Dumping the darkroom?

A friend wrote me recently with something of an existential question for a photographer. I knew that answering it was going to be tough, for her and for me. Whichever direction I suggested she go (and whichever direction she chose to proceed) was bound to impact the lives of many photographers for years to come. Like any good existential question, half the fun was simply working through the problem. Knowing that no certain answer was possible (or preferable,) made the process both interesting and frustrating.

To paraphrase her initial query:

I have a meeting tomorrow about whether or not to do some major repair and renovation in our school’s wet darkroom. The question is going to be whether or not to continue to teach photography using film, or to dump the darkroom and to only “go digital.” What do you think? Does the University of RI still have a wet lab?

By asking me about my wife’s approach at the University where she teaches photography, the questioner thankfully took some of the pressure off me. I replied:

I hate to be responsible for such a weighty decision. I mean that!

The University of RI is slowly easing back on the wet darkroom. Having said that, the wet darkroom is the BEST antidote to the “fix it in Photoshop” laziness that dominates so much of photography. Also, Annu’s students, like many photographers, love the physicality of the wet darkroom, something that the digital darkroom lacks. I am CCing Annu in and she may chime in with more.

If you can, I would suggest keeping the wet darkroom but I might not spend lots to upgrade it. But that is just my opinion.

My correspondent replied:

Thanks for your quick response. I took a look at a couple of schools, ICP and Maine Media Workshops as well. It seems that the wet darkroom is still in use in most places. It seems to be used for learning the basics and it serves as a good starting point. Some places offer advanced courses in the processing of film and in print developing, both of which require wet labs. Still, most places I have looked at seem to shift to digital once the basics are covered. There is something to be said for the physicality aspect as well. Thankfully, the decision is not up to me alone. I know the repair of our wet darkroom is going to be a big number and we have a lot of courses running at this point. The primary photo teacher is very popular and it’s a good course for our high-school students.

Then Annu chimed in:

The only reason I would give up the darkroom is if the costs are too high for repairing the equipment and/or for environmental issues. The pluses are that in today’s fast paced world, this is a place where the students slow down and observe. In the darkroom classes, my students are always willing to make reprints and craft their images with great care vs. digital, where they are “done” after one print. In the darkroom space, a sense of community is also formed which is important for the critiques and for motivating the students. They are entranced by the magic of the darkroom, which engages them to strive to do better.

But after the basics are learned, I think it would be irresponsible of me not to teach them digital so they will be better prepared in terms of what is going on in the real world. I think film based photography is slowly going to become part of printmaking. Like you, I am also struggling to justify the cost of maintaining such a space for one type of class whose costs are high. In my program, I think I am moving more into new media. I will have my adjunct teach more of the Black and White classes, which I think will soon be under the printmaking umbrella.

Think of us if you give away any darkroom equipment!

My correspondent replied:

Thanks so much for insight on this. You reminded me about a number of elements that need to be considered as we discuss the possibility of making changes. I think the skills kids learn beyond the basic Black and White film processing are really important and are very transferable. By creating opportunities for them to learn how to work collaboratively, solve problems and revise work, we are really helping them develop some great life skills. You’re right about the magic too.

Of course, this question is being repeated at dozens, if not hundreds of institutions teaching photography. No single answer exists, but it is helpful to understand which institutions are making which choice (and why.)

Many institutions that teach photography, particularly the specialty schools where future professionals are trained, such as the Rochester Institute of Technology, are largely foregoing the wet darkroom. This is done because pros need to be fully digital, which makes perfect sense in the commercial world. But a photographer who never works with film misses a piece of the magic of our beloved medium. They also miss out on the more unforgiving nature of film photography as vs. digital imaging.

So what would I do in a perfect world of photography education? I would take it one step further and require all future photographers to spend at least a year or maybe even two using nothing but color slide film! Crazy? Maybe! Still, it is a guaranteed way to improve skills in metering, composition and understanding light.

It would not be easy. In fact it would be very hard, because shooting slides is an incredibly precise discipline. But in an age when “good enough is good enough” and fixing it in “post production” is the answer to far too many photographic problems, a little discipline and hard work wouldn’t be bad thing. But that is just my opinion.

6 responses to “Dumping the darkroom?”

  1. As always, David, a good take on today’s photo world. There is no way I would give up my basement darkroom. Still in awe of the image appearing in the developer, this is a place where I can truly get lost for hours. Primarily a digital photo person, I still shoot some black and white, develop it myself and print for hours…..the only thing that rivals this experience is to be knee deep in the water hoping to snag one of those beautiful cutthroat trout!

  2. This is what hooked me into photography: “Still in awe of the image appearing in the developer.” I sometimes worry about folks who never get to experience that…

  3. i learned to shoot on a 35mm SLR, developing and printing B&W. I don’t miss one hour spent in the darkroom, developing or printing.

    Call me unsentimental, but I don’t pine for the darkroom nor do I think that one must first learn on film, before shooting digital to lean the fundamentals of exposure.

    In fact getting used to shooting on film can generate habits of exposure when applied to shooting digital will result in images with noise in the shadows and dark tones, and tonal range less than the digital camera is capable of capturing.

    Learning to expose correctly is fundamental, learning to expose by shooting on film is not.

    Its the learning of the fundamentals (and how that applies to processing (a digital lab, with histograms and exposure adjustment and tone curves and developing a discipline of workflow that counts. Not what media on which you begin learning.

  4. I’m in awe of the image appearing when i combine 3+ bracketed images into a single HDR image that has the dynamic range of 3+ images. And while i’m doing that I’m not inhaling fumes from toxic chemicals, working with a hot enlarger. My digital darkroom is so much more comfortable, has tools that make it much easier to iterate different versions of adjusted image with a precision (even for the digital versions of dodging and burning) that Ansel Adams would have killed for.

    My digital darkroom only requires me to work in a dim room, not a dark room (I won’t destroy anything if i turn up the lights or open the blinds) lets me work on images sitting a very comfortable chair rather than standing up.

    I don’t recall any enlargers that had radios or music players built in :-). My digital darkroom has a tuner for internet radio, Sirius-XM, and even lets me store my own music on it.

  5. Yes, the approaches to exposure with film vs digital are different. Film was less forgiving than digital “appears” to be, so the discipline of film would likely help any photographer. Also when working with film, and especially color slides, errors in composition were glaringly clear.

  6. I, for one, spend far too much time in front of a computer, so anything that gets me away from that and still allows me to do something I love, that is a good thing. Oh yes, the chemicals smelled awful. They were unpleasant or even dangerous. No question there.

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