From the Darkroom To The Beatles and Back Again: An Afternoon at Barrie Wentzell’s
By Celia Moase
Portrait Photographer and Assistant Manager of Analogue Gallery
I cannot recall the first photograph I ever took. I can, however, recall the first time I experienced developing my own negatives in a darkroom. I was taking a class in high school that touched on all aspects of visual communication, and I enrolled only because photography was included. I was excited when the photo portion began, and had to practice over and over again in the fully lit classroom, eyes closed, feeling my hands load the negative onto the spool. I felt like wonder woman when I successfully did this alone in the dark. I remember feeling like there was no other choice – you either had to commit to figuring this out or your photos were sacrificed. It was powerful. Then we moved onto the printing, which was a whole new fantastical experience. One I didn’t grasp right away, but one I’ve been longing to return to.
Fast forward a dozen years or so where I’m currently employed at Analogue Gallery. I started at the gallery in May of 2013, and met one of our photographers Barrie Wentzell shortly thereafter. The first time I met him, I quickly seized the opportunity to ask him about his Jimi Hendrix contact sheet we had on our wall. He spoke so casually about that day in New York and the way he photographed Jimi in his apartment. I could tell the way I strive to shoot was similar to what Barrie has mastered. Each time he stops into the gallery or we meet at an event I’m more than thrilled to chat with him. Recently, I’ve moved into a space where I’m able to house my own darkroom. This is a dream come true. However, as I said earlier, it’s been over a decade since I’ve used one and even then, it was brief. Lucia, gallery owner, encouraged my idea to seek Barrie’s assistance in providing a bit of a refresher. After all, Barrie lives in our neighbourhood and prints his very own silver gelatins that we sell in the gallery. One thing a previous mentor taught me was to “squeeze the juice”, meaning – soak up all that is around you to continuously learn. After a quick email and phone call, I was on my way to Barrie’s home.
Upon arrival, I buzzed his code and Barrie comes into the hallway waving me into his space. His home was fascinatedly similar to my own.
“We have a very similar style Barrie, my home is a lot like this”, I said as I took in my surroundings. There was artwork on the walls, bookshelves from floor to ceiling (another dream of mine), tokens of nostalgia here and there.
“What, messy?” he laughed.
I agreed, but I don’t really view this style as messy. It’s organized, in its own sense. It’s eclectic. Our homes are full of things we find inspiring and have a connection to from books, art and photo gear to coffee mugs, plants and colour. I wonder if he’s also an Aquarian. We tend to practice organized messes. But I digress.
We sat around Barrie’s round kitchen table and chatted. We chatted about film photography, living as an artist and how that’s changed from when he started to my current generation’s triumphs and struggles. This obviously led to a conversation about money, politics and life in Toronto. But we came full circle back to living in the now. We both chatted about how we believe being true to yourself and doing exactly what it is you wish to be doing – as long as it makes you happy – it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.
As we were sitting and chatting, our printer for the gallery, Peter, stopped by with a colour print for him – a gorgeous shot of Pete Townsend having a tea party with some stuffed animals. He said hi to me thinking he was at the gallery then did a double take realizing we were all coincidentally at Barrie’s place. It was quite funny. I’ve come to love Toronto for this reason. Peter came in and had a cup of tea and we all continued chatting. Barrie filled Peter in on my darkroom expedition and we pondered the various forms of the final photo product. Barrie had just purchased a new scanner to bring his negatives onto his computer for digital processing and backup, Peter was thinking about a new printer, and I couldn’t wait to start mastering my own silver gelatins. I took the opportunity to snap a few shots on my film camera, anticipating watching these frames come to light in my own darkroom very shortly.
Peter left, and Barrie and I went to his darkroom. He already had a negative prepared of The Beatles - a gorgeous one too, of the group standing in the doorway of Brian Epstein’s house. He refreshed me on the chemicals laid out, turned the safe light on and the overhead lights off, and turned on the enlarging light. On the easel appears the projected image of the negative, and we used the loop to ensure the grain is focused just right. Barrie adjusts the aperture, turns off the enlarger lamp, grabs a test strip of paper, and sets the timer to expose the image. When the light goes off, into the developer it goes, and that’s when things got magical.
Seeing the faces of Paul, Ringo, John and George appear on this test strip of paper, standing beside the man who captured this image, was so unbelievably surreal it stopped time for a few seconds. Like the day in the gallery when I asked him about Jimi, I asked him about this day. He said they were clever then to stand in the doorway. They could open the door, present themselves for some photos and when they were done they simply closed the door and everyone would be gone. It was one of the first shots he took of the group.
We continued with the stop and fix baths and then it was time to develop the 16x20 print. Barrie makes this look so simple. He placed the paper on the easel again, set the timer, when it was finished set it again to dodge and burn some areas. It was such a delicate art to watch. Barrie literally held his hands over the light to reduce exposure on some parts of the image while others gained more light. It made me excited to return to this hands-on method of photography.
Barrie showed me some washing and drying methods for the prints, and I realized I have even more things to prepare for my darkroom than anticipated. I am so thankful to have a resource in which to teach me all of the little details I may have overlooked. When I told Barrie I was going to write a blog post for the gallery, he graciously allowed me to take a few shots of him and said “Well hey! We should be in the darkroom shouldn’t we?” He’s a natural in front of the camera and quickly posed with the print of The Beatles we developed with the test strip still hanging out in the fix bath.
I left Barrie’s space with a head full of things to process, and wandered to Bellwoods park down the street to reflect and write a bit. As I sat and scribbled in my journal, a group of people walked by. One was singing a melody that perfectly wrapped up my afternoon – “La la la la la la la, la la la la...” and I smiled to myself “Heyyy Jude.”
When Celia is not at the gallery, she can be found chatting with artists, capturing portraits, sipping americanos and searching for the forest. In the near future, you’ll hopefully find her in her very own darkroom in Toronto. www.celiamoase.com