The Importance of the Darkroom In Photographic Education

By: Bostick and Sullivan

The whole modern electronic world is basically an abstraction. I came out of that world. My first computer had 90K of memory and cost about 4 million dollars. It was called an IBM 360-30. I am not going to digital bash; I just want to put it in perspective.

Walter Chapell wrote an essay in 1948 where he defined photography as being in two generalized worlds: image making and print making. Cartier Bresson = Image maker, Ansel Adams = print maker. Of course not always easy to define but the idea is interesting.

Many practical classes have disappeared from high school campuses. I am 66 and when I was in Jr. High in Shop Class we did hot metal sand casting! 9th graders were allowed to use the table saw in woodshop! Imagine a Jr. High today with students pouring hot metal out of a furnace and ripping boards on a table saw! It is possible today, not only to graduate functionally illiterate to the point that one could not drill a hole and use a screwdriver to mount a pencil sharpener on the wall.

Printing a digital print is an act of "doing," not "making." Pardon the semantic play here but the distinction is important. I find it amazing how hobbies are no longer an important part of life. My friends when I was growing up made model airplanes, did paint by numbers (yeah!) and the hobby shop was a big deal. Ok, it still is but have you ever noticed that the prime clientele of Hobby Lobby or Michaels is elderly women? We did lots of damage making slingshots with a tree limb fork and red rubber inner tube slices for the slings. The war surplus ball bearings we bought by the pound for pennies were lethal. (The black tubes did not work as they had the spring of warm taffy.) Today the young folk's idea of a hobby is listening to their iPod. Ok, I got one of those myself, but I listen to books on tape.

Darkroom photography is relatively inexpensive and "SAFE!!!" 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.

Digital photography is just another step away from the real world to an abstract one. Crappo to those who say it takes them hours to make a good print. I came back for the UK and made a dozen good color prints on the 2200. If your monitor is calibrated and you know what you are doing, it's trivial compared to wet photography. OH!, you mean those that take some mediocre slides and make interesting collages by putting things out of context. Like steal some NASA images from their web site. And then put fish in outer space? Everyone is Jerry Uelsmann now.

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."