I can’t recall when I bought it. 1978 seems about right, the year I acquired the Cambo, my first view camera. Nor can I recall how much I paid for it. $300.00 perhaps.
It was a used enlarger, purchased, like the Cambo, through a Winnipeg Free Press classified ad. I remember visiting an older man, who had carefully stored it under a drape of plastic. He graciously offered a Gra-Lab timer, the de-facto darkroom timer of the day, as part of the package. I like to think he saw me as a serious photographer, someone who would use his equipment to make beautiful prints. The deal was done. I happily lugged the awkward beast home and set about building the first of several darkrooms to house it.
More formally known as the Simmons Omega D2 Enlarger, it is the product of the Simmons brothers, Fred, Rudolph and Alfred, who began manufacturing enlargers in 1936. The D2 had a long production life from 1954 to 1977, and it is still possible to buy spare parts for this venerable machine.
The company changed ownership to Berkey Photo in 1964 and continued to sell enlargers well into the 1980s. But enlarger sales slumped soon after. By the late 80s, Berkey was bankrupt and, by 2010, the company had been resold four more times. One-hour photo processing, point and shoot film cameras and digital photography had all taken their toll. Omega enlargers quietly disappeared from camera store shelves.
The Omega D2 is a serious piece of equipment. Two massive, 40″ long, aluminum girders lean at a jaunty angle over the thick, solid wood baseboard. A crank-operated rack-and-pinion drive moves the attached enlarger head up and down the girders.
The enlarger head is the heart of the beast. It has but one purpose: to project light downwards, through a film negative, through the enlarging lens until it reaches the baseboard. There sits the easel, holding a piece of photo paper flat and in position. The faint, focused light of the negative is thus embedded in the paper’s photo-sensitive surface. The image will remain invisible, only revealing itself after bathing a few minutes in a tray of developer.
The D2 enlarger was an essential tool for my photographic projects, starting in 1980 and continuing through 1996. It was a fixture in three successive darkrooms, the first in the basement of my mum’s house, then in the dinette of my first apartment and, once married, in the basement of our house. In those darkrooms, with this enlarger, all of my early work was completed: The Lake, Prairie Views and Interlake. And there would be more projects to come.
The magic of darkroom work arguably happens in the developer tray, watching as an image slowly emerges from a white sheet of enlarging paper. But the beauty and elegance of that image is established under the enlarger.
A discussion of how I go about making an exhibition-quality print would be too tedious, too technical, too long. It is a matter of hard-learned skills. But I can say why I strive to make the best prints I can, prints that best convey my vision: it has to do with the tools I use, tools that inspire as much as assist good craft.
It starts with a view camera, using its many movements to express what I see with technical precision. From the camera comes a large sheet of film and a latent image saturated with potential, a vast range of tones and magnificently sharp details. It continues in a darkroom under the glow of a red light, with a monumentally-sized enlarger projecting a negative image on a sheet of white photo paper. Embodied in this beam of soft light, is the raw material for a fine print. I just need to find it.