In Search of a Darkroom
By the time I immigrated to New York from my native Coyoacán, Mexico to study photography when I was nineteen, I had already used, or built, six darkrooms. Shooting was never enough, the place to be was the darkroom. That is the room where the magic takes place right in front of your eyes. The year I “became” a photographer is a fuzzy line. The deciding event came when I was twelve, by then I had already been playing with different cameras for a few years, but it was a one-day introduction to the darkroom offered by a teacher that ended up playing a decisive role in my life. I remember just the name “chambre noire” awoke my imagination. It was love at first sight. Within a year, after having shot and processed my first couple rolls of black and white film, after a sit down with my parents, I “declared” what I wanted to be when I grew up: “a photographer.” This dream has shaped my life in many ways.
I am forty-eight years old now. I have moved nine times since I moved to the Big Apple. In the process, I have built fourteen more darkrooms and learned Photoshop (the “digital darkroom”—“the horror,” says the closet-chemist in me!). Life has offered all kinds moving reasons, be it world crisis affecting the cost of utilities (in 2002, after six years, I had to give up my studio in Brewster, NY, where I had built a mural size printing darkroom and a woodshop, call it collateral damage from the aftermath of 9/11 bombings and the Enron economic crisis). “The landlord sold the building and now you have to move out” was the reason for being forced out of at least three of my studios. I often wonder if I will ever build one last darkroom, a permanent one (I have a set of 5 × 7 inch, forty-year old chemical trays that belonged to my brother, and I’ve schlepped a couple of darkroom sinks for twenty-two years!). I guess this thing called self-expression really is for the stubborn. You have to believe if you want to be an artist in this city. And I am more of the kind that doesn’t even need to say it so as to believe it. In fact, I have an aversion to that word. Like the word “poet,” I think it is best when it is bestowed upon you. You can’t just go and declare it.
The other day I saw some old friends from Mexico and they asked me if I had any regrets. In my pride, I claimed an emphatic “no,” adding “ignorance is bliss.” I would have never thought the price to follow my dream would be this taxing. Just the thought of moving again makes me cringe to the point of paralysis. On top of it, I’m a hoarder. I make collages out of my daily production of jetsam. My last move was by far the most epic. It’s very contemporary: Monday midday email from my landlord telling us (all the studios), that “after fifteen years he was forced to close the doors,” with an added “courtesy” that he would give us six weeks to vacate. But things somehow work out. It’s taken me three years, but I can say that this time around I made sure my new space had running water and enough room for me to build a small black and white darkroom.
Last fall I was at my brother’s restaurant hanging out at the bar, getting my taco fix, talking with a “local” artist. That sounds fake, but these precious beings still exist. He immigrated to New York the year I was born (1970), moved to his studio in SoHo in 1971, and has remained there since. Despite my tribulations, I’ll be honest, I didn’t feel jealous or envious. I high-fived him. We both agreed that there is no life without some form of stability. I started feeling sorry for myself, for my nomadic predicament. But thank god for philosophy. We all have our own burden, our own cross to carry. My generation came of age with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the whirlwind that followed. Be it political, economic, technological, or cultural, my generation was raised in quicksand. Between postmodernism, neoliberalism, the new world order, the AIDS epidemic, the advent of the digital revolution, and the dreaded gentrification, I always have this feeling that my peers and I have a Sisyphean predestination that is hard to overcome. I take solace in world culture (I remember “Live Aid” and how it fostered a naïf, overly-optimistic belief in humanity and the possibilities that could be) and look for survival in people like my German friend who managed to keep his studio in SoHo for almost fifty years and still be under the art world radar; or in Kabuki performers, who, I read, are not ready for the spotlight until their mid-fifties; or poets like Fernando Pessoa who only publish once in their lifetime. Anything really to keep me going. I’m a desert flower that thrives with little water.
In twenty-eight years, I have done all the jobs one could imagine—all to pay the rent and try to keep Uncle Sam happy. The only thing that helps me endure is that darkroom, that magical space, where the latent image becomes material. Pursuing it has even led me, because of lack of running water, to project my images on to the wall and somehow find a way to paint them as best I can. All the forms of expression I have pursued have their beginning in that space. Something primordial about it, something redeeming in the act of believing that maybe one day I can develop this dream into a stable picture.