The Importance of the Darkroom In Photographic Education

By: Dan Burkholder

One of the first things new photography students learn is that "photography" means writing with light. If we are to take to heart that true and oh-so-accurate definition, we must let students witness the near-cosmic alchemy that was both the birth of the medium and a continuing, vital artistic component. That means film, paper, chemistry and a darkroom. Simple things that let the magic happen.

Yes, commercial photography is now largely digital. So frankly, if you are doing nothing more than training Sears portrait shooters, it probably is best that you close your darkrooms and add another digital lab. There just isn't any money to be made in the darkroom when it comes to quick turnaround commercial work. But once we move away from the hardcore commercial arena of image making, we discover a vibrant world where artists are constantly discovering new ways to express the classic, chemical-based photographic image alone and in conjunction with digital techniques. After all, it was eleven years ago that the first edition of my Making Digital Negatives for Contact Printing hit the bookshelves. This book gave photographers new tools to combine classic and digital skills. Since then, our chemical options have expanded and become more exciting than ever.

As I write this, my platinum-palladium chemistry is mixed, the potassium oxalate is hot, the print dryer humming and the humidifier steaming. Moments from now I'll slide a handmade print into the developer and watch the magic show, just as I have for more than three decades. There is a special thrill to making a handmade print in the classic darkroom. Part of the rush is owing to Photography's 170-year heritage shaped by light, chemistry and paper. And part is taking a quiet step back from the electronic hive that has so invaded much of our modern life.

Since our job as educators is to infect our students with enthusiasm and hunger for knowledge, we can tap into this excitement by making photography more than yet another computer-based exercise. If you've ever seen the expression on a student's face as they watch their first black and white print develop before their eyes, then you know exactly what I'm talking about. And if you haven't, then it's time you did.