With My Father in the Darkroom: Mattew Weston
by| 08 Sep 2014
I worked with my father Cole and brother Kim during the last few years of my father’s life, but when I think back, I have much sweeter memories of spending time with him in the darkroom and out photographing when I was younger. In true Weston tradition, Dad took me with him in his camper on a couple of summer trips, where we photographed our way around the West, camping in beautiful spots and holding photographic workshops. When Dad taught me to print in the same manner as his dad had taught him, it was like entering a new world. The smell of mount stock, paper and chemicals, the cool air, and the mystery of the darkroom were magic to me.
I remember how carefully Dad handled GP’s (Grand Pa Edward’s) negatives by the very thin edge as he examined them under the light. When he taught me to develop by inspection, he showed me examples of GP’s negatives and his own negatives, then compared them with mine. He showed me how to look for the proper contrast and depth as the negative was developed by inspection. It took me quite a while to see the subtleties in the faint blue-green light. When he let me assist him in printing from Edward’s negatives, he paid careful attention to the notations on the negative sleeves—he did his best to faithfully reproduce his father’s images, as he had been taught. We would go through as many test prints as needed until he was satisfied his method was just right, and then he would print a small batch, recreating the appropriate dodging and burning each time. I loved handling the prints in the chemical baths and stopping the print when it was time. It was an exacting, challenging, and artful experience. When the lights finally came on, and the prints were going into the wash, we at last got to see the slick and shiny beauty brought to life from our efforts.
My father was truly a master printer in his prime. In those days, he would not let the slightest imperfection pass, and I saw more than one seemingly perfect print get the infamous ‘damaged print’ stamp or simply be torn up and tossed into the trash. I never witnessed him print in large quantities. It was too demanding a process, and a handful of excellent prints were enough. As I grew older and went off to school, I didn’t spend as much time with Dad, but I remember those early experiences fondly. He was a master craftsman, a consummate technician, and a real artist in the darkroom. I never really understood that until much later. When I joined him again in his waning years, certainly his eyesight was not as good, he required more help in the darkroom, and as with many of us, the tiny details became less important. But still, to the last, my father took great pride in the handling of his father’s work. I have no doubt that Edward made the right choice in granting his youngest son Cole the honor and privilege of printing from his negatives, allowing future generations to enjoy the full breadth and beauty of his vision.