Is Darkroom Photography Still Relevant?

That is the title of an article by Russell Hart, which appeared in American Photo Magazine on February 1, 2016. It’s an interesting piece about whether colleges are still maintaining traditional black and white darkrooms and teaching students how to use them, or not bothering and just focusing on digital capture and processes. The article opens by saying that “Reports of the death of analog photography have been greatly exaggerated. In the consumer world, film may have been sunk by digital technology, but wet black-and-white darkroom photography is alive and well in academia.”

I’m not so sure I would agree with his last point about the “consumer world” as it appears film has made a nice comeback recently; in many cases led by the young! On the other hand, I would agree that when it comes to commercial photography, digital absolutely reigns supreme and it is unlikely there would ever be a chance of turning that back. Blake Madden, who heads the photo program at McDowell Technical in Marion, North Carolina, supports this. “We discussed the issue at length, but given that the world of commercial photography was going almost exclusively digital, we thought it was in the best interest of our students. He points out that he has just two years to prepare his students for possible careers in photography, and that having to teach the mechanics of traditional approaches might impede that.” Not sure I would agree with that last point either.

Maxine Payne, who heads the photography department at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, “sees traditional black-and-white as the only true path in a liberal arts setting. She uses it to disabuse new students of the notion that they are already photographers.” Now that is an interesting point! She goes on to say “what that often means is that they’ve taken pictures with their phones and put them on social media, or gotten them into a high-school yearbook or art show,” she says. “Rarely have they printed those pictures on anything more than a home printer. They also have no sense of failure, because they can shoot as much as they want and just delete what they don’t like—or use an app that corrects and often changes the original image to fit preconceived notions, usually from popular culture, about what makes a good photograph.”

Craig Stevens, professor of photography at Georgia’s Savannah College of Art and Design agrees. “Digital technology is so good that it creates an automatic acceptance of the end product, as is, he explains. Using black-and-white film defies that notion. Students must consider exposure, development, and how technical choices combine with aesthetic decisions to affect the final image, he says. It forces students who have grown up in the fast-and-furious world of digital to slow down.”

Finally, Professor Payne believes that traditional methods make “students think harder about their own photography; … that the benefit of learning darkroom photography is relevant to other aspects of their academic and personal lives as well. They learn that an investment of time in anything they do yields greater understanding and appreciation, and ultimately skill.”

I agree wholeheartedly with these educators, but I feel what they are saying should not be limited to the learning experience of college students. When you take a moment to think about it, everyone is really a student. Especially when it comes to something like photography. We should always be trying to learn … what to do and what not to do and when to do it and when not to. Learning to see better and realizing what really isn’t all that interesting after all. Exposure, composition, light. I could go on.

The article points out that not all educators agree. Some feel that given today’s photographic world, it’s best that a college student’s schooling be a digital one.

I know that the hard work that comes from making film based images and then printing them in the darkroom forces me to continually think hard and endeavor to improve. What am I doing right, and of course what have I done wrong? After more that 45 years at it I still make plenty of mistakes, but I think … and hope … I learn a lot more. And that’s both exciting and rewarding!

So getting back to the original question “Is Darkroom Photography Still Relevant? Of course it is! Not only for college students … but also for any student of photographic craft … or for that matter … of life.

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