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.