Lots Of Darkroom Work And No Photos To Show For It


In the past I’ve spent many hours in the darkroom.  Unfortunately I have very few photographs in my portfolio to show for it.  In fact I have none at all.  All of that darkroom work is a big part of the reason that I became a digital photographer, and not a traditional film photographer.

From 1986 to 1993 I worked on the Planet Crossing Asteroid Search project at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL).  Headed by planetary scientist Eleanor F. Helin, the project was created to increase our knowledge of the asteroid population in the solar system, and to hunt specifically for Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs), or asteroids that could potentially strike the Earth.

The telescope that we used at Palomar Observatory was in fact not a telescope at all, but a Schmidt Camera.  Always referred to as a telescope, the 18” Schmidt camera, pictured below, was built in 1936, and was in use until 2010.  Its primary users were our group from JPL and another one headed by Eugene Shoemaker and David Levy, who were considered to be our competitors.


The 18″ Schmidt Telescope as it appeared in 1936.


Photographs of the sky were shot with the 18” Schmidt on Kodak 4415 film.  The film was first “hypersensitized”, making it more sensitive to light, by baking it in hydrogen gas for 8 hours in metal canisters.  We would generally take 6 minute exposures, opening the huge shutter at the end of the telescope, and tracking on a guide star while the exposure was taken.  The telescope tracking was excellent, but we would have to correct for smaller movements in the telescope by attempting to keep the guide star centered on crosshairs while viewing it through a smaller guide scope attached to the main telescope.  Without doing this, our pinpoint star images would look more like streaks, and any very faint asteroids would not be seen on the films.

The films themselves were cut into circular pieces via a “cookie cutter”, and were loaded into a circular film holder that had to be loaded into the telescope.  This could be tricky, as the holder was heavy and had to be loaded in complete darkness.  Dropping the holder while loading it would be disastrous, as only a few feet below was the primary reflector mirror.  If the holder was dropped and the mirror was damaged, we would be out of business for a while.  Amazingly, this never happened during my time there.


“The Chopper”, used to cut sheets of 4415 film into circles.


The film holder located inside the 18″ Schmidt Telescope.


The field of view of the telescope was very wide, and could be estimated by holding your fist up to the sky at arms length.  This wide field of view allowed us to shoot photos of a large amount of sky in a single night, which is what was needed in order to be the first to discover an asteroid or, much rarer, a comet.  It was all a race against time.

In the darkroom it was all very procedural.  Nothing artistic going on here.  The films were loaded into racks, 8 to 10 at a time, and lowered into the D-19 developer for six minutes.  They were taken out and lowered into the stop bath for 30 seconds, and after that into the fixer for four minutes.  Then a 30 second wash in “Photo Flow”, to clean off the chemicals.  The films were then hung to dry.  As negatives, they were almost never printed, and we used them as negatives, with black stars and white backgrounds.  I spent many hours in this darkroom, listening to music while developing, and it’s here that I really learned to dislike the darkroom process.

Each area of sky was shot twice, with roughly a 40 minute separation.  The two films, with identical star patterns, were then loaded into a stereo microscope.  It is here that all of the asteroid discoveries could be made.  When viewing the films through the microscope, all of the stars in the two negatives would appear to be flat, since they hadn’t moved over the 40 minute separation due to the telescope tracking along with the sky.  However, an asteroid would be moving differently, and its motion could be detected by its appearing to hover above or below the plane of the stars, depending on its direction of motion.  This 3-D appearance either signaled the discovery of a new asteroid, or a known asteroid.


The Stereo Microscope used in the discovery of our asteroids and comets.


We would discover many new asteroids on a single ‘dark run’ of six nights, and if we were lucky we would find one or two near earth asteroids.  Occasionally we would discover a comet as well.  I spent many hours scanning and re-scanning those films, occasionally finding objects that we missed the first time.  At one point, we did miss something truly amazing:  On our films, we had a comet which later became known as Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, the comet that crashed into Jupiter in 1994.  To our credit I suppose, it didn’t look anything like a comet at the time we recorded it.

As advanced techniques for discovery later became available, such as CCD cameras and automated data gathering and detection, our method for discovering asteroids became obsolete.  Machines were taking over and they could discover objects with much more frequency and precision than humans.  The discovery rate began to increase and our old telescope was used less and less.  It was finally retired in 2010.


The telescope as it appeared towards the end of its life in the 18″ dome.


When I left the job at JPL, I found I needed something to replace the feeling of discovery that I was now missing.  I began hiking in the desert, especially in unknown areas, to see what I could discover there.  I bought my first digital camera, A Kodak DC-280, in 2000 to document my hikes in the desert.  Before I knew it I was bringing back all sorts of strange photos from out there.

During all of that time scanning hundreds of films at JPL, it had begun to occur to me that what we saw on our films, these tiny little pinpoint images, were in fact representative of something staggeringly huge, and that when we made an important discovery of an asteroid which could potentially collide with the Earth, I could always trace it back to those tiny little black dots which required a microscope to resolve.  This paradox tickled my brain and got me realizing early on that all things are of equal importance, large or small.  Or at least all things deserve equal attention, regardless of size.  In other words, when I come across something that is incredibly small or seemingly insignificant while I’m out photographing, I have no problem assigning it huge importance.


Near Earth Asteroid 1988 EG as it appeared on our films at the time of discovery.


Wolf Creek Crater in Australia


In my own adventures as a photographer this philosophy and spirit of discovery is key.  It drives me to move forward and continue the search.  When I am out searching, I never have a set idea of what it is I’m looking for. I simply seek, occasionally finding exactly what it is I WASN’T seeking. For me, that’s the time I learn something new about life: When I discover a new path, a new way of seeing, a new reason for continuing my search.


Comet 117P Helin-Roman-Alu



The 18″ Telescope as it appears now in the visitor center at Palomar Observatory.



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