The question facing a lot photography teachers right now is: does the darkroom still have a role in education?
In the historic roll-over to the digital age, is there any point in still getting students to learn how to mix semi-toxic chemicals and stand around in the dark sloshing tanks and dipping sheets of paper into developer? The “digital darkroom” is so civilized in comparison. A scanner, a computer and a printer will do the same or possibly much more, in an area of one square metre, and you work sitting down and with the lights on!
Institutes like to get rid of darkrooms because the computer rooms that replace them can be generic fluoro-lit halls with the same tables and chairs as every other department, no expensive plumbing, no risk of health problems. And it’s getting harder to justify analogue on pure image-making grounds because computers allow even the laziest student to use tools that even Ansel Adams would have envied.
But there are reasons for maintaining traditional methods of photography: they anchor students in the 170 year history of photography, students can develop an eye for what a good photograph looks like, and it’s a varied activity, it gives people a sense of achievement.
These last two points bear on the course I teach, in a college level art department, a TAFE. If the curriculum only consisted of digital techniques using DSLRs and sitting at a desk to Photoshop the images, where is the fun? We have such a range of film cameras ranging from plastic toys to a big studio 5×4, with 35mm and 120 in between, that the students are constantly challenged with unfamiliar mechanics, film loading questions, light fog, enlarging issues, film grain and sharpness differences…I could go on. The point is that young students, and many older ones, are taken out of their digital/online safety zone and are are challenged. In the age of push button mobile phones, games, TVs and cameras, the simple act of loading film becomes a challenging mental effort.
To me, analogue is the soul of photography. I love digital and use it everyday, but I think that a digital only photography education would be a soulless experience. An article by Bostick and Sullivan in openorigins.com gives a another slant on the subject. Here is an excerpt.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE DARKROOM IN PHOTOGRAPHY EDUCATION
The whole modern electronic world is basically an abstraction. …The Waterford School in Sandy Utah requires all students to take photography. The facilities there rival those of most 4 year colleges. Students can check out 12 x 20 view cameras, and there are two Hassleblad outfits and numerous other pieces of equipment available. The developing room has three Jobo processors! I asked Dusty Heuston who founded the school why photography? He said it was a universal discipline. Huh? I said.
Dusty said that photography can encompass many disciplines: physics, chemistry, optics, math, history, art, and photography also forces the student to learn to deal with things in a mechanical sense: loading a film holder for instance. The nice thing he said was it bit back in a nice way. If we goofed back in 1953 by filling fellow student’s shoes with hot metal while doing sand casting or by losing a thumb in the table saw, the consequences could be a bit harsh. Ruining a roll of film by fixing it first is a nasty bite, but one the student could recover from. …
If the point of education is only to train young people to join the corporate work force then full on digital is the way to go. If it is to give them a sense of knowing they can “make” something through a logical set of steps and procedures then wet photography is an excellent way to achieve that. The attraction you note of students to the wet darkroom process is a reflection of the fact that we as humans do like to “make” things. Sorry to get too McLuhanesque here but listening to Hot Snot or whatever is the latest fad group on an iPod is satisfying to some but grows old after while. Wet photography is a “hot medium” and digital is “Cold.”