Essay 1 - Why I Choose B&W Darkroom Photography in the Modern Digitized World

As with all of my essays, they are all very personal thoughts that I share with you and I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

In the modern high-tech world of all things digital, I routinely feel like an outcast because I love traditional darkroom photography.  We do use digital cameras in our marketing and promotional efforts, but all of my fine art work that is for sale is all created on analog film cameras.  I never plan on changing that for a number of reasons that I will share with you in this article today.  

I invest a lot of time and energy into creating physical one-of-a-kind prints using film, chemicals, and papers when the masses have moved to computers and digital sensors.  I have no judgement about the tools that any photographer uses because I am focused on my creative vision, plus I am supportive of my peers.  

I thought I would share some of my important thoughts about why I continue to choose traditional black and white darkroom photography for my fine art work.


Tim Layton with large silver gelatin botanical still life print.Tim Layton with large silver gelatin botanical still life print. There are no right or wrong answers; my views are my own, and I share the underlying reasons and experiences of why I love traditional black and white film photography.  

I should disclose upfront that money or acceptance no longer motivate me.  I do have to balance the reality of money, but I do my absolute best to avoid allowing financial pressure to creep into my creative workflow.

It took me a long time to realize that doing things for money was a poor investment of time.  It is analogous to working for 50 years and then waiting to retire.  The work now and enjoy life later approach is a model that makes absolutely no sense to me and if you are in that rut, hopefully reading this article today will serve as a good reminder for you.  

I understand the realities that I need to support myself and those that I love, but anything beyond that is a poor investment of my time.  

Tim Layton holding 8x10 large format silver gelatin print.Tim Layton holding 8x10 large format silver gelatin print. Almost 40 years ago, I exposed and developed my first roll of medium format black and white film, and I made some enlargements after weeks of study and reading.  

I remember that day like it was yesterday.  I worked for weeks on building my darkroom at my parent's house while my dad supervised my work.  

He did the electrical work, but I did the construction part under his supervision and he kept me from making too many mistakes.  My dad has been gone since 1983 and the void is ever present. 

Now, several decades later I just built a brand new darkroom, and I designed the solar energy system and installed all the electrical.  I thought of my dad throughout the process as I worded side by side with my son, Tim Jr.  These days were truly some of the best days that I could have ever asked for.  

I continue to share the same level of joy and enthusiasm that I had when I first started and I think I am probably more excited today then I was in my humble beginnings.   

There was no Internet when I started in photography; I read books.  Yes, those heavy things that people used to carry around and actually read...  Don't even get me started on my soapbox about books or the lack of books in our modern world. 

I remember the first time I looked at Ansel's photos in a book. Ansel's photos transported me to a new place in my mind that I never knew existed.  I knew that I wanted to be able to create beautiful and impactful photographs one day.  

Large format B&W silver gelatin contact prints by Tim Layton.Large format B&W silver gelatin contact prints by Tim Layton. I recall the first time I went to the St. Louis Art Museum and had a private viewing of about 20 prints from Ansel Adams, Irving Penn, Julia Margaret-Cameron, and Paul Strand.  I went back soon after I viewed the photographs of Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Minor White and Wynn Bullock.  

I was emotionally shaken and left there in awe of these masters of photography.  On one level I was in awe of the technical abilities of these masters, and at the same time, I was emotionally moved by their work.  I wasn't sure that I would ever have the skills or knowledge to produce such beautiful and moving work. 

I invested many hours in reading everything I could get my hands on to learn the technical details of traditional black and white photography.  My original versions of Ansel's Trilogy (The Camera, The Negative, and The Print) has traveled the world with me, and I still continue to read these books to this day.  I read the Daybooks of Edward Weston, and he was able to transport me to a fantasy world that seemed like outer space.  Edward got a lot of mileage out of life...

I have read every issue and viewed every photograph published in Camera Work.  Camera Work was a quarterly photographic journal published by Alfred Stieglitz from 1903 to 1917. It is known for its many high-quality photogravures by some of the most influential photographers in the world and its editorial purpose to establish photography as a fine art. I would probably trade the bulk of the camera equipment that I have collected over the years for the full set of original Camera Work.  

In particular, I have always been moved by Pictorialism.  Pictorialism is the name given to an international style and aesthetic movement that dominated photography during the later part of 19th century and into the 20th century. There is no standard definition of the term, but in general, it refers to a style in which the photographer "creates" an image rather than just recording it.  The difference between recording and creating was an important concept in the evolution of photography as a fine art, and it will be forever relevant in my mind.  I am definitely drawn to vintage large format lenses, especially from the 1840's to 1890's.  

Of all the genres of photography, I eventually settled on nature and landscape photography because it was what was in my soul.  I have the same level of passion, curiosity, and love for nature that I do for the art and craft of photography, so in a way, I was destined to tell nature's story through the lens of classic black and white darkroom photography.  

I think one of the most profound principles of photography for me was the concept of "equivalence" that Alfred Stieglitz wrote about in the 1920's.  

I describe equivalence as the core backbone to image-making and artistic creation.  I think photographers today, 100 years later, can continue to learn and shape their photography based on this profound principle. 

Minor White explained equivalence as a function, an experience, not a thing.  Any photography, regardless of subject or source, might function as an equivalent to someone, sometime, someplace.  

If the individual viewer realizes that for him what he sees in the photograph correspond to something within himself - then this experience in some degree is equivalence.  

My version of equivalence is different than it was for Minor White and Alfred Stieglitz.  Minor White's writings on equivalence is something that I carry with me into every creative experience and I highly encourage every photography to research and understand this principle.   

Tim Layton with large format silver gelatin fine art botanical print.Tim Layton with large format silver gelatin fine art botanical print. My artistic vision includes the linking of humanity with nature.  I see relationships between people and trees for example, and a connection between human emotion and flowers.  I see myself in nature, and I think many other people can connect themselves and their feelings and life experiences with nature through my photography.

When I look at the masterful prints of Ansel in particular, I fully appreciate that he was a master printer.  

I think the vast majority of us today will never live up to his technical abilities in spite of having the luxury of living after him and having access to information and technology that didn't exist for him.  Isn't this the true meaning of a master?  

He had to create the things from scratch that are available for us today because of his personal quest and innovation.  The tonality and separation of his highlights and shadows are still to this day something that I chase.  

Describing the beauty and impact of his prints is impossible.  The only way to fully understand Ansel is to view his original work in person.  Also, the ground-breaking and unique work of Julia Margaret Cameron and other Pictorialist's from the late 19th century continue to inspire me as I evolve and grow.  

So, why do I continue to choose black and white darkroom photography in the 21st century?

Mostly because it is how I see the world.  I feel best equipped to communicate my thoughts and emotions through my large format analog photography.  I feel that my communications are much more emotionally evocative with traditional black and white darkroom processes versus other mediums, chemical or digital and so I continue to stay the course and do what feels right for me. 

How about you?  What motivates you in your photography?