Making Beautiful Darkroom Images—Without Using a Camera

The average modern shutterbug spends an enormous chunk of time not peering through a viewfinder but staring at a screen, eyeballs frying like a couple of eggs as they edit for hours on end. Natalja Kent is no average shutterbug.

To create the vibrant images in Movement Artifacts , she doesn't sit at a computer—in fact, she doesn't even use a camera. Instead, Kent produces these works entirely in the darkroom with chromogenic paper, a flashlight, and—as the series's title suggests—some improvisational footwork.

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"I just kind of let my body move around," Kent says. "No one's watching me. I'm not worried about how it looks or what it is, and I let a dance unfold."

The project flows from her interest in "embodiment," a meditative practice she adopted five years ago, before she left Rhode Island for Los Angeles, where she now lives. It involves quieting your mind to focus on the body for a time. "My main meditation practice is a body scan," Kent says. "It's a 40-minute break from thinking and doing and just feeling through my body really slowly, starting with the toes of my left foot. What am I feeling there? What am I feeling in my left calf? What am I feeling in my right knee?"

Kent begins each darkroom session with a 10-minute meditation to clear her thoughts. "There's some kind of fan or machine that makes a resonating G note, and I hum with it," she says. When ready, she switches on a flashlight, shines it through a tinted plastic filter (also known as a gel) and points the colored light at a sheet of Fuji Crystal Archive paper on a table measuring anywhere from 8-by-10 inches to 4-by-6 feet. The paper contains three layers of silver halide crystals that each respond to red, green, and blue light; exposing them at different intensities and for different time lengths produces latent shades ranging from deep purple to canary yellow to sky blue. For up to three hours, Kent circles the table in a dance—bending, swooping, reaching—as she splays light onto the page.

"Because it's pitch black, it's easy to imagine a starscape above me," she says. "I move my arms up to the sky, then down into my chest then out toward the paper."

When finished, she slips the paper, still blank, into a lightproof box or bag for transport, then feeds it to a massive RA-4 color processor in another room. It curls around rollers and dips into chemical and water baths. As it does, compounds called dye couplers suspended in the silver halide emulsion layers interact with the developer solution to form cyan, magenta, and yellow, after which the silver is bleached away. Five or 10 minutes later, the machine spits out the full-color image—or C-print. "That's a moment of true joy and discovery," Kent says.

The result is a wild explosion of movement and color, like a laser light show abstracted on the page—so abstract, ironically enough, that it looks digital.

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