I'm waiting. Waiting in a barely lit darkroom, staring at a blank sheet of paper submerged in chemicals. I shake the plastic basin, and suddenly the paper transforms itself, the subtle lines gaining strength while the darker shades fade to black. In the red light above, the image snaps to attention.
I pass the photo through other chemicals, whose effects--less spectacular--leave it spineless, and I rush it outside, squinting in the fluorescent light. Now I relax. I study the image with a calculating eye, comparing the latest result with the vision I've had in my mind. They are not the same. The right side of my face is too white, the detail bleached out, and on the underside of the tree on which I'm balanced, the conversion of a neutral-toned brown to monochrome has left the subtle curves of the bark a lifeless black. I plunge myself back into the darkroom.
I emerge again with the 10th version of my photograph, praying this will be The One. I search the picture for flaws, coming up empty-handed. The dodging was just right, the range of tones just dark enough to suit the mood, and the black lines from the light shining through the negative-holder frame the image perfectly. I'm satisfied, but I trudge back to the darkroom to print two, maybe three, more copies, varying only slightly from the copy I hold now; shades tend to change from the way they look wet once they dry.
I ponder my picture as I walk away from the science building smelling of photo chemicals. It's very surrealistic, almost pictorialist; it's of me on a tree, but the exposure was 30 seconds long, allowing me to change my position three times. The result is a conglomeration of limbs and heads, slightly blurred and partially invisible, revealing the tree behind as a sort of ghost-like backdrop. The self-portrait is about change and transformation, personal growth in a world that stays relatively constant, and honestly, I think it's brilliant.
Later that week, I begin to end my self-portrait project with the last roll of film. There's nothing like looking through the lens, capturing a slice of the world the way I want other people to see it. Halfway through the roll, I'm fascinated by the look of a mound of cigarette stubs, my brown leather boots, and my out-of-focus pants. A puddle in the background reflects the mid-evening sun, an orange glow I will never be able to capture on black-and-white. I shoot the rest of the roll here, slightly repositioning the frame and bracketing different exposures, trying to compensate for the sun. I do not know how this picture will turn out, any more than I know how my darkroom efforts will pay off as I wait for an image to develop. Perhaps it will win an award, or be misunderstood by everyone, or even someday make me remorseful. All I know now is that I am certain of this, where I belong, the awe and mystery of the moment I have come to expect, fear, and enjoy.