Developing Photos with Coffee!

After my experience with my kids at the library, I wanted to continue my pinhole camera adventure.

First I needed a darkroom to develop. The only room in the house that was remotely feasible was my son’s closet — no windows, just wide enough to sit in. There were some old toys and clothes he’d grown out of, but otherwise it didn’t get much use. This being an old house, there were also lots of ways light would find its way in when I closed the door behind me, but nothing some some blankets over the door and at the base of the door couldn’t fix. But it was also a very small space with no ventilation — a requirement for traditional developing. Stuck again.

But some poking around on the internet led me to discover a community of experimental photographers using household ingredients to develop photographs. This sounded like alchemy! Mix a few things from the cupboard together, and voila — you get photos developed. One of the first that struck me by its simplicity is called Caffenol — a mixture typically consisting of various proportions of water, instant coffee, washing soda, and vitamin C. (For those curious, this was invented by an RIT professor. Read about it on Wikipedia here) Even with examples of photos developed this way posted online, it still seemed a little unbelievable. But it was the final piece of the puzzle I needed.

Some serendipity also happened — I found someone online selling old photo paper and a couple of developing bins for cheap. Three months after our library workshop, I had a working darkroom!

My initial attempts at doing this were nothing much to write about. I was still surprised for a long time that anything came out of this simple cardboard box and the development process. I screwed up lots of photos. I accidentally took a photo of the interior ceiling of my car. I put the photo paper in backwards for one batch of photos (somehow something of the subject still came through). I overexposed. I underdeveloped. But I kept track of each photo, the conditions under which it was taken, whether it turned out or not, and I learned the art and science of taking pinhole photos. Even today, I think of each photo as something of an experiment that I can learn from, and the fact that something artistic comes out sometimes is a nice side-effect.

The photo on the left is one of the first I developed at home and on the right is a more recent favorite.

Next: Why pinholes?