In 2018, I work in the dark room, a makeshift antechamber entered through the wall of a regular classroom, at my son Ben’s middle school once a week. I watch earnest eighth graders who could otherwise be instantly gratified by digital images patiently agitate paper enlargements of flowers, of siblings in torn jeans, of grandparents, bikes, and balls, and of the Golden Gate Bridge, in various chemicals in a sulfur-tanged space.
By now, two months into the semester, the kids are skilled at the process. The chemicals are mildly toxic and the equipment is expensive, so I have to be there in case of a spill or something, but I don’t need to help them much anymore. They’ve learned how to develop the photos on their own. I’ve known most of them since Kindergarten, and we chat a bit, but there are only six enlargement stations, and most of the time my own son isn’t in the group of six I’m slated to help with. He’s on the other side of the wall, working quietly with the other twelve students in the class, and their teacher. Mostly, I try to stay out of the kids’ way, and I try not to think about whom to save and how, when the shooter arrives. The dark room is small. We stand close.
We enter the dark room through a cylinder-shaped door covered in blackout paper. One third of the cylinder is cut out in a slice, making a door we can bend into and then rotate to arrive in the dim “safe” light of the other side. Back when I was in middle school, in the 1980’s, we would have said it felt “MacGyvered” on — an invented room improvised out of a closet. I remember developing my own photos in junior high, before digital film, before iPhones, before Instagram or viral texts or cyber bullying, before parents actually volunteered in junior high classrooms, and I remember the thrill at the speed of the image appearing, so much faster than waiting two days for the photo department at Longs Drugs to develop them. Doubles cost $12.99.
I watch the children use their hands to hold glass mirrors and microscopes, touch edges of negatives carefully, and dust the surface of their embryonic images with soft little brushes. The movements are intricate, but not dainty. The students manipulate metal and glass and dip paper into liquid that stains and smells. They work with their bodies, knees bent, shoulders hunched, eyes down on the projected images and hands curled around dials to find…