never exist at all, in the way that sausages and trousers do. Perhaps most of today’s images behave like this.
Just as the iPod made the horned gramophone unnecessary (to say nothing of the dog*), digital imaging has made us forget the enlarger. Even interior decorators have ignored enlargers.
At the same time, nostalgia for those dear, dead days of the clockwork camera has never been greater. Astonishing prices are paid for unused (mint+++) examples. But where is the nostalgia for enlargers? Are there any mint+++ collector’s enlargers or even enlarger clubs, full of dedicated chaps with leather patches on their elbows?
Is there a mute, inglorious Oskar Barnack of the enlarger world? Does any desirable “original packaging” from enlargers even survive? Do people debate the virtues of early Dursts or the pioneering originality of the Kenneth Grange Paterson model? Are there any witty or erudite or even quarrelsome enlarger blogs? Might there be a thread about the successive versions of cream paint that De Vere used.
I am not proposing myself as General Secretary of the British Photomegalophile Society but perhaps the BPS would be at least as interesting as the Red Spot Fan Club and generate just as much cupidity, debate and nonsense.
I can’t remember who made my first enlarger. It was a gift from a photographer friend, who had previously suggested that I buy a Nikon. It had a big round crackle-painted head containing a special white bulb on an adjustable sliding rod and a rather rusty pantograph arm to move it up and down.
The knob that tightened the pantograph was a bit slack, so you hurt your hand every time you changed size. The clamp to hold it onto the column was very tight, so major changes in size would hurt your hand twice. The baseboard was wooden, with yellow flaking varnish.
Like everyone else, I produced terrible prints at first, but as I learned more about printing, they stayed terrible until I learned about condenser lenses and how they come in different sizes. Predictably, I had the wrong size and it took me quite a while to find out where condenser lenses come from (no internet then). But in the end I was kitted out with the right lumps of plano-convex glass, assembled the right way round in the special adaptor that I hadn’t expected. I soon discovered why the bulb was on a sliding rod.
Then I built myself a remarkably primitive darkroom in the loft using old cardboard boxes nailed to the woodwork and planks laid on the joists as a workbench. Cardboard boxes are not pretty, but they are entirely lightproof. The space was so low that I had to work in a kneeling position and in the winter I used one of those little mug heaters to warm the developer. Printing in woolly gloves is surprisingly tricky.
My biggest print was governed by the size of tray I could get through the tiny hatch but, in those days, 10x8 seemed huge. During daylight hours in summer, it was too hot to work at all. Looking back, I’m astonished at my younger self’s persistence.
With the condenser problem sorted out, I discovered that all enlarging lenses are not equal. I very soon discovered that they are not all affordable either, so I had to struggle on. Eventually, I bought a 50mm 2.8 El-Nikkor, which I still have – an excellent lens, like everything Nikon.
And then, dear reader, I joined a Camera Club.
Continued to tomorrow.
*(The dog seems to have got himself a more interesting job on the new Midsomer Murders.)